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Diaspora Communities and the Horn of Africa

At Culture Shock on October 16, the organizers of U of Mosaic’s Diaspora Communities Dialogue Series on Canada’s role in the world dialogue presented a workshop with two prominent experts on the subject of diaspora communities. There was a special focus on communities from the Horn of Africa. Mosaic is interested in how the diaspora plays a role in civil society at the national and international level. North Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia were specifically discussed at the workshop. The first speaker, Emmanuel, is a social entrepreneur and the director of organizational capacity.

Emmanuel, born in Eritrea, began by stating that it is important for the diaspora to find its role in how it works to influence its country of origin. He cited that there are over fifty million Africans living outside the continent. “When people think about the role of the diaspora,” Emmanuel said, “the first thing that comes to their mind is remittances.” Remittances are money that is sent back to the continent from emigrants living abroad. These remittances are extremely economically significant, and surpass the annual amount of foreign aid to Africa: in 2010, remittances to Africa totalled $40 billion. In recognition of their importance, the African Union has recognized the diaspora as the sixth region of Africa.

The second speaker of the night was McGill professor Khalid Mustafa Medani. Being of Sudanese origin, he started jokingly, he said he was reluctant that an Eritrean was speaking alongside him at the discussion. He clarified that it is rare to have two people from these respective areas discuss the problems that are facing the Horn of Africa today. In fact, Sudan and Eritrea share close-knit diaspora communities, but the Sudanese are envious of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora, because they have been more effective at cooperating to improve conditions at home. Professor Medani attributed this to the relative homogeneity of Eritrean and Ethiopian populations, in comparison to the Sudanese population.

Later, Medani discussed an article he read as a Masters student, which addressed the following: “Why was it, after so many years of conflict, that the nutritional levels of Somalis was good, given the lack of resources in the country, the plummeting GDP, and lack of economic growth in the country?”

The answer was simple to him: their Somali relatives abroad were more than willing to help them out. “But,” he said, “how can we channel the remittances that are reaching the region to help in terms of public health and development?”

He noted the lack of public institutions due to the long-running civil conflicts in the area. He also said that in northern Somalia, funds from diasporic communities have been very successful in peace building, whereas remittances to southern Somalia has financed militant organizations and caused instability. “What lessons can we learn from the case of Somalia?” he asked.

One lesson, he concluded, is that excessive state or foreign intervention may not always be the right answer. Medani proposed that the work should start here in North America. Medani stressed the importance of working with public institutions like the Canadian government, which is already involved in the Horn of Africa – especially in Sudan, where Canada has invested around $400 to $500 million. The end result, Medani said, is public-private partnership between the government and the diasporic communities.