Diaspora Engagement: New Opportunities, New Vision
Diaspora Engagement: New Opportunities, New Vision
Diaspora studies can try to be an antidote to the reductive instrumentalization of the social, cultural and affective complexity of diasporas. As scholars of diaspora studies, we need to foreground, to remind ourselves and others of that amazing complexity……The paradoxical combination of localism and transnationalism, the fierce aspiration to achieve economic and social success and the willingness to sacrifice for the community and the homeland, indeed the oscillation between loyalty and skeptical detachment that characterizes the performance of diasporic lives, is in my view an example of the way everyone, including nationals, will have to live in an increasingly heterogeneous and plural world. It is a world in which diasporas have been living for a while (Tölölyan, 2012).
I remember reading Tölölyan’s Diaspora Studies: Past, Present, and Promise as a young researcher and printing it out the moment that I read the final word. It has never left my desk since.
As 2020 wound down with the world gingerly surveying the devastation brought forth by the global pandemic, I turned to the article again. With the interconnectivity of the ''increasingly homogenous and plural world'' that he notes being tugged and teared at by the eroding forces of the socio-political climates spurred but sadly not sparked by the pandemic, his words re-energized me. In the face of ills such as isolationism, nationalism, racism, and so much more, our energy for the right fight is the first step.
In the past few months, it seemed a daunting task to capture some shimmers of light that illuminated through the cracks of fatigue and fear that weaken our ties of commonality and community. But like most challenges in life, if you look hard enough, you can see hope. Diaspora engagement, in my humble view, was one of those hopeful lights.
The aim of this article is not to capture those stories or to convince you that this is the case as that has been done elsewhere. The endeavour here is to meet this moment in time for diaspora engagement by looking forwarding to project a vision for diaspora engagement that can take this momentary shining of the diaspora light into a new future. Such a visionary endeavour is something that, thus far, the sector has seemed somewhat nervous to commit upon.
Let me put it this way - amidst the multitude of globally dispersed diaspora convenings that sprung to life over the past year (and many since Tölölyan put pen to paper with his ideas), there has been a lack of visionary voices designing a long-term configuration for diaspora engagement. It is often the basis of pragmatism led by procedural mindsets that win the day. That is a tough sell on the visionary front!
But, like all the snippets we have come to loathe from last year, 2020 was different. It was a year like no other – sounds familiar eh – and this was certainly true for diaspora engagement. New doors of opportunities rooted in the economic, social, and political reshaping of the world around us are creaking ajar. But here is the kicker, these new opportunities afforded us cannot be diluted by old mistakes.
Whilst we will have a short window to create and curate this new vision, the timing is now. It is time to take a collective deep breath, ask the hard questions of ourselves, and welcome the courage of change to really bring the topic that many of us are so passionate about forward. This is no simple feat, and the aim here is to open the journey.
In doing so, I admittedly seek assistance (and a little solace) from Tölölyan’s formative words to help unearth some lessons for a new vision for diaspora engagement.
Diaspora Engagement: Reshaping Diaspora Knowledge
The gap between the emic and etic understandings of diaspora has become more apparent in recent years, as homeland governments and international organizations…have quite clumsily sought to develop means to attract more investment and remittances, sell bonds to the diaspora, and generally direct the political and economic capital of diasporas, ranging from the Indian to the Rwandan and the Armenian, Haitian and African (Tölölyan, 2012).
The first logical question to ask is two-fold; we need to ask what the missteps of the past are and are we close to repeating them? Tölölyan, in many ways, encapsulates a nice entry point to this in his appraisal of the somewhat contemporary diaspora landscape in the observation above. His lamenting of clumsiness of the sector’s work is manifestation of an output based on the ''reductive instrumentalization of the social, cultural and affective complexity of diasporas''.
The paradox of complexity and clumsiness as conveyed in Tölölyan’s piece is what captures the journey to converting the opportunities ahead by avoiding the mistakes of the past. Diaspora engagement is a complex art & science which is quite regularly undervalued. Many will have heard me explore the importance of differentiation between migration and diaspora over the years. This is where the inherent complexity of difference between the two phenomena resides and partly why the organizations who have tried to help lead the diaspora charge have arguably been left down by the sector in general.
Tölölyan hints at these important distinctions when he notes:
In my view, a collection of transnational migrants becomes a diaspora when its members develop some familial, cultural and social distance from their nation yet continue to care deeply about it not just on grounds of kinship and filiation, but by commitment to certain chosen affiliations…..By contrast, after several generations, the diasporic is no longer committed because of kinship links and personal memories (though both will matter to the extent that they can be revived and invigorated through travel and participation); nor is he or she committed simply because of not being integrated into the host society, as the first and second generations of dispersion often are not. The diasporic not committed through these links is now a citizen in his or her ‘new’ home country, possesses a hybrid culture and identity or at the very least has developed a comfortable bicultural competence. He or she is a diasporic because of a set of cumulative decisions to continue to remain bi- or multi-local, to care about others in diaspora with whom she shares an ethnodiasporic origin, and also to care in some manner about the well-being of the homeland of the ancestors (Tölölyan, 2012).
This appreciation of migrants becoming a diaspora is the distinction between the two. Migration and diaspora are related but different, like first cousins. How we understand the two then, by extension, requires different approaches. The argument to elevate diaspora studies on my part is not due to any academic disciplinary tension with migration studies but is driven by the simple belief that the two crafts of understanding on the topics are different. The academic part is only one piece of that pie!
To be a little bit more provocative, there have been problematic pursuits of diaspora engagement as the terrain of migration scholars (and, in turn, migration studies) in recent times. There has been disciplinary and sectoral spillage partly due to the rising global prominence of diaspora engagement. This spillage, in and of itself, is reductionist in nature by minimizing the presence of diaspora studies. This is a big misstep if we want the sector to prosper.
Vision Lesson: Promote Inter-disciplinarity as well as building a culture of diaspora knowledge that puts diaspora at its core.
Therefore, our vision for the future must incorporate a culture of diaspora knowledge that actively promotes inter-disciplinarity as well as basing diaspora [and diaspora studies] at the heartbeat of this inter-disciplinarity. There are then bigger questions opened for diaspora studies around the analytical and theoretical parameters of the discipline to meet the demands of the sector. Diaspora engagement is cross-sectoral with evolving skillsets needed to effectively execute in the 21st century meaning diaspora studies needs inter-disciplinarity to be relatable to the market it serves.
The truest value of knowledge and research, for me, comes in the functionality of its explorations and outputs. Diaspora studies is a discipline quite often rooted in the humanities and social sciences [both applied/theoretical]. This will need a rewiring to embed the diverse skills needed to convert the opportunities of the diaspora future opening in front of us. Such expertise too may not come in the classroom!
Some of the best minds I know on diaspora engagement come from different walks of the diaspora world [such as business, community, non-profit, and young leaders] but they do have one thing in common – it is their craft. They have committed or are committing their lives to diaspora work. These people are in the minority and this needs to change. Otherwise, we run the danger of losing a generation of interest and talent in diaspora engagement.
Tölölyan notes this diversity of access to experience and expertise when he notes that he insists ‘’on the opposition between diaspora studies as we practise it and the study of diasporas conducted by members of the diaspora”. By positioning diasporas and diaspora studies at the heartbeat of our culture of knowledge in diaspora engagement, our record of impact stands a much better chance of improvement as it will result in a guild of master craftsmen and craftswomen of diaspora engagement.
Doesn’t that sound exciting.
Diaspora Engagement – Embracing Complexity

Any scholar in the field of diaspora studies must develop some expertise in three fields. First, the scholar must know the people of the diaspora he or she is studying, somewhat in the way that a good anthropologist knows them: must understand how people gain their economic livelihood, organize their social life, participate in public and political life, produce a culture that represents them to themselves and others and in the process attributes value and meaning to their lives. Second, the responsible scholar must have some historical knowledge of how the social formation under study came into being, and sometimes will even acquire more of such knowledge than individual members of that society or people possess. And third, a scholar must have what we now call theoretical competence – a familiarity with the ways in which ideas about similar social formations have been produced and can be critically and self-reflectively examined (Tölölyan, 2012)
We can try to verify the first vision lesson through a reflective overview of Tölölyan’s synopsis of a diaspora scholar. It exemplifies the reasons why we should embrace complexity in diaspora engagement. Let’s accept that diaspora work is complex. This proposes that without the sufficient nuance in our knowledge creation or training in the skills to effectively create or execute then the sector will stagnate. We are all culpable in limiting our capacity on this journey.
For far too long, diaspora work has often been restricted which meant difficulty in meeting the expectations of expertise outlined by Tölölyan. In all fairness to those within the sector, it is not for a lack of talent but quite often for a lack of training or due to other procedural pressures of project management. Diaspora engagement, much like the vision here, cannot and should not be rushed. Therefore, substantive design questions remain on whether we are doing the right type of work in the right way.
This is where the key agencies in the sector deserve better support and service from us all. An acid test for much of the knowledge produced in the sector to help guide governments or international agencies could very well be the 'Tölölyan Test. If we critically enquire as to whether much of the key knowledge output in the sector meets the criteria outlined above, then we see a shortcoming. We must be willing to acknowledge this.
The argument here is not to say that scholarly excellence is a prerequisite for success, but that methodological excellence is. The argument is around accountability in the culture of our work to support each other in diaspora engagement. The worrisome dimension of this is not the lack of impact that will emanate if we keep going on our merry way but the disappointment for the people who invest in it. That could prove fatal for the sector.
In much diaspora engagement, output, or research, at least one of the three fields outlined above by Tölölyan is usually missing. That is a mistake that is easily fixed.
Vision Lesson: Embrace Complexity in our Teaching, Training, and Research on Diaspora Engagement
By embracing complexity in our teaching, training, and research on diaspora engagement, we will be able to be more demanding of ourselves and each other. We will then arrive at knowledge that can then breed impact as it will be more reliable. In other words, it will be led by complexity not clumsiness. This confidence can result in clarity and simplicity when it comes to action.
A small example of this comes in Tölölyan’s treatment of the binary of home and homeland within diaspora studies which is a useful visualization of this process. Speaking to the complex configurations of this for later generations of diasporas he notes:
They acknowledge an ancestral homeland and an ethnodiasporic identity, and both matter. But they won’t acknowledge fully any diasporic identity that is conceived in relation and subordination to the national and moral authority attributed to the homeland because such consent will confine them and prescribe their behaviour…..They desire and aspire to what I would call, in analogy to Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (1999), multiple and flexible identities that they can configure as needed – they want to select from each and all those elements of which they can be proud and whose claims and obligations they are prepared to honour……My argument has been that we must be careful not to locate the diasporic’s home in the ancestral homeland too easily (Tölölyan, 2012).
The nuanced unpacking of such dynamics determines the need for layered approaches to diaspora engagement that are so often over-simplified in the way we shape our knowledge but more importantly, our actions in diaspora engagement. Embracing complexity should excite us. It will scope out a diversification of diaspora potentialities that are hidden by reductionism. It will also bring new drivers of growth – for example, the role of technology for later generation diaspora engagement – which is something we should all embrace.
Diaspora Engagement: Lead, Don’t Fear, Transition

The overall vision lesson here is that the last decade of diaspora engagement has opened serious considerations on the knowledge being created and the functional viability of that knowledge to bring diaspora engagement forward. Continuation without evolution is the definition of stagnation. In turn, stagnation prescribes failure in a world defined by a rapid pace of change. That simply means that if we are to keep going the way we are in diaspora engagement then we will meander towards mediocrity. The remedy to this will come in the form of a new type of leadership in the sector.
This leadership, to be successful, will have to buy into the importance of developing a longer-term discovery approach or mindset. In other words, it will have to think long and embrace experimentation. Diaspora engagement tends to fall victim to the allure of presentism. Presentism is a dangerous foe, and the pandemic has accelerated the attraction of the here and now.
A new type of leadership for diaspora engagement will be one where the demands of our time are weighed with, not against, the opportunities of the future. To really design this vision for the future, it will require brave and courageous leadership through the ceding of agency and power to new voices. That is a big ask of us all but to not do it would be a bigger mistake.
Vision Lesson: Have the courage to cede agency – It equals growth.

The promising news is that the early signs of 2021 are pinpointing this potential. Early diaspora convenings have illustrated the importance of new networks and partnerships but the big transition will come through action. Time will tell on that front and the sector will be judged by our ability to deliver.
The message to all leaders in the sector must be that this is a period of transition littered with the potential of growth. Ceding agency is not an admission of vulnerability but a declaration of belief in our sector that will equate to growth if we align with the right quality of partners. We must lead, not fear, transition.
The history of diaspora studies provides telling support to this insight. Tölölyan acknowledges a certain juncture of the discipline’s history in his appraisal that, ''Like intolerant racist, masculinist and heterosexist norms that silenced and excluded others, homogenizing norms of national identity were rejected. Historians formulated research agendas in order to fill gaps and lacunae, to enable silenced voices be heard, to let the subaltern speak, in the belief that she could, and should, and would be heard. Diaspora studies was a beneficiary of this wider movement''. This is a timely reminder that 2020 also saw a strengthening of the ''re-diasporization of ethnicity'' and celebration of diasporas as a ''special category of ethnicized dispersion''.
Much like how diaspora studies historically grew due to external influences, we now have a new junction approaching in the road for diaspora engagement. Run toward this junction, not away from it.
We now have a variety of actors interested and involved in diaspora engagement that were not there a decade ago. They envision diasporas as vehicles of sustainable change and impact in addressing some of the pressing challenges of our time and future. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity by being protectionist in our minds. We must embrace challenges to how we work, what we create, and where we plan to go.
Diaspora engagement is now rampant with potentialities and that should energize us all in the sector. This is the hope shining through the cracks of fatigue and fear.
Diaspora Engagement – A Vision for the Ages

To conclude, we must be concise on where these vision lessons can lead us. This vision is to advance a new cause to diaspora engagement. This cause must be based upon a self-commitment to look after the internal and external accountability that we must demand of each other. That is the minimum expected of us. But the vision this article is communicating is one which pays homage to reminding us of ‘the amazing complexity’ of diaspora.
So, here is my small contribution of a vision for diaspora engagement:
A diaspora engagement sector led by diasporas and a collaborative diaspora studies that commits to a continual coding and crafting of complexity for the future design/wellbeing of the sector.
This is a vision that will be based on the construction of an architecture of excellence in diaspora engagement by opening our cultures of knowledge and work in diaspora engagement to embrace the complexity needed to breed impact. We can now build that architecture and there may be no better place than Ireland to begin!
The first step is to build houses of excellence on diaspora engagement that combines the inter-disciplinary and applied knowledge to make diaspora engagement improve. Supporting this through global and local networks will enfranchise a new wave of global diaspora scholarship through local agency [not just in the academic sense]. Moreover, this is not a vision of need but one of prosperity through deeds.

It is a vision that thinks long to commit to a prosperous and professional diaspora engagement landscape. It is vision not only for us but for those who follow by creating a sector in which the next generations can build careers on diaspora inside and outside of the classroom. It is a vision that builds the guild mentioned earlier. This vision is asking us to be good ancestors for diaspora engagement by building the pathways for subsequent generations to be able to shape it as their own.

The new opportunities afoot have the potential to truly transform the diaspora engagement landscape only if we have the vision to allow them to. It is time for bravery, courage, and discovery in our thinking. A nice start may be by remembering Tölölyan’s wish for a diaspora studies ‘that lives up to the complexity of the diasporas which are both the objects and co-subjects of its analysis’.

Our duty is to believe and begin. Our duty is to build it to bequeath it.

Original article.

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