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African diaspora & COVID-19: Interview with Marie Chantal Uwitonze (ADNE)

The recent Global Diaspora Week addressing the COVID-19 crisis was organized by the African Diaspora Network in Europe (ADNE). We had a chat with Marie Chantal Uwitonze, ADNE’s President.

How is the crisis affecting migrants in Europe, in particular in terms of remittances and investment back home?

The Global Diaspora Week 2020 tackled the diaspora’s role in helping their home countries recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and how to turn the crisis into an opportunity.

It was an opportunity to learn about how the crisis is affecting the diaspora and their contributions through discussions/debates involving diaspora communities, African ministers, representatives of the European Union including the European Commissioner for International Partnerships, the private sector, and the civil society.

As for many other sectors and players, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an unequalled threat to the work of the diaspora in development.

In most cases, diaspora and migrant workers are already affected by work discrimination, which sees them employed in less secure sectors, with jobs that cannot be done remotely such as construction, hospitality, healthcare, tourism, food, agribusiness, transport and domestic care, among others. Some, mainly the newcomers, work in the informal sector and live in poor conditions where social distancing cannot be easily applied. The vast majority work part-time or are self-employed, therefore they do not have access to unemployment benefits and adequate social protection. Many are excluded from governments’ stimulus packages. The reduction of their incomes directly affects their savings and the amount they can send home.

Remittances are more than just money. The 100, 200 or 500 € sent monthly, embody an “act” of solidarity” and sacrifice from diaspora and migrant workers towards their families and the global recipient community to improve their livelihoods. This solidarity is itself affected.

Among the sending community, women are the most affected. They represent 50 per cent of the 200 million migrants and diaspora who send money home. At all levels, women are the most affected by the negative fallout from the crisis. They represent 70 per cent of migrants working in the social and health care sectors. Besides their direct exposure to health risks posed by the pandemic, the closure of schools also has consequences to their organization as they have to take care of children at home while they fight to cover their needs and the ones of their families.

It is very important for the diaspora and migrant workers to benefit from the “macro solidarity” to sustain the flows of remittances and their impact on development.

This would include promoting a universal health insurance package for all, thereby reducing the health-related effects of COVID-19. Governments could provide temporary permits to migrants, reduce the cost of public services and provide rental subsidies, as was done in Portugal. These measures would provide those migrants having limited means with a shelter against the negative effects of the pandemic on their lives.

Besides the adverse living and working conditions, the crisis also affected the cost of remittances, as many people faced obstacles in accessing low cost services. Some operators opportunistically increased their costs.

It is very important to encourage competition and collaboration by removing entry barriers for money transfer operators and enhance collaboration between operators, financial institutions and telecommunications companies to reduce remittance costs. Support to start-ups that are creating innovative and digital solutions to ease money transfers is also needed.

Which role can the diaspora play in helping the countries of origin tackle the current crisis?

Diaspora organizations and experts have been stepping up to support their communities of origin. There have been solidarity activities to support the homelands with financial support, donation of equipment, technical assistance and digitalization. Some of the key areas that are benefitting from diaspora support are business continuity and education.

To remain efficient, it is necessary to build the capacity of the diaspora to intervene in the development of their home countries by establishing tools for diaspora financing for development, such as Diaspora Bonds, as well as to integrate development cooperation policy processes in the host countries that can facilitate diaspora contribution to home countries.

In practical terms, African governments have initiated diaspora-friendly policies that are creating an enabling environment on the ground. For instance, at present there are 15 African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda, among others) that have set up diaspora-related institutions and ministries to deal more professionally with diaspora-led, development-related issues. In addition, the African Union Commission has created the African Citizens Directorate (CIDO).

It is time for home countries to invest in their diaspora. Some countries like Senegal have created funds to support the diaspora affected by COVID-19 and help with repatriation.

Other countries like Rwanda and Togo have built strong relationships with their foreign-born citizens, and diaspora representation structures are in place to facilitate dialogue.

Some of the challenges that hinder the work of the diaspora is their limited access to the funding allocated to development NGOs. In most cases, donors prefer their money to be managed by organizations with no experience on the development context of home countries.

The diaspora shall not be limited to a consultation role. They shall keep ownership of their initiatives. Therefore, it is important to build trust among partners and recognize – not simply with words – the role played by diaspora organizations and their status as civil society.

The current crisis creates the impetus for a broadening and deepening the engagement of the diaspora in existing and new development activities.

Can you provide some concrete examples of best practices that drew attention?

Some concrete examples are:

  • Connecting (highly) skilled diaspora members with opportunities in their respective home countries (coaching/mentoring).
  • Diaspora remittances to finance sustainable investments: the diaspora members are often entrepreneurs willing to invest in their countries of origin.
  • For technical assistance: the diaspora can contribute to capacity building, knowledge sharing and helping local entrepreneurs create projects and assist their growth.
  • In terms of improvement of the investment climate, diaspora members can be involved in the dialogue organized by EU delegations, for example with private sector help to identify blockages to investment at the country level in order to prioritize the reforms needed to boost private sector investment.

Diaspora investment is often intertwined with remittances. How is the current COVID-19 crisis influencing that relationship? Are there any opportunities to seize?

The COVID-19 crisis still presents an opportunity to rethink the relationship between the diaspora and their home countries.

The relationship between the diaspora and their home countries transcends remittances.

It is the moment to mobilize the skilled diaspora for knowledge transfer, technology exchange, investment advisory services and technical assistance.

The current crisis is also an opportunity to boost new technologies. For instance, the remittance channels have moved from cash-based transactions to technology-enabled ones such as mobile money.

Addressing barriers to the use of technologies in sending remittances may reduce the costs to sending.

Leveraging technology as a tool for reducing barriers to knowledge transfer by developing more ICT tools for education, coaching and capacity building can help reverse the brain drain.