Monday, July 22, 2024
PoliticsEngaging the Diaspora

Engaging the Diaspora

As Ethiopia is set to welcome another New Year in less than ten days, preparation are already underway to host unprecedented number of Ethiopians in the Diaspora who are expected to make to trip for the holidays. According to Government Communications Affairs Office, some 25,000 members of the Ethiopian Diaspora, out of an estimated 2.5 to 3 million around world, are expected to touch down in Addis starting next week. This New Year’s celebration is going to be the first since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has taken office and turned over a new leaf with regards to Ethiopian Diaspora, which was perceived to be at odds with all sitting Prime Ministers who took offices under the EPRDF ticket. Abiy’s most publicized trip to the US is believed to have galvanized support for his leadership from the Ethiopian Diaspora at a level unprecedented for his party. The festivities and the planned News Year’s ball at the Addis Ababa Millennium Hall aside, experts are concerned with the reform needed to tap into the promising potential of Ethiopian Diaspora, writes Asrat Seyoum.  

Engaging the Diaspora


In the wake of the Ethiopian Millennium exactly eleven years from now, the festive atmosphere in Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian towns was extra ordinary to look at. The combination of the once-in-life-time Millennium celebration (Ethiopian Millennium), the return of Ethiopian diaspora in numbers and the massive image building campaign undertaken, all came together to make the festivities grand and majestic. This was one unique time where Ethiopian diaspora was feeling nostalgic and started to look to its birth land. Indeed a number of people decided to take that “much talked-about trip back to home”.

The state was also equally motivated in reclaiming its people abroad. In the heat of the moment the federal government and some of the regional states come up with a sweeping incentive packages to encourage the diaspora to move back home and contribute to the nation building project. The incentive bundle included the granting of plots of land free of lease, something which is desirable even to the local community in the increasingly congested urban centers of Ethiopia.

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On top of that, the duty free import certificates that encompass home appliances, automobiles and other capital goods were part of the so called diaspora incentive packages. In all fairness, the Millennium offers were not the first time the administration had tried to lure in its diaspora communities across the western world. In fact, the Mayorship of Addis Ababa had had prior engagements with the diaspora as early 2004 where it had offered plots of land free of charge for diaspora returnees in different part of the city.

The result had not been impressive, most would say. And partly this had to do with the somewhat touch and go approach the government had been conducting successive engagement with the diaspora. Some commentators would argue that the real intention behind this engagement, at least as far as the government is concerned was not a genuine desire to exploit the potential that is the Ethiopian diaspora; but to dilute the staunch political opposition and activism conducted by organized diaspora groups.

On the other hand, there have been widespread cases of abuse of the incentives and privileges by the beneficiaries over the years. On this front, even the one that was offering the incentives (the government) went public with some of these abuses and misuses of privileges which were not granted to even to Ethiopian based in Ethiopia. The duty free import certificates, for instance, were reported to be sold to locals for lofty sum of money; but still significantly cheaper than the ridiculously steep duty rates levied on automobiles in the country.  

“There have been engagements with the diaspora in the past, under the previous administration and the one in the office now. But, the way I see it, most of these engagements were about narrowing down the political difference that existed between the Ethiopian diaspora and the government for many years,” says Yared Haile-meskel, a diaspora returnee and managing director of YHM Consulting.

Yared is of the view that there is little by way of institutionalized diaspora engagement platforms in Ethiopia. “There is little in terms of meaningful engagement with the Ethiopian diaspora,” he argues, while recognizing some beginnings like the Diaspora Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the a draft policy which has been in the works for over 5 years now.

Whatever the intentions, the measures taken by the government over the years had an impact in encouraging some members of the diaspora to come and invest in their homeland. As a result, various sectors from agriculture to finance had seen the addition of Ethiopian diaspora to their industries. Some become wildly successful while the others were unable to withstand the bureaucracy and left.

Today, the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) seems to have taken the issue of engaging the diaspora quite seriously. His commitment to the diaspora seems to be on a different level. In his recent visit to the US, Abiy highlighted this commitment by going on tour in the US where Ethiopians were said to be living in greater numbers.

In fact, the PM was prompt to capitalize on this resurgence of engagement. While benefiting from consolidating his support base in the US, at a level unprecedented for a sitting head of government in Ethiopia, he also seemed to have found a way out of the financial predicament his administration is in the moment.

In that, Abiy and his aides were quick to implement what they called the Diaspora Trust Fund, a mechanism by which members of the Ethiopian diaspora would commit a dollar a day to support development endeavors in their home country. In doing so, Abiy might have the foreign currency crunch at heart. With bank account already live and an advisory board made up of independent professionals appointed, Abiy’s initiative looks to be on its way to start mobilizing diaspora resources for development.

As far as Abreham Seyoum, Director General of the Ethiopian Diaspora Association is concerned the recent political developments in the country and the dynamism created by PM Abiy’s administration could be good opportunity to address some of the latent diaspora problems in Ethiopia. “I like the recent dynamism and what the PM is doing,” he says, “but I need to stress that this should not be a hit of the moment thing; since we have seen one of those in the past”.

Nevertheless, engaging the diaspora and tapping into the potentials of this section of the population is not a challenge that is unique to Ethiopia. World’s most populous countries—China and India—are surely on top of the list when it comes to leveraging the diaspora for national development. In fact, India’s now 120 billion dollars IT industry benefited a lot from the Indian diaspora returnees and to become one of the top ten tech hubs in the world in 2017.

 On the other hand, India is also benefiting monetarily from its diaspora with annual remittance topping some 69 billion dollars slightly lower than Ethiopia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). India is followed by another giant China with 64 billion annual intake while countries like Philippines and Mexico follow at half of what is gained by the leaders (33 and 30 billion) .Nigeria and Egypt, the next on the list, lead the pack in African with 22 and 21 billion annual remittance inflows. 

According to most cited literatures on migration, there are around three overarching diaspora engagement strategies. The first is an engagement that is purely focused on capturing remittance inflows. This includes various instruments such as diaspora backed-bonds, foreign currency accounts and various investment opportunities. This policy is about exploiting the financial potential of the diaspora by inducing investment. 

Although Ethiopia’s remittance figures are highly disputed by the World Bank and other reputable sources, by the estimates of the government the country receives around 4.4 billion dollars (2017) annually from its diaspora communities. According to experts, this discrepancy happens due to variation in method of accounting for inflows; while government figures were said to take into account the inflow via semiformal and informal channels.     

Yared, however, worries that increasing remittance inflows might not be enough as a policy goals for Ethiopia at this time; he believes productivity is equally as important.

If we are talking about the majority, highly educated diaspora, Yared explains, “we are talking of the people who are doctors, scientists or engineers; these people don’t really have the time to be active investors in Ethiopia, far away from their careers and steady jobs,” he states.

You can’t expect highly educated professionals to take up poultry and move back to Ethiopia; it is unrealistic. But, if there is regulated, trusted investment platform such as a stock market the potential of Ethiopian diaspora could really do wonders for the local economy,” Yared argues with conviction.

The second strategy revolves around networking and benefiting from the diaspora in terms of knowledge, business connection and investment networks.

Apart from that, there are ways to engage the diaspora in smart way, in local context, Yared continues. “One is the question of land; if you allow the diaspora to buy land in the country at fair price, first it generates foreign currency inflow instantly and alleviates financing problems for the nation’s mega projects,” he says. In tandem with stock market type of trusted investment platforms, he explains, “land could be a good platform to lure diaspora financial resources”.   

The third and perhaps the highest level of engagement with the diaspora is of course integration. Integration pertains to the reintegrating the diaspora community to its origin and reclaiming what has been lost due to migration; this mostly invokes the issues of dual citizenship and the right of the diaspora to participate in its nation’s political and economic life with no restriction.

The Ethiopian diaspora needs to see some fundamental changes to the rules and regulation affecting its engagement with its home country, according to the director-general of the diaspora association. “One important point is that we can’t desire the economic participation of the diaspora and yet ignore its other interests like political and social,” Abreham told The Reporter.

“What that means is the diaspora like everywhere else is a package deal,” says Abreham. If we need the potential of the diaspora we need to straighten out the laws and proclamations that would allow Ethiopian-born foreign passport holders to directly participate in the political life of the country, he goes on arguing; and “There needs to be a mechanism to facilitate the free participation of the Ethiopian Diaspora in the nation’s politics, including but not limited to elections, both as voters or political office contenders”.

True to form, Ethiopian diaspora don’t exercise the right as citizen to participate in politics except activism. “There is no half way; one can’t pick and choose economic benefits and ignore political and social rights,” Abreham asserts.

The international practice dictates that there are around three basic principles that guide citizenship consideration: by birth, blood or through legal process (naturalization). The Ethiopian Nationality Proclamation No. 378/2003, also follows the same principle while taking tougher stance on naturalization of foreign citizens and foreign passport holders. Nevertheless, the law is very clear on the state of multiple nationality and its potential effects.

In that it stipulates: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Article 19 (4) of this Proclamation, any Ethiopian who   voluntarily acquires another nationality shall be deemed to have voluntarily renounced his Ethiopian nationality.” Furthermore, it also states: “An Ethiopian who acquires another nationality  by virtue of being born to a parent having a  foreign nationality or by being born abroad shall be deemed to have voluntarily renounced his  Ethiopian nationality unless he has declared to the Authority his option to retain it by  renouncing his other nationality within one year after attaining the age of majority, or unless there has been an earlier express renunciation of his Ethiopian nationality pursuant to Article 19 (3) of  this Proclamation.”

Most scholars agree that the issue of multiple nationalities is a difficult conversation to have since until very recently there have been very vocal oppositions to the practice at the global level.  In fact, migration literature deals in detail with this issue of dual-citizenship and how countries around the world are now coming around to the idea very slowly.

In one hand, the legal ambiguities that would ensue following the acquisition of dual or multiple nationalities, especially with regard to the responsibilities and obligations of citizens to the state they pledged allegiance to, is a much debated matter. On the other hand, the implication of restricting multiple citizenships in light of the above discussed principles and changing global conditions with people moving from place to place freely and how it is now becoming a rights issue is also another matter. 

For instance, we need to talk serious about dual-citizenship; there must be a government body that would explain plainly as to why this mechanism is not acceptable to Ethiopia. We know other nations are doing it and it have benefited them and their diaspora community,” states Abreham. But, adding that if such provisions are contrary to the national interest it also needs to be explained clearly.

As far as Yared is concerned, the fact that dual nationality is becoming a rights issue is something that is quite appealing to the case of Ethiopia. “My greatest worry is not the generation that migrated due to political or economic reasons; trust me, we are coming back to the country no matter what since we can’t easily shake the attachment we had with our country. Rather, I worry about the second and third generation Ethiopians in the diaspora; they have no attachment with their motherland and apparently those are the ones with greatest potential to support the nation,” he explains in detail.

For him, the case of second and third generation Ethiopians is a rights issue as well. “We took them; they did not go by there own, so they can’t be restricted form reclaiming their roots. They need to choose for themselves,” Yared argues.

“It is one thing to talk about 30,000 or so Bete-Israelis who went to Israel a while back,but it is totally different issue with 140,000 second and third generation Ethiopian born Israelis. These people are now showing interest to comeback and we owe to respond to that question,” he argues.

On the positive note, the two commenters also believe that the greatest potential in Ethiopian Diaspora actually rests in these second and third generation Ethiopians in a foreign land.

Countries have varying degree of dual-citizenship status withall kinds of conditions and restrictions to fit their objective realities. “If you consider the Israelis they grant what ‘they call the right to return’ to their citizens who have not lived in their birth country for over 2000 years; that could be good starting point,” Yared adds.

For Abreham, resolving dual-citizenship issue is a key aspect of tapping into the diaspora potential. “It can address a lot of things and the diaspora could freely engage in its nation’s destiny. Without citizenship rights, the Ethiopian diaspora would always be limited in its participation in the country socioeconomic life.  This bridge has to be broken to see meaningful diaspora investment in Ethiopia since that is a strongest guarantee for any kind of investment.

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