Guest post by Madhavi Bhasin
In the same week that President Obama delivered his much awaited Middle East speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inaugurated the State Department’s new diplomatic outreach initiative – The Global Diaspora Forum held from May 17-19, 2011. The initiative, christened as idEA (International Diaspora Engagement Alliance) is based on simple understanding: Diaspora communities often have the local knowledge and contacts; US Government agencies have the technical expertise, global presence, and convening power. Based on these complementarities, the State Department shall develop new diaspora-centric partnership models and undertaking new programs to encourage intra-diaspora collaboration and learning.
During the Forum, hosted jointly by the State Department, USAID and Migration Policy Institute, a host of initiatives were launched to partner closely with the diaspora communities to further United State’s international diplomacy and development efforts. The goal of the Forum, as stated by Secretary Clinton was to 1) recognize and celebrate the contribution of diaspora communities to America’s relationship with their countries of origin or ancestry, 2) foster diaspora-centric partnership models, and 3) encourage intra-diaspora collaboration and learning.
It is somewhat strange that given the usual hype over any development in Indo-US relations, the Diaspora Forum was overlooked in the mainstream media as well as social media avowedly utilized by non-profits based out of US. This could be attributed to the fact that diaspora philanthropy and partnership for social entrepreneurship between U.S. and India is considered less important than the bilateral political and strategic partnership. However, the programs launched during the Forum present an important window of opportunity for the Indian Diaspora to deepen social, economic and cultural partnership between the two countries.
Secretary Clinton during her speech identified the diaspora communities as wielders of smart power. According to her, “You [the diaspora communities] have the potential to be the most powerful people-to-people asset we can bring to the world’s table. Because of your familiarity with cultural norms, your own motivations, your own special skills and leadership, you are, frankly, our Peace Corps, our USAID, our OPIC, our State Department all rolled into one.”
According to the Migration Information Source, U.S. is home to 1.6 million Indian immigrants, the third largest migrant group in the country. Given the numbers and potential of the Indian Diaspora, the Forum offers great opportunities to forge creative partnerships. Some of the proposed avenues for collaboration include the following.
• diasphilanthropy: Diaspora Philanthropy is not a new phenomenon. Indian Diaspora has been actively involved in philanthropy over the past decades through professional associations, faith-based groups, hometown associations and individual contributions. However, the community needs to invest more thought and effort into ensuring mechanisms for strategic giving. Philanthropy is not merely an emotionally induced social commitment but is also a strategic economic decision. While the community is fervently involved in making donations, it is equally important to invest in research to identify the most urgent social challenges, explore innovative solutions and ensure goal compliance. While giving is important, it is critical to ensure that the donations are impactful on the ground. It would be helpful if some members of the community devise and publicize tools to identify social causes demanding urgent action, provide lists of organizations involved in advocating the causes, offer secure and easy options to make donations and provide regular updates on progress made and challenges encountered. Making philanthropy simpler and strategic is both desirable and necessary.
• diaspora 2.0: The Indian Diaspora in the U.S. is uniquely positioned to foster communication and information technologies for enhancing and deepening engagement. Given the diaspora’s extensive talent in ICT it is possible to create virtual communities and devise ways sharing information and resources online. While social networks have emerged as the best medium to engage the diaspora, it’s essential to bring some order to the chaos of information available online. For example, several U.S. based non-profits working on social empowerment projects in India are currently competing for the Chase Community Giving Event. Though each organization approached its faithful supporters through Facebook and twitter, there was no attempt to involve the diaspora as a community by providing information on various organizations and monitoring the vote count for each. By voting for different charities, the collective strength of the diaspora was reduced with the possibility that no non-profit working on challenges in India secures the top slot. It’s important to use the communication tools to operate as a collective force rather than contribute individually.
• diasporacorps: Apart from sharing monetary resources it is important for the Indian Diaspora to share time and talent to make a difference on the ground. There is great scope to encourage diaspora volunteerism among the members of the Indian community based in US. Teach for India and Indicorps are some platforms that offer such opportunities. However, most of these volunteer opportunities tend to target youth and students, leaving a huge resource pool untapped. Technology professionals, teachers, small business owners, home-makers, farmers, nurses – Indian immigrants in every walk of life can contribute to social innovation in their own ways. It’s important to mobilize these members of the community and provide meaningful volunteer opportunities to them. Every member of the diaspora needs to be made aware of his/her potential as a volunteer.
• diasplomacy: Diaspora diplomacy is traditionally related to political lobbying for issues such as work permits, migration status or bilateral trade and strategic relations. Kathleen Newland of Migration Policy Institute has discussed in a Report, published in November 2010, the advocacy and lobbying trends and techniques among the various diaspora communities in the US. The Report appreciates the efforts of the USINPAC (US India Political Action Committee) in persuading the U.S. Congress to pass the 2008 Indo-U.S. Civilian Nuclear Agreement. Non-traditional mediums such as sports, arts and culture (which contribute to creating the image of India) need to be used strategically for advocacy purposes. Advocacy and diplomacy are the strengths of the Indian diaspora that can be employed in promoting creative partnerships.
• diaspreneuership: The entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian Diaspora has received numerous accolades in the U.S. and across the globe. It’s time to utilize the entrepreneurial skills in identifying opportunities in India, to exploit such opportunities as “first movers,” and to contribute to job creation and economic growth. The State Department plans to support diaspora entrepreneurs in investing and building enterprises as well as stimulating trade in countries of origin. This provides the Indian Diaspora the encouragement and support to contribute to India’s economic growth.
The Secretary’s Global Diaspora Forum sought to challenge diaspora communities to forge partnerships with the private sector, civil society, and public institutions in order to make their engagements with their countries of origin or ancestry effective, scalable, and sustainable. It is essential for the Indian Diaspora to take this challenge and actively contribute to idEA. Hopefully, the Indian Diaspora will contribute to this Alliance by providing innovative ideas for partnership and mobilizing the immigrant community to get involved in the emerging venture.
(Madhavi Bhasin is a Visiting Scholar at Center for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley and Program Coordinator at Global India Foundation. All views expressed here are those of the author and do not releflect the opinions of USINPAC.)