The impact of Ireland’s diaspora



Kingsley Aikins

Posted: 15 March, 2018

As part of this month’s theme ‘Celebrating Ireland’s Diaspora’, Kingsley Aikins has contributed a guest blog. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Kingsley has spent over 30 years working in trade and investment, philanthropy, education, culture, tourism and sport. Together with his colleagues they are focusing on training in networking, philanthropy and diaspora.

According to the UN over 244 million people now live outside the country they were born in. If this were a country it would be the fifth largest country in the world. This number has increased by over 40% since 1990. In essence a new geography has been created through migration and we can see a distinction between the state and the nation – the former referring to lines on a map and the latter being a global notion.

Though diaspora is the product of migration and thus interlinked, they are perceived differently. Migration is emotionally charged and politically toxic. On the other hand, diaspora is seen more positively and is attracting attention from governments who are realising what were once ‘lost actors’ can now be seen as ‘national assets’. They now appreciate the power and potential of ‘Diaspora Capital’ which we define as the ‘overseas resources available to a country, city, region, organisation or place and is made up of three flows – flows of people, finance and knowledge.

There is a growing realisation that those countries that lost the most to emigration are now in a position to benefit the most by engaging them and their descendants, and many countries are now seeking to put in place policies and programmes to convert their diaspora capital into practical projects and, especially, those that can create jobs.

In the old days when people emigrated they were gone and gone for good. Now people are moving over and back between home and host countries and leading ‘hyphenated’ lives as in American-Polish, Australian-Greek and Canadian-Scottish. Their geography no longer dictates their identity. We are also seeing the enormous impact of remittances. They now exceed $600 billion annually according to the World Bank, and experts say it could be more than a trillion dollars annually if all other private flows are included. This is a considerable multiple of ODA (Official Development Assistance) and underscores the role that families play both in sending and receiving remittances. Diaspora individuals can play a critical role in helping attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). These ‘tipping agents’ can be the ‘nudge factor’ that can push a deal a country’s way.

So what countries do this really well? There are 4 who are ahead of the rest and many dozens who are trying to get better.

The leading country in the world is Israel who, historically, have always had an intensely close relationship with its diaspora. Similarly China, with up to 80% of FDI coming from its diaspora. India is certainly one to watch as it really has only had a proactive relationship with its diaspora in the last 15 years. In 2002 India did a major survey of the Indian diaspora, of which there are nearly 30 million. The subsequent report recommended a significant number of initiatives, which were started, such as setting up the Ministry of Indians Abroad, the establishment of a new type of passport, the Overseas Citizen of India, and an annual conference of the Indian diaspora held in India every January. Prime Minister Modi, since his election has put the Indian diaspora front and centre of Indian foreign policy which is all about recognising their soft power. Through its diaspora India has changed, for the better, its nation brand, and engendered a significant sense of pride in all things Indian.

The other country that really recognises its diaspora is Ireland. The bad news is that over 10 million people have emigrated from Ireland. The good news is that this has resulted in a diaspora of over 70 million, with more than 40 million living in the United States. There has always been a deep bond between Ireland and its diaspora which is reflected in the Irish constitution, Article 2, which states that “the Irish Nation cherishes the special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.

Ireland has a Ministry of the Diaspora, a national diaspora policy, an Irish Abroad Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs – which funds Irish community organisations around the world with over €12 million annually – and a Global Irish Network of 350 CEOs around the world and many hundreds of Irish diaspora organisations in business, sport, culture, education and philanthropy.

The Ireland Funds (for whom this writer worked from 1987 to 2009) working in the area of diaspora philanthropy has raised over $550 million for thousands of organisations of peace, culture, charity and education throughout the island of Ireland. Through innovative programmes Ireland has shown that brain drain can become brain gain and brain exchange. Technology and communications now mean that it is more important what you do than where you are. Connections are now instantaneous. Absence no longer equals exile.

The simple truth is that members of diasporas want to feel proud of their home countries. They want to talk about them to their friends and contacts in a positive way. They want to feel good about those elements such as culture, food, sport, language and music that are distinctive to their home countries. Diaspora engagement involves both the left side and the right side of the brain. The left side is all about plans and leads to conclusions. The right side is all about emotions and leads to action. Martin Luther King famously said ‘I have a dream’. He didn’t say ‘I have a strategic plan’.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.