What’s diaspora got to do with it indeed? – By Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie
I haven’t read the NEXT article mentioned in the previous post on this, but far worse things than that particular ex-diaspora, former multilateral director minister have floated to the top of the cesspit of Nigerian politics; yet diaspora returnees are used to finding themselves on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks from their “home-based” counterparts. Comes with the territory. That’s a distraction.
Let’s deal with the substance of the matter: will Africa’s diaspora, for the most part, drive transformative change across the continent? Almost certainly not. Does that mean that Africa’s diaspora is surplus to requirements? Most certainly not. The African diaspora has a vital, if frequently misunderstood, role to play in Africa’s development. And regardless of what they actually do when they get there, the stampede of Africa’s returning masses – pushed and pulled by a complex array of forces and factors – is a vote of confidence by the people that matter most: ordinary Africans. Many of these returnees will join the ranks of Africa’s growing middle class. They will add to the skills base countries across the continent need to grow. They will consume at least some locally produced goods and services, thus boosting GDP and local value addition. This potentially creates the much-needed virtuous cycle of growth, jobs, wealth, confidence, consumer spending, etc. It is the growing middle class – not the destitute and poor barely eking out a survival – that is most likely to form the bulwark against the worst excesses of state brutality and the bad governance that still holds back development across Africa.
But few of the diaspora returnees will drive change in African countries. For the most part, they will be ill equipped to do so. Think about it. Many will have spent a considerable part of their career in the lower, middle, and senior ranks of their respective occupations. For those who have worked in western developed countries (and some emerging economies), these ranks are typically well defined and structured, and operate in the context of stable institutions, an enabling ecosystem of support, and adequate soft and hard infrastructure. These are all the ingredients that have ensured that many advanced and advancing countries have witnessed steady improvements in productivity, the cornerstone of the wealth that has been created over the last generation and of those that haven’t they’re paying the price now.
Fast-forward to the average African country and what do you see? Apart from a few exceptions, highly informal, unstructured work environments hampered by weak institutions, poor and inadequate infrastructure, ineffective and outmoded management practices, and poorly motivated or trained workforces. In other words, conditions that most of Africa’s returning diaspora will find extremely difficult to adapt to and for which they are simply ill prepared. Most will experience a jarring drop in their personal productivity, perhaps combined with a sense of frustration and self-doubt. Some, with a resigned shrug and an “oh well, if you can’t beat “˜em…” Some get angry and combative, picking fights wherever they go and dissipating their energy, while getting nowhere and losing friends fast. Others get resilient and creative and devise strategies to adapt while holding on to their core values.
Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie is a co-founder of the African Foundation for Development (Afford), and a consultant and writer on international development