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A diaspora for development? The role of DRC’s diaspora in the country’s future

As the Democratic Republic of Congo emerges from only its second peacetime election since 2003, the potential role of its Diaspora has come into sharp focus. I believe that the Diaspora could improve the odds of DRC transforming itself to become the Brazil of sub-Saharan Africa – the hub of continental economic integration. The Department for International Development (DFID) is taking steps to unlock this potential. It is to be hoped that after the election many more will follow.

How could the Diaspora from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),consisting of vast numbers of scientists, engineers, experts and entrepreneurs, help to achieve the electoral pledges of each of the 11 (male) Presidential candidates?

What role could the diaspora play in the realisation of their short-term (2016) development programmes and their long-term (2030) Development Vision to ensure that recent development progress, including an average rise in GDP of more than 5% between 2002 and 2009 is maintained and improved?

One glance at the main development indicators of one of the world’s largest countries (see map) to see how high the stakes are, and the potential role of the Diaspora.

The country has very low education attainment levels, for example, with only just over half of all children enrolled in school, and more than one third of the population illiterate. At the same time, DRC’s domestic private sector makes an insufficient contribution to the country’s real GDP growth in terms of private investment. What a difference the DRC Diaspora could make if it mobilised its significant savings– savings that are, at present, sent as remittances that only reach DRC through channels that are not cost effective. These are often informal, as I know from my own experience: my family had to send cash back via friends who were travelling to DRC in the 1970s, with all the risks that implies, until Western Union expanded its operations.

A role that needs recognition

The clear potential role of the Diaspora in DRC’s poverty reduction and development has gone largely unrecognised. The Diaspora was not included, for example, in the preparation of DRC’s Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (I-PRSP) in March 2002 or its first Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy Paper (PGRSP), even though domestic private sector stakeholders were involved.  The PRGSP 2006-2008 mentions the Government’s commitment to mobilise the resources needed for poverty reduction programmes.

While the long-term development vision emerged from the participatory process from which the PRGSP strategy is aligned I believe that it will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the Society of Hope by 2030 without the direct involvement of the DRC Diaspora.

The PRGSP makes only one mention of the Diaspora in its 126 pages, saying that The Government will tap the positive experience of the Migration for Development in Africa (MIDA) programme of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to ‘promote the transfer of skills and resources (both intellectual and financial) from the national diaspora to benefit the country in general, and the local initiatives in particular’. To this end, a National Migration for Development Programme has been initiated, which allows members of the Diaspora to return to DRC temporarily, for example to teach in universities.

Cape Verde, in contrast, has an entire Chapter of its 2009 Diagnostic Trade Integration Study (DTIS) devoted to its Diaspora, and  a sub-section on ‘Mainstreaming diaspora and mobility policies’. In DRC, the DTIS 2010 DRC study is virtually silent on the Diaspora.

DRC has missed an opportunity to discuss the following key issues: the size and distribution of its diaspora; migration-development links and intervention opportunities; mobilising migrants’ financial resources; mobilising the skills of returnees; assistance to become entrepreneurs; attracting skilled workers; and employment of Congolese abroad via Circular Migration as well as improving information on the Diaspora and communication with its members to fill the information gap.

The question now is whether the new Government, will recognise the Diaspora as an important resource for development. Will it mainstream the contribution of the Diaspora and of mobility policies into all economic and social policies, rather than treating this  as a separate issue? Mobilising and incorporating the Diaspora will require concrete projects and specific mechanisms for identification and recruitment.

A systematic review of the 11 party programmes finds only one that  will encourage the return of Congolese talent to DRC. But there is experience to draw on elsewhere. For example, the Danish Refugee Council has established a Diaspora Fund to tap into the energy, expertise and cultural knowledge of the Diaspora while coupling development funding to the Diaspora’s own economic transfers.

Next steps

In March 2011 the DRC Embassy in Brussels organised a seminar for the DRC Diaspora on the possibilities of financing job creating activities in DRC (cf. paragraph 386 of the 2006 PRGSP). The needs identified at that seminar will feed into a two-day economic forum in Brussels in March 2012.

In addition, the EC’s Business Climate facility financed Forum involves the DRC’s Ministry of Finance and Planning to ensure that results are integrated into the Government’s overall programming framework. The forum will focus on the transfer of funds between EU and DRC and their channelling towards economic and social development projects. There will be a special emphasis on the use of new technologies, especially mobile banking to reduce the costs of transfer and increase the socio-economic impacts of these external resources.

The Forum is  a timely follow up to the recent private sector event organised by  ‘Business Action for Africa’ and the Diaspora-led initiative ‘British African Business Alliance ‘focusing on the ‘role of Africa’s Diaspora in driving investment, enterprise and jobs in Africa’. This explored practical initiatives and sources of finance to harness the Diaspora for development impact in Africa, and the lessons on how to do this most effectively.

This event was followed the next day by an unprecedented meeting at DFID, where the Africa Directorate invited the UK’s leading African diaspora communities to share their views and opinions with DFID directly for the first time. They also sought advice on how the UK Government can improve the sustainability and development impact of its interventions in Africa by involving the Diaspora investors and entrepreneurs more systematically.

These events have paved the way for a greater – and very welcome – focus on the critical role of the Diaspora in the development of their own countries.