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Book details how diasporas stay connected to home countries

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

LAWRENCE — It’s easy to see why Abel Chikanda, assistant professor of African & African-American studies and geography, would be interested in studying diasporas and their effects on the lands from which indigenous people have scattered.

Growing up in a small town in Zimbabwe before making his way to the capital, Harare, Chikanda felt compelled to leave his homeland to continue his studies in a place less chaotic and oppressive both economically and politically than Zimbabwe under the long-running (37 years thus far) authoritarian regime of President Robert Mugabe. Chikanda lived in Canada before moving to the United States.

A new book that he co-edited, “Diasporas, Development and Governance” (Springer, 2016), looks at the effects of emigration both on the “sending” country and within the displaced community. It’s an expansion on the theme of Chikanda’s doctoral dissertation, which looked at medical professionals who had left their homes in the global South.

“I was interested in what happens to professionals after their leave their home country,” Chikanda said. “Does it mean to say it’s really bad for the sending country? … Do they maintain any links at all with their home country? I was influenced by theoretical developments taking place in migration studies – the focus on migrant transnationalism. … I began to think deeply about the issue of migration and development. Migration is the new model for countries in the global South. People who move to other countries have a big role to play in the development of their home countries.”

Chikanda said the idea for the book grew out of his participation in a 2013 conference at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, that focused on diasporas.

Discussion at the conference, Chikanda said, focused on questions like “What are their roles in development? Is there any evidence that states or non-states try to govern diasporas? Are there any ways the states they come from have structures to control or channel their activities? There were a number of themes we identified from papers submitted for this volume.”

First, Chikanda said, is the notion of governing diasporas.

“A number of states are forming structures intended to govern their diasporas,” he said. “They may be supporting them to ensure they benefit from the diaspora. More than 20 countries have minister-level positions dedicated to reaching out to diasporas. It’s a way to assure they stay connected to the diaspora.”

On the other hand, Chikanda said, the members of the diaspora themselves may be ambivalent about maintaining those links.

“We argue in the book it’s not a homogenous grouping,” he said. “There are so many divisions within those communities that can be traced to the factors that led the individuals to leave the country in the first place — for example, disagreements with the government. The differences that existed in their home countries will not disappear overnight. … There are factional fissures within the diaspora.”

Chikanda said the authors found that diasporic remittances to relatives in home countries have a substantial effect.

“In 2015, diasporas sent $400 billion to the global South,” he said. “That has resulted in a lot of organizations jumping in to facilitate the flow of remittances.”

Chikanda said the book addresses the effect, too, of “nostalgic trade” borne of the fact that exiles “still maintain a taste for goods they used to consume. That has become big business … a huge factor in promoting trade between countries.”

The book also examines what Chikanda called diaspora networks.

“It challenged our initial thinking that when people leave for another country, that’s a brain drain on the country of origin,” he said. “But the case we present in the book is that networks develop between diasporas and home countries.”

He gave the example of a Ghanaian diaspora in Canada working with natives of their home country, using computer technology to close distances.

“Members of the diaspora form partnerships with Ghanaian universities,” Chikanda said. “They know there is a need for student mentoring and supervision. Through the network, a graduate student can go to a website and type in a few keywords and get in touch with that professional to help them in their projects. Through email, Skype and so on, they can still participate in their home country’s development.”

The book shows in different ways how strong the pull of home can be. After all, as that famous fictional Kansan, Dorothy Gale, said in “The Wizard of Oz,” “there’s no place like home.”

Photo: Abel Chikanda, assistant professor of African & African-American studies and geography, by Rick Hellman, KU News Service.


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