Diasporas shape politics

In October 14, 2010, it was announced by the Transition Federal Government in Mogadishu that Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed — a US citizen employed by New York’s Department of Transportation — had been appointed Prime Minister of Somalia. Most candidates running for the Liberian presidency in 2005 launched their campaigns in front of audiences in the United States.

By Terrence Lyons && Peter Mandaville

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Published: Mon 22 Nov 2010, 9:29 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Apr 2015, 1:22 PM

That same year, in the immediate aftermath of Ethiopia’s post-election crisis, both the ruling party and the opposition sent high-level representatives to address diasporas in Europe and North America. Until its defeat last year, the diplomatic and, to some extent, military strategies of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, or LTTE, in Sri Lanka were largely determined by figures in London and Toronto. Development experts and economists have long recognised the economic role of diaspora remittances, and national security analysts point to links between some diasporas and extremist movements. Less well understood is the question of how diasporas shape everyday political outcomes around the world — and how patterns of transnational politics are increasingly the norm.

The mantra “all politics is local” continues to ring true, but with globalisation those same politics may be determined by actors and processes playing out thousands of miles from the local setting. Whether trying to assess the impact of diasporas in terms of exacerbating civil wars or promoting peace, con-tributing to democratisation efforts, or transforming the meaning and practice of citizenship, the need to understand how diasporas shape political outcomes is paramount.

New forms of media from blogs to satellite television to SMS text messaging have expanded the geography of political agenda-setting. Many transnational movements strategically use segments of their constituencies in different parts of the world to advance a common agenda. Akin to a division of labour based on comparative advantage, each segment of the network pursues activities most effectively accomplished in particular locations.

So, for example, Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated networks might focus on fundraising in North America, where private philanthropy is more highly developed than in Europe, but use the United Kingdom as a base for coordination due to relative its proximity to the Middle East.

If an organisation is banned in one country, such as LTTE, fundraising and critical operations shift to other locations. When authoritarian regimes stifle political discussions and organisations in one location, as in Ethiopia, leaders and processes in other locations gain stature.

Migrant remittances — reaching an estimated $338 billion in 2008 in the developing world — remain part of the story in so far as political endorsements often accompany cash sent home. Large populations in war-torn Somalia as well as earthquake-devastated Haiti depend upon remittances &for survival.

Like all financial transfers, remittances have political consequences. In some cases patron-client relationships that have long existed within small communities have become globalised. Patrons with access to resources often live abroad. If someone in rural Liberia wishes to appeal to the central government in Monrovia for support, the closest social link may be to use a cell phone to call a relative in Philadelphia known to have political connections in the capital. Geographic distance does not prohibit political influence; physical distance matters less for patron-client relationships than social proximity. Neo-patrimonialism has gone global.

Moving beyond the conventional “ethnic lobbying” of host country governments, today’s transnational activists target a variety of pressure points. Ethiopian Americans, for example, have sought to influence Washington to change its policies toward Addis Ababa, actively pushing for the Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability Act in 2007. At the same time, they demonstrate in front of NGOs like the Carter Center, multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, media outlets like the Washington Post, and other locations of transnational influence. They reach out to human rights organisations, seeking to frame conflicts within Ethiopia as “genocidal” to counter Addis Ababa’s characterisation of opposition groups as “terrorists.” Facing political unrest after election, the Ethiopian state indicted opposition leaders in Addis Ababa, including two US university professors, and Ethiopian-Americans who ran websites and controlled campaign funds from abroad.

In some cases, governments and ruling parties in the homeland have tried to “reclaim citizens,” luring diasporas to remit money or invest in the homeland through granting political rights, including extraterritorial voting rights or reserved parliamentary seats for diaspora representation. But participation is low and tends not to have meaningful impact on political outcomes.

Diasporas linked to states and those that are stateless have distinct differences. Some of the most highly mobilised networks support movements to liberate a homeland, as among the Tamils, Eritreans, Palestinians, Irish, Armenians and Kurds. In these cases the perceived danger to one’s kin and the absence of a state to organise the nation’s defense foists that responsibility onto those in the diaspora who can speak for the vulnerable. In other cases the host country has a hand in mobilising a particular diaspora when geopolitical or security interests are perceived to be at stake — hence the role of the US government in activating Iraqi and Afghan Americans in the first half of this decade.

Beyond fundraising, conflict-generated diasporas often have symbolic attachments to the homeland and tend to see politics in stark black-and-white terms. The impulse to demand categorical goals may come more easily to those at a distance who don’t endure the costs of the violence. Symbolic politics or “long-distance nationalism” tends to strengthen confrontational leaders and undermine compromise.

Overall, diasporas do not seem pre-destined to play particular political roles or impose a specific qualitative impact on homeland politics. Like other political parties, interest groups or insurgencies, they mobilise to influence political agendas across the spectrum. Diasporas are not necessarily liberal or radical, tolerant or chauvinistic, anymore than political parties or interest groups are inherently liberal or radical, tolerant or chauvinistic.

Modern diasporas challenge contemporary notions of how political life should be organised. Globalisation and human migration disconnected the territorial state that regulates politics from the transnational actors and processes that influence outcomes. Some bemoan the emergence of long-distance nationalists who attempt to shape homeland politics, seeing them as irresponsible and dangerously unaccountable. But such transnational engagement is likely to grow as a part of political life in the coming decades.

Terrence Lyons and Peter Mandaville co-direct the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University. The research on which this article is based, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is forthcoming in “Globalisation & Diasporas: Local Politics from Afar” (Columbia University Press)

© 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation

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