Diaspora Development

Contrary to common misperception, immigrants are not only itinerant, low-income farm and service industry workers. Immigrant populations in the Diaspora (from the Greek word meaning dispersal) are often well-educated and many times originate from the elite workforces of their countries.

Smaller countries who cannot finance the research libraries, state-of-the-art laboratories and dynamic industries needed to keep their most talented professionals suffer the oft-cited global brain drain. Ask any foreign-born taxi driver with a doctorate.

As reported in "Give Us Your Best and Brightest" by Devesh Kapur and John McHale, "well-educated Latin Americans are at least 2.5 times more likely to be in the United States than at home" and "more than half of the science and technology Ph.D.s in the United States are foreign-born."

Worldwide, 175 million live outside the country of their birth. In Germany, where I am on holiday, 14 percent of the population is of foreign extraction; nearly 5 percent of the country is of Turkish origin, the largest Turkish population outside Turkey.

One tasty result is the transplantation of culture and cuisine. My favorite example: Turkish donor kebab stands throughout Berlin (photo credit: Jonathan C. Lewis).

Along with globalizing gastronomy, the received wisdom among elite economists and American business lobbyists is that free trade is good for jobs, profits, innovation, competition and economic growth. Except for intellectual property protection and international contract enforcement, goods and services, it is argued, should cross borders unimpeded by government restrictions, tariffs or trade barriers.

Less popular is the free movement of human capital -- people and labor. Pandering to jingoistic and racist views, strict border enforcement is called for. Whatever your viewpoint about immigration, expatriates are a mostly untapped resource for economic development back home.

A hopeful discussion at the Opportunity Collaboration this coming October will be Who's at the Table? Engaging Diaspora Groups in Philanthropy. Led by philanthropist Karen Keating Ansara, the Haiti Fund "within days of Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake identified the leadership, resources and deep commitment of Boston's large Haitian Diaspora" to establish a planning, advocacy and grant-making entity for that broken nation.

An "authentic, rather than token, engagement of Haitian Diaspora groups and leaders in development plans" created a vibrant, permanent force even as media attention moved on to the next natural disaster. Key discussion point: The staying power of Disapora populations is the human capital equivalent of so-called patient financial capital.

Noting 23 million African migrants around the world control $30 billion of savings, World Bank executives Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Dipil Ratha in the New York Times ("Homeward Bond") propose "Africa bonds" to finance infrastructure like basic roads to transport farm products to market. By estimate, $10 billion could be raised annually.

American Jews know the wildly successful Jewish National Fund, a private, charitable organization financing Israeli economic development projects with bonds sold in the Diaspora. Other countries, such as Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and Turkey, have formed development banks to leverage remittances wired back home by their expat populations.

Whether infrastructure bonds or direct philanthropy, tapping into the profits from Diaspora-based donor kebab stands is a development idea with a lot of meat on it.