Aid charities and the diaspora question

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

It is always good to see a piece of third sector research that offers intelligent advice, especially when it is telling charities to remember that they do not have all the answers.

On these grounds, Engaging Diasporas, a fairly recent study for Oxfam by Hein de Haas about how aid charities, governments and other development 'actors' from the UK and elsewhere in Europe can support diaspora involvement in the progress of their countries of origin, makes excellent sense.

Migrants and their remittances already have a significant and growing role in developing the developing world, without asking anyone's permission or executing a strategic plan. The study urges simple steps for well-intentioned outsiders if they want to help and not hinder. These range from making it easier and cheaper to send remittances home - check out the site sendmoneyhome.org, backed by the Department for International Development - to supporting migrants creating small enterprises in their countries of origin and building the capacity of diaspora organisations.

De Haas warns aid agencies against assuming they can teach migrant groups and individuals how best to develop their countries or spend their remittances.

He suggests that the challenge is not to make diaspora groups more like aid charities, but to build on their unique strengths.

He is also concerned about the need for coherence between development policies and migration practices, especially in ensuring that aid is not used merely to keep Africans out by making state-funded groups complicit in a double agenda of curbing migration through development. He notes that this might slow or halt migration's ebb as well as its flow, including the natural return of those going home to invest in their country's future.

I'm less sure about De Haas when he almost dismisses migration as no panacea for development, since it is something the world has done since humans walked the earth and is now an economic driving force more important than aid. And his call for aid agencies to give diaspora groups a real say in policy formulation has a patronising air.

These foibles aside, De Haas is offering a hefty helping of wise words.

But with remittances worldwide now worth perhaps $120bn (£64bn) a year, or more than double the total for international aid, will development charities curb their lust for money and power enough to listen?

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