Part 1 - Diaspora Philanthropy: Definition, Discourse, Decision
Part 1 - Diaspora Philanthropy: Definition, Discourse, Decision
Diaspora Philanthropists have proven adept at rapidly mobilizing humanitarian relief, acting as social innovators and change agents with a long-term interest, serving as powerful aggregators of issue-based or identity-based giving among diaspora communities and advocating for country-of-origin causes among mainstream donors [MPI/USAID, 2010].
Irony, you know, is a clever beast. For the past few days in Ireland, the sun has been beating against the stones. May 1st brought the trees bristling with the lyrics of nature in action and Ireland has never looked more appealing. Problem is, for the most part, we have had to look out the window at it (why do I have Alanis Morissette playing in the background!).
But on the short occasions we do get to go out and enjoy it, our country has never looked more beautiful. And something awoke in me the other day when I was out enjoying a brief flirtation with the Irish sunshine (no jokes allowed re the Irish and sunburn!).
Here I was, strolling away with the headphones in, contemplating all that is afoot in the diaspora world (sad but true) when a song popped into my mix. An Irish classic – On Raglan Road. There’s a line in that song that sums up maybe where we are in the world today:
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
The world is in grief, but a new day will dawn very soon.
The world is going through something that has fundamentally exposed systems of inequalities and injustices that – due to the short-term need of tackling the pandemic – have yet to even be explored. The very fabric of what supposedly constitutes as a fair shot for everyone has been unwoven; now broken at best, mythical at worst.
In many ways, we are all culpable here. We saw these systems of inequality and injustice, we spoke about them at our conferences or through our publications, but how many of us can actually say we – hand on heart – stepped up to the leadership plate to our fullest capacity to act on what needed to be done. So here is the substantive question coming downstream:
When the grief of COVID-19 is a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day and we have freed ourselves enough from the temporary shackles of tackling the pandemic, what will we say and do then to push back those systems of inequality and injustice?
That is what interests me for diaspora engagement; big, bold, and brave opportunities.
Diaspora Philanthropy: A New Dawn
The past few weeks has, to adopt a phrase from a fellow academic on diaspora, seen a “turn to diaspora”. This has its positives and pitfalls. But one area, I proffer, has the potential to stay the distance for the issues discussed above: Diaspora Philanthropy.
In this article, first in a 2-part series, I want to think out loud on an area of diaspora engagement that has always been confusing and challenging for many – Diaspora Philanthropy. These pieces are designed to be interactive – please challenge them, comment on them and, most importantly, criticise them. Through these pieces, the aim is to inform and instrumentalize diaspora philanthropy as a means to tackling the leadership question swelling in front of our eyes.
So, in that sense, it is not about just looking at diaspora philanthropy in the presentism of COVID-19 but something much more ambitious. It is about contending for a new dawn for diaspora philanthropy; one driven by a discovery design and value systems that challenge and contradict us in equal measures.
So, let’s begin with why this is important. Next week, we will look at insights on how to do it.
Diaspora Philanthropy: The Why Question
I remember years ago writing a chapter on the role of diaspora philanthropy in conflict transformation for my PhD and my supervisor asked me two really great, simple questions:
1)     What do you mean by diaspora philanthropy?
2)     Why should people care about the role of diaspora philanthropy?
Let’s try answer part of these questions here as they are pretty much at the heart of the confusion on the topic. In another vein, it is an example to all young researchers out there – always listen to advice from your supervisors because they ask great questions. (Well, sometimes). Answering these questions now makes me a little nervous as it means digging back into that PhD and sharing some thoughts from that for the very first time; please be gentle!
The why question on diaspora philanthropy is easier to answer because it is rooted in cold hard data, facts and trends in the sectors that shape it – diaspora and philanthropy. From the global flows of people, ideas, and money that have come to consume the geopolitics of migration to the shifting parameters of developmental finance and the diplomatic influence these dynamics will continue to have, diaspora philanthropy is a now sector of substance. Attention on the sector is now a necessity.
I do not have the scope to go into the specific nuances of these trends here apart from saying that the additional inclusivity provided by a diasporic (not migration based) definitional framework is important. Other key trends to keep on the right side of are the ever increasing influence of diaspora diplomacy and the forthcoming Intergenerational Transfer of Wealth. More to follow on that next week.
Yet, despite the “hidden in plain sight” opportunity, many fail to meaningfully go big on the sector – which begs the question: why is this? Think of this way, if the assertion by the MPI/USAID report outlined at the beginning of this article is valid, then this is a seismic missed opportunity of global significance right now.
Diaspora is about a sense of belonging and, as such, diaspora philanthropy is a natural vehicle of impact for the home and host country; it is the hyphenated power of the diaspora phenomenon “in action”. This can bring the triple win – for diaspora, host and home. This is a much-needed currency in the current pandemic.
To meaningfully get into parts of the answer to the questions from my academic supervisor then we need to start with the basics – definition and discourse. We may be seriously failing to think basic before we think big in diaspora engagement more broadly.
A Definition
What do you mean by diaspora philanthropy? This question struck fear into me as a student. I remember thinking, “Jeez, what do I actually mean by diaspora philanthropy”. Alas, off I went to the primary and secondary sources - the library, the research interviews, online academic journals, media companies, think tanks, and other sources.
The writings of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University led the charge. They posit that “the study of diaspora philanthropy is beset with obstacles and limitations, many having to do with definitions”. Or, as a young researcher in Dublin once wrote:
Initial issues remain with the definitional boundaries of the concept. The amalgamation of two highly contested and controversial concepts, diaspora and philanthropy, is difficult. Any singular, overarching definition will meet multiple critiques……. Comfortable depictions of both diaspora and philanthropy argue for a singularity of character that make both concepts easily accessible. Such definitions are, however, simplistic and unsustainable.
As simple as it may sound, when we are not clear on what we mean by diaspora philanthropy then we have lost the debate for its relevance before it has even begun. Advancements have been made in this regard and we must endeavour to shift the definition debate to link the academic to the applied to unlock this progress. The diaspora and philanthropy marketplace can help us in this regard.
The traditionalist debates in both sectors deserve mention here but the most vociferous of those have come more recently in the philanthropic debate. The past days have seen articles in The Conversation to The Economist where we have been simultaneously been encouraged to celebrate philanthropy and to be wary of philanthropy. Those readings have been a snapshot of the current landscape – with themes ranging from philanthropy as democratizer to philanthropy as dominion.
The interplay of philanthropy and power, distinctions between charity and philanthropy, and the long-term role of philanthropy have all permeated our airwaves and screens recently. And, rightly so as it is emerging as a key player now. It is correct also that these debates are hotly contested, and we should not be running away from a mature airing of these contests as part of any system to bet big through philanthropy. I will return to this later.
In trying to base a workable definition of philanthropy, let me say something I feel is particularly important. Philanthropy is not just about money. Philanthropy, for many, is about Time, Treasure, and Talent. 
Philanthropy, for me personally, represents a value set determined by a commitment to think and act deeply about giving systematically and strategically; it is a way of life. This is not an easy thing to do and we will make mistakes along the way (hence the debates).
Therefore, diaspora philanthropy, for me at least, needs to work in this spirit and our greatest insight on a definition may come from what diasporas can realistically do both in countries of destination and origin. Or, diaspora capital. Along with friends at The Networking Institute, we’ve come to define diaspora capital as:
The overseas resources available to a country, region, city, organisation or location and it is made up of flows of people, networks, finance, ideas, attitudes and concerns for places of origin, ancestry or affinity. In short, flows of people, knowledge and money.
Diaspora philanthropy then, quite simply, is the philanthropic application of such capital.
On paper, it seems straightforward then for the sector to grab such a definition and run with it. Design the applications and methodologies to put it to use and away we go, right? Wrong.
Our communities and constituencies are arguably never more confused than ever on what we mean when we say diaspora philanthropy. There are complex agencies and reasons at play as to why this is so, but I want to focus on one here – the discourse of diaspora philanthropy.
The hard reality illuminated by the pandemic along with the civic and political discord that preceded it over the last few years is that despite the agency of democratization supposedly being at the fingertips of all, a lot of people feel lost. They are, in many ways, in an extended period of grief. That is not the fault of the people who feel lost; that is our collective responsibility.
For example, look at this article. Whilst I hope you are enjoying your read – we are working through some complex political and philosophical topics in a frame comfortable to us who understand it. Our discourses – designed and utilized by us – are borderline hegemonic. We need to step up now and engage people where they are and provide seats at the discursive & leadership level to do meaningful work.
Let’s do a quick exercise to explore this. I have read some amazing articles, books on diaspora and philanthropy with some truly transformational ideas in the past years (especially past weeks with the lockdown). Some terms are popping up again and again: Civicness, Equitable, Democratizing, Order, Participatory, Redistributive and the list goes on. These are all fascinating entry points in the academics and applications of diaspora philanthropy.
To be honest, it was enthralling in many ways as I felt like the student again. But it got me thinking; why should I have to feel like a student again to understand this stuff? In other words, such complexity distances access to the audiences who do not “speak the language”.
The upsetting thing is this: the audience that constitutes the majority of the civic we speak of in our philanthropic work falls into this category of concern. Our discourses have distanced the people the sector has been set up to serve. I think most of us in this sector have fallen into this trap and it needs to change. A lot of people see this as philanthropy having an image problem; it is much deeper than that.
We need to make a conscious decision then to reequip and re-frame philanthropy. I contend this is a powerful calling card for diaspora philanthropy.
When we talk about deciding to make diaspora philanthropy more accessible from definition right through to practice then we need think of philanthropy not just as strategic but systematic. So, this is my call to action to anyone reading this in the sector:
Join a new dawn for Diaspora Philanthropy.
Diaspora philanthropy, because of some the trends here and others we will discuss in more detail next week, will become the primary dimension of the diaspora engagement landscape in the next 30 years.
But here is the punchline: Our understanding and offerings in the sector are in their infancy.
Philanthropy is a deep way of giving so we must understand it deeply. Diaspora work, in general, has not risen to this opportunity. Thinking basic for a little while could be thinking brilliantly when it comes to diaspora philanthropy.
I am fervently excited about the potentials in diaspora philanthropy, but we have a duty of care to do it the right way with the right voices around the table. We should not be waiting around on this, that is not the philanthropic thing to do. We need to decide to act and we can convince the non-believers.
We need to invest strategically and systematically in utterly understanding the internal and external influences on the topic. We need to open the leadership table and we, certainly, need to communicate more effectively. We also must leverage diaspora engagement to stand up for what is right.
Any student or professional of philanthropy will have had the work of Peter Frumkin in their reading lists. He exemplifies the distinction between theories of leverage and theories of change quite aptly when he says
"Theories of leverage are different from theories of change in that they focus not so much on the grand idea of how impact is best created, but rather on the mechanics of the process".
The mechanics of the process are important now. Courage and conviction to critically realign our process of diaspora philanthropy to rise to the challenges afoot is critical. These challenges will not just germinate from the internal debates outlined in the sector. The political-ization of the pandemic with its subtle undertones of intense nationalism is something diaspora philanthropy must stand up to.
Binaries of zero-sum tribalism will be a dangerous precedent for diaspora engagement if allowed to fester. I remember writing during the PhD days that the importance of diaspora philanthropy may be that it is agile enough to work through the “complication of traditional concepts of nation, state, trans-border, and trans-national exchange”. Same rules apply today.
In the truest of philanthropic spirits, we need to adopt a discovery and experimentalist approach to diaspora philanthropy. I’m “all in” for this.
To meet this opportunity and to put some skin in the game, in next week’s piece I will share some tips on how to enact diaspora philanthropy and discuss a decision I have made for my future work on diaspora philanthropy. I just need another walk in the Irish sunshine to clear the air first. As the old TV shows used to say, “Tune in next week” and look forward to the dawning of the day for diaspora philanthropy.
Stay well....M

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