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Engaging the Diaspora: how, when and where Shaping out workable Methodology

By Eyassu Epheraim, London
Tigrai Online - June 15, 2013

Soon the Minister for Foreign Affairs (MOFA) will inaugurate the new diaspora policy.  Representatives of the diaspora community are expected in Addis Ababa from all over the world.  There they will have the chance to see in their own eyes the economic and social progress transforming Ethiopia.

Those lucky enough to attend will be the first to see and evaluate the new diaspora policy.  I hope the new policy contains all the mechanics to help connecting the diaspora with the homeland.  By a stroke of luck MOFA may have used one of the suggestions in this policy proposal:[1]

  • IIPP: Insurance and Investment Protection Policy: for Ethiopians working in the Middle East, Africa and similar countries
  • Connecting high skill diaspora with homeland through higher education
  • Harmonising the new generation diaspora (born, brought up in the West) with homeland

Since I have not seen the new diaspora policy document I cannot comment on it.  However I would like to discuss some of the issues which have been lurking in my mind for long: the debate on diaspora versus homeland.  To do that I divide my discussion in four sections as following: First I dissect diaspora’s anatomy and filter out the reality from the myth.  Second, from my own prospective which may be true for the majority of the diaspora, I will discuss what I call the three-dimensional diaspora’s dilemma: philosophical, reality and moral.  Third the Ethiopian’s dilemma: to choose between remittances or brain; accommodating the socioeconomic need of the diaspora and fighting its own demons, a bureaucracy imbedded with a feudal moral code.  Fourth based on the last discussion I shall define the methodology of engaging the diaspora: answer key questions how, when and where.

Diaspora’s anatomy

The word diaspora originated from Greek: A diaspora (from Greek διασπορά, "scattering, dispersion") is "the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established homeland" or "people dispersed by whatever cause to more than one location", or "people settled far from their ancestral homelands"[2].  So whoever lives outside their homeland belongs to the diaspora.  We can find diaspora in East, West, North and South Africa, or the Middle East, the Far East, the West, North and South America.  Following the fall of the Solomonic dynasty we Ethiopians have been scattered all over the world, these days it is hard to find a country not hosting the Ethiopian diaspora.  Even if fate put us in different parts of the world, I could argue that the favourite destination for Ethiopians is first the US, second Europe, third the Middle East, fourth Australia, fifth South Africa, East Africa and so on.

Our movement or migration has been triggered by political, economic and social needs.  Here without get into detail I can say that in the 70s and 80s Ethiopians fled from their homeland to avoid political persecution, followed by famine and civil war including the Ethio-Somali war.  In the 1990s and 2000 more and more people fled as a result of economic and social need, as in the case of the US green lottery; job opportunities in the Middle East, from domestic servants to pilots.  This movement has also been supported by a favourable immigration policy by the sending and receiving countries in the case of East and South Africa.

The Ethiopian diaspora can also be differentiated by socioeconomic difference; demographical differences and by the aspiration and the goal of each diaspora.

First in the diaspora community, there are those who have achieved a high socioeconomic status up to those who do not possess any socioeconomic status at all in their respected host country.  It is quite common to see success and despair in the diaspora community around the world.  This particular point needs to be understood when we talk about the diaspora.

The second point we need to understand is the demographic differences among diaspora, particularly in age, the old ones, the middle aged, the young ones and even the toddlers.  This helps us to redesign a policy and forecast the diaspora’s contribution to the homeland. 

Third, following the demography, we need to have a clear understanding of the aspiration and goals of each diaspora.  The diaspora community has short and long term social and economic goals.  Here we can have a diaspora with short term economic goals, such as finding a job and making money to go back home: this may be true for those who travel to the Middle East.  Others may have a long term economic interest: they travel, settle, acquire the host citizenship: this may be a more suitable description for those who travel to the US, Australia and Europe: on the other hand others may have neither a long term nor a short term plan but just wait for the right opportunity to come: this may be true when we look at those who have migrated into less developed countries such as Kenya, Uganda even South Africa.  To make our discussion much easier it would be best to divide the diaspora into three categories: A, B and C.  Category A refers to the diaspora living in the West (EU, US, Canada, Australia and Switzerland); category B refers to the diaspora living in the Middle East (Saudi, Dubai, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and so on and the former Soviet Union and Russia, China, India so on) and category C refer to those living in Africa, Latin America, Pakistan etc).  

This dissection is just touching the surface in relation to diaspora categories; in fact there are so many ways we need to look at the diaspora, even on a case by case basis.  So when we ask the diaspora to come home and participate in the economy we need to know exactly which diaspora we are talking about.  All diaspora do not share the same socioeconomic status.  The age variation goes from infant to 100 and their ambitions and goals can be short or long term social or economic gain.  So by no means we can put all diaspora in one basket and measure by the same stick.

So when we ask the diaspora to come home and contribute to development by in large we are talking about those who have achieved a certain degree of socioeconomic status in their respected host country: through education, work, business and so on.  At the same time we are talking about the working age diaspora.  This group may also come under those who fulfil their long term aspirations and goals.  After we agree on the diaspora categorisation we can move to the next discussion point: diaspora’s three dimensional dilemmas; philosophical, reality and moral.

The diaspora’s dilemmas: philosophical dilemmas

One of the philosophical dilemmas for the diaspora is the purpose of life.  Is it fulfilling the day-to-day life, giving life to others or paying back?  This may be true for most diaspora connected to the Ethiopian political movement.  Nowadays is it also easy to observe the same dilemma facing the young Ethiopian diaspora.  From my experience this moral dilemma has created a huge moral deficit.  As you may agree, life is not all about putting food on the table.  Particularly for us life should have more purpose.  That purpose is nothing less than serving the public and the country for a better future.  However for some of us it does not matter how much we have a holistic vision, there are issues which hold us back.

The reality

One of the issues is the reality on the ground, which may be divided into two sections, reality in the host country and reality in the homeland.  At the same time we have to think of the social and economic reality.  This complex reality is not easy to address without a deeper understanding.  Let us look at one hypothetical example: a middle aged man with twenty years work experience, a family with two children and wife, within the middle income category may want to go back home.  If this person wants to go home he would need to replicate his host country living standards; housing, education for his children, health for his family and so on.  In reality his home country cannot match what he and his family are accustomed to in their host country.  Here we can find a point where his philosophical dilemma and reality meet and clash.

Moral dilemma

Depending on the individual, at this point the moral dilemma creeps in.  Some may say that, after all, this is my country, my home, my people so if I am not the one who can make a difference who else can it be.  In this moral dilemma, very few indeed may accept the reality and compromise.  By doing so those who accept the reality will overcome the demon of their dilemmas.  But a large number of the diaspora particularly in this group (middle age, middle income and with family) may continue to stay in their host country with remorse and gilt.  For most diaspora it is not easy to find a middle ground.

This will take as to the next point:  the Ethiopian dilemma which is to choose between remittance or reverse the brain drain; the ability and inability of accommodating the socioeconomic needs of the diaspora and fighting its own internal demons: bureaucracy shaped by a feudal moral code.

The Ethiopian dilemma: remittance or brain?

After the success of the Chinese and Indian diaspora it has now become fashionable to talk about the contribution of the diaspora to the economic development in the homeland: China 55 million strong diaspora community has contributed 60% of China’s total foreign direct investment and the same way 20 million strong Indian diaspora community has contribute just less than 10% for Indian’s FDI.[3]  Now Ethiopian officials join the diaspora wagon after the inauguration of the new diaspora policy on June 15th 2013 in front of the Ethiopian diaspora representatives around the world.  However as well as the diaspora community, the government also has to overcome its own dilemma.  Even if the new diaspora policy provides an answer for it, I would still like to say a few points in case they are missed out.  This is a catch-22 situation for Ethiopia whether the government want the diaspora to stay in their host country and send money or we want them back to serve the country.  Theoretically if we agree with the first point, Ethiopia has to give up over $1.5 billion in remittances[4] but if we agree on the latter Ethiopia has to work on how to reverse the brain drain which cost us billions, “a recent study presented at the National Symposium on Ethiopian Diasporas revealed some shocking numbers, with the country losing about 75% of its skilled professionals over the past ten years.”[5]  Furthermore “according to research by Canadian scientists, nine African countries known to produce a large number of qualified professionals in the medical field are losing the equivalent of US$2 billion per year due to their healthcare professionals seeking employment in wealthier countries.”[6]  We can agree that reversing the brain drain is neither practical nor desirable.  For this there are so many explanations; but it is beyond the scope of this article, so I swiftly move to my main point.

If the government design an accommodating policy it would be possible to utilise the best diaspora brains and their hard earning money.  But to do so the government has to deal with issues: first understanding the socioeconomic needs of the diaspora, second fighting its own internal demon bureaucracy which has been shaped by a feudal moral code.

Socioeconomic needs:

What do we mean by the socioeconomic needs of the diaspora?  Simply competitive wages, housing, health, education, utilities, security and soon.  As we discussed earlier when the diaspora community left their homeland they did so for a better life.  Once they have achieved it, in order to return, most diaspora would want to replicate what they are accustomed to in their host country.  So the government of Ethiopia has to go the extra mile to accommodate the socioeconomic needs of the diaspora if they want to reverse the brain drain at least by 5 to 10%.

Some may argue why the diaspora should get a preferable treatment while hardworking citizens carry on the burden of underdevelopment and so on.  It is hard to dispute that fact but we need to look at this issue without sentiment and prejudice.  Again this is beyond the scope of this article, I may go back on this issue in a different article.  For now I would say that most diaspora particularly in category A have acquired knowledge, knowhow, experience which is crucial for economic development more than people left in the homeland.

Ethiopian’s internal demon

One way or another, the government must fight with its own internal demon the bureaucracy: the bureaucracy which has been shaped by a feudal moral code.  Particularly this is more important for those who do not have any experience or have less experience of the Ethiopian bureaucracy.  Diaspora who has been outside the country over two, three or four decades or never been in Ethiopia at all should not be expected to work effectively with the bureaucracy unless government deals with this demon.  This may be a long process; a system which has been over 100 years old cannot and will not go overnight.  But recognising the problem may help redesigning a suitable diaspora policy.  In addition unless we narrow down the urban/rural divide the demon of dysfunctional bureaucracy will remain with us for the unforeseen future.  But as a short term strategy the government has to try and retrain the bureaucracy to become a more effective communicator: flexible, effective trouble shooter: creative, hospitable, responsible, visionary and fit for purpose.  This has to be measured with different yardstick such as constant customer satisfaction surveys.

So far we have seen three main points, first we have dissected the anatomy of the diaspora; second we have examined diaspora’s dilemma and third Ethiopia’s dilemma.  As we have seen, the issues are interwoven and depend on each other, the country needs the diaspora and the diaspora need the country.  Sometimes we see a symbiotic relationship; in order to get the best out of the diaspora the country has to take extra measures and at the same time the diaspora have to do the same.  At other times we see contradiction and conflict, for example most diaspora left the country for a better future and will not return unless they are able to replicate their standards of living whilst the country expects them to share their fair share of the burden.

The methodology: how , where and when

In addition we have seen harmony and conflict, shared values and conflicting values; common goals and individual goals.  Knowing this may help finding a middle ground whereby government and diaspora can work together.  To do so first we have to define the methodology of engaging the diaspora: how, when and where.

Before I move on to my last point I would like to add a few points on motivation. What motivates people to do what they want to do? According to Maslow’s Theory of Motivation there are five motivational factors:[7]
  1. Physiological Needs - The basic needs for survival have to be met, such as food, water, sleep, and homeostasis. Without these basic needs one cannot possibly think about anything else beyond how to survive.
  2. Safety - This stage includes feeling safe and secure; maybe the person has some source of income, health, and a place to call home. If we do not feel safe and secure, whether it be for bodily safety or safety of resources, it is all consuming and hard to think of anything else in a productive way.
  3. Love/belonging – The person has some sort of friendship, relationship with family, or sexual intimacy. This is a feeling of belonging, which we all want to feel and leads to the next step.
  4. Esteem – This need includes a good feeling of self-esteem and maybe a sense of achievement, which results in a show of confidence, respect for others, and respect by others.
  5. Self-actualization – The final stage encompasses an acceptance of facts, a lack of prejudice, spontaneity, creativity, and the ability to problem solve. This is the point in one’s life where people can see the potential in themselves and act on it.


Once we know human motivational factors it can be easy to construct a methodology on how to engage with the diaspora.  From personal experience and as most diaspora would agree, the diaspora in category A by no means come home to fulfil their physiological needs and needs of safety.  Hence once a diaspora has settled in the host country they are more likely to have fulfilled those factors.  As far as the need for belonging is concerned, it is difficult to argue whether the diaspora has fulfilled that motivational factor or not: I would say there is 50/50 chance.  The last two motivational factors are not easily fulfilled.  Here I can point out that most high achiever diaspora are always looking back at their homeland more than others, arguably those who sing Men-yazea lemeles wede enate bet.[8]  This is where the government is expected to be diaspora savvy.  If the government think the diaspora is concentrating only on the first three motivational factors in order to come back home, the government defiantly is making a mistake and the strategy will be wrong.  Once the government identifies the motivational factors it would be easy to engage the diaspora according to what motivates them to come home.  Should the country be unable to provide adequately for the first and the second motivational needs, it is less likely that the country attracts those diaspora in category A.  That may be true even for those diaspora in category B and up to some extent in category C.


Following that assessment the next step has to be where to engage the diaspora; some may argue in the home country, yes it is obvious but that is not the only way.  With a well-organised institutional set up it is possible for the diaspora community to serve the country from their host country.  For example a lecturer from the US can give a lecture directly for multiple universities via video link.  A medical doctor can give a lecture or medical advice directly via video link for his audience.  This may apply across professions where this kind of knowledge transfer is possible. 

Another possibility is mobilizing the diaspora for project work, for example drafting a city master plan, commenting on an existing plan, mobilizing the diaspora to study a new policy, commenting and suggesting new ideas on social, economic and foreign policy from their host country.  It is possible to mobilize the diaspora for IT projects and make them contribute from where they are.  This methodology definitely has two main benefits for both, first the country can mobilise the best brains across the globe, whilst maintaining the source of remittances.  On the other hand some of the diaspora do not need to relocate from their job and family but still provide a great contribution to the country.  This approach may have more sustainability and cost effectiveness than the physical presence of the diaspora in the homeland, which is the subject of my next discussion.

There is no doubt that the country needs the diaspora on the ground, a heart surgeon or an engineer cannot do their job from a distance.  Here there are two elements involved: first getting the diaspora for work on an ad hoc basis and second if absolutely necessary relocating the diaspora for longer or permanently.

Pulling the resources of the diaspora on an ad hoc basis can provide both parties with enough room to manoeuvre.  This might prove a much better way to retain the diaspora without creating friction, frustration and disappointment.  This allow also the diaspora in category A to fulfil all five motivational factors and overcome their philosophical and moral dilemmas.  Whilst Ethiopia as a the country would secure a stream of high calibre brains constantly exposed to new knowledge, capital and knowhow.

Despite all these options there are still so many industries which may need full time attention and permanent presence.  In that case the diaspora may need to relocate and the government has to be prepared to accommodate all reasonable demands presented to them.  All three forms of methodology to engage the diaspora exclude those who return back to start their own business.  Those diaspora may come from category A, B and C.  A one-size-fits-all policy may not be effective enough to engage them.  This is where the government needs to use all policy instruments to utilise the diaspora potential.

On the other hand the diaspora can be directly linked with their home country without ever leaving their host country.  Diaspora can achieve more in their host country and still be valuable for the homeland.  As we know the diaspora connects with their host country community through different networks, social, marriage, work and education.  By using this connection and networks the diaspora can become an economic and political ambassador for their country without diplomatic status.  In fact it is the responsibility of Ethiopian missions across the world to know and understand this mechanism, provide appropriate support and maximise the benefits.  This is by itself a huge discussion point and it is outside the scope of this article.  I invite others to discuss the issue or I shall cover it when the need arise.  Now I shall move on to my last point.


Finally in order to get the best out of it, the call for the diaspora should not be dependent on a few high profile events such as the Ethiopian Millennium or the Great Renaissance Dam.  The diaspora has to be able to participate from village water projects up to grand projects in Ethiopia; from village schools to universities.  That may answer the last question, when?  Even if my focus has been on category A, there is immeasurable social and economic benefits to come from categories B and C, provided we can get a deeper understanding of their motivational factors.  It may be the right time to ditch the cadre mentality and acquire a business mentality: in that way we can speak the same language.

[1] Diaspora Policy Proposal : To the Minister for Foreign Affairs - Diaspora Desk : By Eyassu Epheraim London UK:  January 2012: submitted to MOFA through Ethiopian Embassy London: unpublished 

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora

[3]www.gopio.net/India_China_0703.docý: Indian Economy is set to beat china – thanks to the Indian Diaspora: by Sunil Prasad, Belgium

[4]The National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) said that official receipt of remittance to Ethiopia grew to 1.5 billion dollars in the fiscal year to 8 July 2011, registering an 88 percent increase over its value in the previous year. Remittance to Ethiopia Grows by 88% : by Yelibenwork Ayele Monday, 22 August 2011 09:26 Ethiopian Business News - Banking and Finance : http://www.2merkato.com/20110822302/remittance-to-ethiopia-grows-by-88

[5]http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2011/07/10-countries-facing-the-biggest-brain-drain/  10 Countries Facing the Biggest Brain Drain

[6]Ethiopia amongst worst hit in African brain-drain By Tesfa-Alem Tekle: November 25, 2011 (ADDIS ABABA) : http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article40824

[7]http://motivation-project.wikispaces.com/Humanistic+Theories+of+Motivation#Maslow: Humanistic Theories of Motivation

[8] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmccK_B2lMg :

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