8 July 2014

Somalia: Diaspora Return a Major Benefit, but Still Dominated By Older Male Elite


The return of the many diaspora Somalis represents a new phase of diaspora engagement with Somalia. The well-discussed financial remittances still constitute a crucial instrument through which the diaspora is able to support communities across Somalia.

However, through their return the diverse and globally dispersed diaspora are also able to offer vital assistance to the country's reconstruction and development efforts.

Data on the scale of diaspora return is lacking. It is, however, broadly acknowledged, based on the increasing visibility of the diaspora in society, that there has been a steady increase in returns in the past few years. Debates regarding the role the diaspora can play in reconstruction efforts upon their return to Somalia are now increasing.

The increasing visibility of the diaspora in society is further reflected by the establishment of diaspora departments under government ministries. In October 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mogadishu established the Department of Diaspora Affairs to deal specifically with diaspora engagement.

The Somaliland Diaspora Agency, housed under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation was established by Presidential Decree in 2010. The Puntland Diaspora Department, housed under the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation was also established in 2010.

A recent study by HIPS and its project partners (Peace Research Institute Oslo and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs) set out to explore the motivations behind the burgeoning return of the diaspora from the United States and Norway, the types of return, and the nature of returnees' contributions to reconstruction and development efforts.

The study sought also to examine common non- diaspora perceptions of the impact of diaspora contributions to reconstruction and development efforts, whilst also considering the extent to which diaspora returnees' experiences in their host countries inform the decision to return.

Diaspora returnees frequently emphasize the sense of obligation and responsibility they feel towards their country of origin with the education and expertise acquired in their countries of resettlement.

While such sentiments appear to resonate with many diaspora Somalis, however, without specific opportunities - a job offer, a business initiative, or a political position, for example - return is not feasible.

A major facilitator of return is western citizenship. Citizenship enables mobility to and from Somalia. Many diaspora Somalis have families in their host countries unable or unwilling to return to Somalia yet. Citizenship enables frequent return trips to visit family members. In the event of a sudden deterioration of security in Somalia foreign citizenship may also support evacuation.

Equipped with relevant education, expertise, and financial capital from their countries of resettlement diaspora returnees engage in multiple sectors in Somalia. Contributions are not formulaic and cannot be clearly defined.

Trying to quantifiably measure the impact of diaspora returnees fell outside of the scope of this study. Different camps - government officials, diaspora returnees, and non-diaspora communities - privilege and prioritize certain needs over others and subsequently attempt to identify ways of addressing them.

The public and non-profit sectors attract most diaspora returnees with a desire to contribute towards the reconstruction and development of Somalia. Following years of conflict, capacity within the public sector throughout Somalia remains weak. In the absence of public health and education services, the non-profit sector plays an extremely important role as Somalia emerges from prolonged conflict.

Yet, the political sphere in Somalia remains dominated by an older male elite. Diaspora women and youth experience significantly greater barriers to entering high-level politics and are therefore less likely to return for this reason. Diaspora women and youth are, however, increasingly finding employment in the civil service or in advisory positions with senior government officials. Others also engage in contractual short-term research and consulting positions.

Return of diaspora Somalis reconfigures social and political relations within Somalia. The relationship between returnees and locals in Somalia is complex. Scantly explored, this topic merits greater understanding and debate amongst Somalis both inside and outside of the country.

Local Somalis demonstrate an appreciation of the long-standing contributions of the Somali diasporas. Indeed, financial remittances continue to be a vital source of income for households across the Somali regions. According to the 2012 Somalia Human Development Report, the Somali diaspora continue to remit approximately US$1.6 billion each year.

Generally non-diaspora Somali communities grasp the diversity among diaspora returnees. They distinguish, for example, between the 'good diaspora' who have been successful in their host countries, and the 'bad' ones who failed to take advantage of the opportunities that were available to them.

Unless widespread conflict re-emerges in Somalia, the diaspora will continue to return to their country of origin. Indeed, with sustained peace throughout the country the rate of return would be expected to increase.

The degree to which the diaspora are able to reintegrate into Somali society will ultimately define their contribution to its development. This requires a willingness on behalf of the diaspora to desegregate and pro-actively engage with the non-diaspora. It also requires the non-diaspora to embrace the return of family and friends that left Somalia during the prolonged conflict.

Reading of the current political and social landscapes in Somalia, in addition to the findings of this study, demonstrates the importance of proactively engaging with the issue of diaspora return.

The federal government - itself largely comprised of diaspora Somalis - recognizes the potential that 'diaspora capital' holds for the reconstruction and development of the country. Thus far, however, insufficient attention has thus been paid to fostering integration between diaspora and non-diaspora communities. Failure to foster integration will exacerbate divisions between the two communities.

Maimuna Mohamud is a researcher at HIPS.

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