Ireland's Diaspora Engagement: Some "Dos and Don'ts"​
Ireland's Diaspora Engagement: Some "Dos and Don'ts"​
Diaspora engagement is a topic that I have spent the majority of my adult life learning about – from a student devouring books with words way too big to understand (still happens) to now trying to shape systems of engagement from Lesotho to Libya that can help diasporas, home and host countries alike. Over those years, successive passports of mine have provided a mosaic of stamps and symbols that depict a potential of purpose from diaspora engagement that we have yet to fully capture.
But on those passports, remained one symbol that will always get my first preference for diaspora – the Harp.
I have a running joke with friends working globally on diaspora engagement. It goes something like this:
“Of course, I’m delighted to help/learn in any way I can on your diaspora engagement but remember, be realistic here cause as long as I am around you or your country can only ever get to No.2 in the world cause I ain’t quitting until Ireland is no.1”.
Those of you who know me will know that apart from talking a lot on diaspora, my actual calling card is my strong Irish accent. A friend once quipped, “Martin, don’t take this to heart, but you sound better in print!” It has led to the fury of many translators across the globe at various conferences – The Guadalajara Book Fair was an all-time high, those translators were superstars with their patience.
I have made a promise to work on softening this accent but make no mistake, I will never lose it! It can be a blessing and a curse, but it is a badge of my Irishness, heritage, and home…..much like the Harp on the passport.
Diaspora – An Irish Spirit and Vision
In the Irish spirit of looking outwardly positive in situations like the one we found ourselves in with this pandemic, this article has a humble positive purpose. I want to share some thoughts about the work of the Irish – public and private sector – in diaspora engagement. Within this, let’s also try to explore where the Irish vision for diaspora work may be down the road. This vision – personal and professional – is rooted in the truest Irish spirit of standing up for what is right.
Let’s begin with Ireland’s foreign policy vision – to be an island at the centre of the globe which is led by our values. That is something we can all be proud of……I hope you can all affirm that when we are all Irish on March 17th for Paddy’s Day, the world is a much happier place. Maybe not so much on the 18th for those of us who partake in one Shandy too many.
So, here’s a thought, what if we did have confidence in our small island to be at the centre of the world to stand/show up for what is right and what would the role of diaspora engagement in that be?
Powerful calling if you think about it….I’m in, accent and all.
The "Dos and Don’ts" of Ireland’s Diaspora Engagement Model
So, this article is a beginning of sorts. It is a short “dos and don’ts” of the Irish diaspora engagement model. 3 Dos and 3 Don’ts, and I am happy to share more if there is an interest. We are still learning our diaspora craft in Ireland, so mistakes are the norm but the Irish story on diaspora is one of getting more right than wrong.
And the "don’ts" offered here are not designed to make people uncomfortable or disappointed, they are identified in the endeavour of advancing Ireland’s work in the area. Truth be told, I have likely been complicit in some of these shortcomings; we’re in this diaspora work together.
Here, and over the next few weeks, we will begin to make diaspora knowledge open access. We will share insights and tips from various diaspora models all over the world so that we, whether in the middle of ongoing engagement or newly planned engagement due to COVID-19, have some useful tips and insights.
Open access knowledge on diaspora engagement is, unlike other sectors, quite an easy and enjoyable endeavour. The world of diaspora is non-competitive, i.e. somebody that wants to help Jamaica does not want to help Jordan, so diaspora knowledge is an open access phenom!
The mantra should be: Share, share, share.
The Do’s
The Simplicity of Definition
The remarkable collectivizing power of Ireland’s diaspora engagement model is rooted in its inclusive, open definition of its people abroad. It was once put to me that the working definition is “If you feel Irish, you are Irish”. This power, at times, is contested when the application of engagement works at the complexities of definition – seen most visibly in Ireland in the debate on voting rights for the diaspora.
At its core though, an inclusive definition is a positive aggregating force in nurturing a meaningful sense of global community and connectivity through diasporas. The caveat of course is that this needs to be practiced in the applied actualities of the systems of engagement we enact.
The “Diaspora First” Value
Make no mistake, Ireland does diaspora through values. In earlier articles, we have explored the nuances of ethics and values for the future of the sector, but the track record – particularly of the Irish government through the Emigrant Support Programme [ESP] – means Ireland can shine a light to the world in terms of a values driven framework of diaspora engagement.
The ESP – a fund from the Irish government to support Irish diaspora organizations globally – is a story to be told to the world. At a top-tier level, it about enacting diaspora engagement by engaging the successful and supporting the vulnerable. It is, however, a much more astute appreciation that life in the diaspora for many is a struggle and they need help.
I see a 4-C’s Thematic Framework in Ireland’s model as Care, Community, Culture, and Commerce. It is a diaspora first approach – give to your diaspora before expecting them to give.
Networked Momentum: Slow Growth to Long Impact
By deriving engagement as “Diaspora First”, there is an interesting subplot that develops. It means giving up some of your control in the engagement process and building agency of impact through networked momentum.
Ireland’s model has been founded upon the development of a networked model where agency is diversified and held accountable at varying layers of the engagement process. This means the government is the facilitator of engagement. There are big questions on the role of government in diaspora engagement. In the next few weeks, I will be reaching out to some colleagues to co-write a piece on this.
The insight here is never, ever rush to market in diaspora engagement. It takes time to do diaspora well; get ready for the long-haul!
Build accountable, participatory systems and engagements. When you really dig into some of the real successes of diaspora engagement, they have a few things in common – one of those features is that the backstage planning leads to a standing ovation at the end of the play.
The Don’ts:
The Allure of Dependency
At a design and systematic level, Ireland has been a shining light for many in diaspora engagement. We have, however, some battle scars to show and one is the allure of dependency. For all the positives above, we have failed to truly understand how to redesign our systems to avoid a culture of dependency bedding into the system.
We are arguably now at a moment where incredible organizations working on the front-line for the Irish diaspora are over-exposed to volatile fluctuations in sourcing support. In fairness, this is symptomatic of the mainstream non-profit sector so we may be able to source some answers there.
But we have a duty of care to figure this out with them and a key part of that is giving them a seat at the leadership table. Remarkable efforts such as the Global Irish Civic Forum have started this journey. Beyond this, we will also need to look in the mirror at our designs and have the courage to have a mature conversation about potential changes afoot.
The Lost Opportunities of the Big Bet
Another "don’t" from the Irish model can be described as the lost opportunities of the big bet. It is not happenstance that over the past few weeks, diaspora has been popping back up across Ireland in board meetings, media and state/semi-state led plans for offsetting COVID-19 and recovery agendas.
We have a tendency in Ireland to play the diaspora card (in the mainstream) when we need it most as a country. In recent years, we have arguably rested a little on our laurels. The ESP, of course, being the main antidote to this if we want to use the language of the times.
There is an argument that Ireland has undervalued the potential of diaspora engagement for Ireland, Ireland’s role in the world and Irish people in the world. Basically, we need to work towards participatory, proactive designs to make diaspora engagement habitual not reactionary in Ireland.
We have failed to really bet big on diaspora in Ireland in a meaningful way yet. To be fair, this is not the fault of government as such big bets needs more than government around the table. The current landscape is an opportunity to change the course on this.
Affinity Diasporas in Ireland
Arguably the greatest stain on Ireland’s diaspora record is the lack of meaningful engagement with the diaspora communities who now call Ireland home and other affinity diasporas. In recent weeks, we have heard stories of how these communities have been advocates for sourcing medical supplies for Ireland. We have heard harrowing stories of how they are on the front-line treating our most vulnerable and helping to keep our limited economy going.
We have heard a lot around integrating communities and the likes over the past few years, but the simple reality is that we have left a lot of these communities down. This needs to change and Ireland - as a concept and society - cannot be found wanting here.
Concluding thoughts on the road ahead
In an earlier article, you would have read some of my plans on how we need to bet big on a “discovery” mindset for diaspora engagement. In Ireland, we should be grabbing this opportunity.
My promise is to do whatever I can to help establish Ireland as a centre of excellence in the teaching, training and research of diaspora engagement. That is a vision of purpose and a Big Bet for the story of Ireland and diaspora engagement.
It will be a natural positive contributor to Ireland’s foreign policy vision and build systems of engagement that enrich the lives of our people abroad along with forging new purpose to our relationship with the world. Achievement of this ambitious hope will require people infinitely more intelligent than myself to design so I welcome you to join the journey!
This will mean dusting off the Harp again soon and hitting the road to gather more stamps. These new stamps will have this new vision and Big Bet behind them.
I hoped you enjoyed this article as it is a small contribution to the Harp showing up given what is going on. It is to share some of our successes and failures with the world.
Many of you reading this may feel daunted by the diaspora work that you want to continue, start or help due to COVID-19. Rest easy, you are not alone, and this is achievable. We have stories from all over the world to help you with advice, tips, and insights. This Irish article is just the beginning; Let’s get to work.
Martin Russell
Diaspora, Philanthropy, and Networking | Founder, GDI | Advisor, TNI


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