On 6 and 8 April 2021, we hosted a Regional Thematic Meeting on diaspora engagement in the Middle East and Central Asia (ME&CA) covering the following countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The event consisted of a public webinar followed by a government-only roundtable and paid special attention to diaspora skills transfer.
This event is part of a global series of multi-stakeholder regional meetings on diaspora engagement. The regional series offers opportunities to exchange on regional trends and practices, foster peer learning and establish connections. At EUDiF, we use the experiences and input collected to prepare for our upcoming global forum on diaspora engagement in June 2021, as well as to feed into longer-term programming.
The ME&CA event took stock of practices in the area of diaspora skills transfer from different perspectives and included testimonies from the region’s top officials, academics, diaspora members, private sector actors and other key stakeholders. Despite the varied standpoints, a number of patterns and common recommendations emerged:
Growing interest in diaspora skills transfer. Governments in both regions have a strong interest in attracting diaspora skills to reverse brain drain. This brain drain stems from political instability and lack of economic opportunities in these regions, including some of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the world. The massive migration of highly skilled citizens has led to a decline in the provision of some key social services. Governments did efforts to develop dedicated policies or initiatives to address these issues, but the level of the development and complexity of these initiatives is uneven between the two regions. Skills transfer has taken various forms over the past years, but we can see that it is predominantly focused on core development sectors (e.g. education, health).
Diaspora skills transfer is being recognised as a development force. Diaspora members can be pioneers in playing a vital role to connect societies to knowledge, bringing ideas back home and supporting the use of new technologies. Due to their emotional bond to their countries of heritage, their cultural and linguistic competencies and their access to local communities and connections, diaspora members are able to identify gaps and opportunities for skills and knowledge transfer. In some cases, this transfer of knowledge developed into structural exchanges, where diaspora members have become part of their governments back home, such as in the examples of programs in Uzbekistan or Iraq (Iraqis Rebuilding Iraq program) that aim to fil gaps in ministries with diaspora expertise.
There is a diverse range of knowledge transfer schemes. The discussion revealed common trends in both regions targeting different segments of the diaspora under three main models. Examples of these segments include the youth (e.g. Young Leaders Training Programme in Armenia), scientists and entrepreneurs. The three main models of human capital transfer schemes identified are:
- Government-led permanent talent attraction programmes: These programmes can be short term or permanent. For example, repatriation programs in Armenia or return migration programmes in Kazakhstan aim to encourage qualified nationals to return permanently to support their home countries’ development. Whereas in Egypt, a Science Hub for skills and knowledge collaboration and exchange has been developed, which aims to foster more dynamic relations between the diaspora and the country of origin.
- Targeted short-term human capital transfer programmes facilitated by international organisations: These programmes entail deploying expatriates with marketable skills for temporary assignments, most of them being volunteer-based (e.g. UNDP’s TOKTEN in Lebanon and IOM’s Connecting Diaspora for Development in Iraq).
- Initiatives led by diaspora knowledge networks: These initiatives involve scientists, doctors and engineers to support information sharing, training of local staff and investment projects (e.g. the German-Iraqi Management Training Academy and Pakistan’s Yaran-e-Watan medical diaspora programme).
Trust and co-ownership are essential. Diaspora skills transfer is heavily dependent on the level of trust between the diaspora member and the receiving institution in the country of origin. Egypt Can conferences are an example of trust-building activities. The government of Egypt has initiated a consistent dialogue and knowledge transfer mechanism where diaspora members have the opportunity to get to know the country and the government, and potentially contribute to its development according to national strategies. Skills transfer should be based on specific goals and the alignment of priorities between the country of origin and the diaspora, wherein they both own the process and the results of skills transfer initiatives.
Factoring context-specific parameters is pivotal. When developing programmes for skills and knowledge transfer, the local context should be taken into account. While diaspora members’ ideas and practices work well in foreign contexts, they need to be tailored to local conditions to avoid “copy-pasting” initiatives that might not fit the local realities. Moreover, the diaspora’s instinctive awareness of all context specificities should not be taken for granted.
Soft skills are essential for efficient skills transfer. The hosting institutions in countries of origin first need to have acquired the relevant soft skills to better attract skills and host diaspora members. This includes practical managerial skills, organisational development, project management, leadership skills and human resources development, among others. This gap in skills raises the opportunity for diaspora members to transfer not only hard skills, but also soft skills, to the receiving institution. Diaspora members also need strong soft skills, such as training and communication skills, to be able to lay the ground for transfer of hard skills to the local institutions.
The destination country has an important role to play in diaspora skills transfer. The destination country can put in place adequate policy frameworks to allow diaspora members to participate more easily in skills transfer programmes (e.g. allowing a diaspora member to return for a long period of time without losing their residence permit).
The heritage country also plays an important role in providing a functional system. Diaspora knowledge transfer should be backed by a functional system and a strong political will to enhance local conditions. This includes measures in the areas of mobility, political and economic rights, integration and training, supported by a competent local team and fair compensation for their work. However, it is important to be wary of creating tensions with local communities who might see diaspora as privileged agents.
Better communication about skills transfer options is needed. At this point, many diaspora members are not aware of such initiatives. In order to include them in the process, stakeholders should adopt an active approach to conducting outreach, raising awareness and communicating about such schemes and their results. The Ministry of Health in Pakistan carried out outreach activities when it launched the online Yaran-e-Watan platform, which allows Pakistanis to reach diaspora doctors online for medical advice. The ministry complemented the launch of the platform with press releases, as well as partnership agreements with diaspora organisations around the world to promote the opportunity. The platform grew in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, as diaspora health professionals were able to become part of the national fight against the pandemic.
Not enough time for an evaluation yet? Systematic evaluation of the short-term and long-term impacts of diaspora skills transfer initiatives will play a crucial role in determining their scalability. It is important for receiving institutions to extract lessons learned, as well as to communicate them to relevant stakeholders. Since diaspora skills transfer is a new approach to most countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, it would be possible to assess only the short-term– and potentially the medium term– impacts of these initiatives at this stage.
To continue the discussion on the contribution of diaspora skills transfer to today’s challenges, join the EUDiF Future Forum in June 2021!