Research and knowledge are the foundations of the EUDiF project and we are always excited to discuss and share research that delves into different facets of diaspora engagement for development. When our friends at Comdu.it, told us one of their team was using her PhD to explore the role of the Tamil diaspora in development processes in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, we were eager to learn more.
As well as being a researcher for Comdu.it, a Tamil diaspora organisation based in Germany, Thivitha Himmen is a PhD student at the Fulda University of Applied Sciences currently in the research phase for her thesis which is due to be completed in September 2024. She kindly shared her experience and reflections on the impact of diaspora involvement in development cooperation which is both the theme of her thesis and the inspiration for her volunteer work.
Thivi, your passion for development cooperation – and for the Tamil diaspora as a development actor – is clear. Can you tell us more about how this passion crossed from your personal, to professional to academic life?
Thivi: Like many children in the diaspora, I grew up seeing the discrepancy between the realities of life in Germany and Sri Lanka. In my experience, many people in the diaspora want to do something to make things better for the people in their homeland. Our parents have set an example through their unceasing support.
I always wanted to be involved in development cooperation and learned as much as I could about the “how-to” in my social sciences studies. When I analysed the empowerment (living life on one’s own terms) of disadvantaged people in Germany as part of my Master’s thesis, I made a discovery: disadvantaged people are most likely to improve their circumstances themselves when they are supported by people with the same cultural and linguistic background. When a person from a particular community takes a step forward, that person is more likely to bring about change within the community because members identify with or trust this person to also take a step. This means that empowerment – the goal of development cooperation – best comes from within a community itself, not from outside. People from a community know best what they want and how to achieve their goals, they have the inside perspective.
When I gained work experience in traditional development cooperation at a government institution, I realised that it was precisely this internal perspective that was missing as the personal experiences of people working in the field of development cooperation are often very far from those of the target community. I wondered what development cooperation would look like if it were organised by people with a similar cultural and linguistic background. Would the goals be different? Would the communication, trust and activities be different? These questions inspired my dissertation in the context of the Tamil diaspora.
You volunteer as a researcher for a Tamil diaspora organisation, Comdu.it Deutschland. How does the organisation fit into your current studies?
Comdu.it Deutschland is an organisation whose members are second generation Tamils in Germany. While in the beginning it facilitated trips to NGOs in the North and East of Sri Lanka for interested volunteers, it is increasingly focusing on more sustainable initiatives, such as skills transfer activities. For example, teachers in Sri Lanka are trained in online teaching methods by diaspora members who are teachers in Germany. Seeing how well these offers are accepted and how excellent the communication is excites me – not least because the training is in Tamil. This inspired me to take a deeper look into why diaspora engagement seems to work so well here, which I am investigating for my thesis.
In my literature research I was able to collect knowledge about do’s and don’ts of development cooperation from development experts, but also a lot about us – the diaspora – and our identity and affiliations. Comdu.it gives me a platform to pass on this knowledge so that we can do our work responsibly.
On that note, you have developed guidelines for Comdu.it on how to cooperate with partner organisations in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Why is this important to you and what can other diaspora organisations also look out for?
We can all learn from the successes and failures of 60 years of development cooperation in order to work more purposefully. Drawing on my theoretical knowledge and practical experience, I developed these guidelines around 10 principles, but the one that comes first for me is ownership. Ownership in this context means that our local partners see the project as their own by the end of the project at the latest. This can be achieved if our projects serve their needs and relevant decisions are taken by the people on the ground: Even if our diaspora members are experts in their field and can contribute this perspective, our partners in Sri Lanka are the experts in their circumstances, needs and goals. Therefore, in all Comdu.it projects, we consciously make sure to play a supporting – not dominating – role for our partners.
You also give workshops in Comdu.it for reflections. Why?
One of the other principles in the guidelines is the importance of reflecting on ourselves as actors. Even though I see that diaspora members already have a lot of insight and respect for the partners in the North and East of Sri Lanka, it does not mean that it is a holistic understanding. I know from the academic literature – and have observed it in myself as well – that diaspora members might simplistically think: “These are our people. We are in the same boat and we have the same goals”. The workshops I run are about reflecting on where differences in privileges, imprints and experiences can lie.
From analysis of earlier development projects, we know that development actors well-meaningly did not question what they thought was right and wanted to impose it on countries of the Global South. Active reflection can help to understand early on what one’s desires are and how they differ from the desires of people in Sri Lanka. Reflecting on why the desires are different helps us to better design our support. For example, in the diaspora we may consider issues with longer-term benefits such as climate change or mental health to be important and overlook the fact that the war-affected people are likely to not have head space for these issues at the moment but prioritise economic stability.
Why is your research important for the development community?
My research so far suggests that people in Sri Lanka show trust in diaspora members when they speak their language, can pick up on gestures and mimic, cultural and historical references or show that they share their value system. As trust is fundamental in (development) cooperation, socialisation, language and ethnicity may play a larger role in this field than expected. This implies that development cooperation organisations could profit from more diverse professionals at all levels. Not only could this help in successfully communicating while implementing projects, but culturally sensitive management may lead to new goals and approaches.
Thank you for sharing your journey so far with us, Thivi. All the elements you raise provide food for thought for everyone in the diaspora-development ecosystem and the full results of your PhD will certainly be of interest for the Tamil diaspora and far beyond.
Comdu.it presented at two sessions during the first Future Forum in June 2021. Check out the highlights from Diaspora 4 Green: Catalysing Action (pg. 25) and Diaspora Networks: Hows & Whys (pg. 16) in the conference report.
Photo: Vallipuram, Jaffna by Diluckshan Puviraj. To see more of Diluckshan’s work, visit his website: https://leapinglight.photography/