Global Diaspora Forum in Dublin looks at creating opportunities at home and abroad

Migrants can spur economic growth and the exchange of ideas in their new homes, but can they do the same for their homelands?

About 3 per cent of the world’s population – 214 million people – live outside the land in which they were born. The value of migrants is being more greatly appreciated at a time when many countries – facing economic difficulties and stiffening public attitudes – are adopting restrictive immigration policies.

About 3 per cent of the world’s population – 214 million people – live outside the land in which they were born. The value of migrants is being more greatly appreciated at a time when many countries – facing economic difficulties and stiffening public attitudes – are adopting restrictive immigration policies.

Mon, May 13, 2013, 01:00

For decades emigrants, not just the Irish who flocked to Boston or New York, were envied by many of those they left behind.

Just as often, they were relied upon for badly needed remittances.

Today, however, the influence that diasporas of all nationalities can have on their home countries extends far beyond alms and is instead being seen as one of the most important “tipping points” in an ever-more competitive world.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, the possibilities will be explored at a two-day conference in Dún Laoghaire – the European leg of the Global Diaspora Forum, an initiative of former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Kingsley Aikins, who networked furiously (and successfully) for years at the helm of the American Ireland Fund, is seen as one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject, meeting officials from Catalonia, Moldova and Argentina in the past few weeks alone.

“There has been an explosion of interest in the last few years,” says Aikins. “Countries around the world are trying to figure out how to do this stuff. And a lot of them are looking at Ireland because we are an interesting model.”


Blood ties
In the past, ties with Ireland helped to bring a succession of US companies to the country, including the Ford Motor Company coming to Cork and Merrill Lynch coming to Dublin because “there were no Tullys in the Zurich phone directory”, to quote the company’s then chief executive, Dan Tully.

“The deal has got to be utterly and completely commercially viable: blood ties won’t reverse a situation where it is 80/20, but they can be the tipping point when it stands at 50/50, and a lot of things in life are 50/50,” says Aikins.

Now the Malaysians are seeking to connect with their fellows abroad, “to encourage them to come home with the skills they have learned or to create businesses in their home country”, while India went from being poor at connecting with its emigrants to being a world leader in a decade, Aikins adds.

Five countries – India, Israel, China, Ireland and Taiwan – are regarded as being “in the champions’ league” in developing ties with their diasporas. “But not all are equally good at everything. We’re better at culture than the Israelis, for instance,” Aikins says.

About 3 per cent of the world’s population – 214 million people – live outside the land in which they were born, says Robert Guest, Economist writer and the author of Borderless Economics .

“If migrants were a country they would be the fifth-largest country in the world and probably the most dynamic,” says Guest, who will be one of the speakers at the conference, along with Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore.

In the past, an emigrant’s connection with home died, or weakened substantially, the moment they arrived in a new land, though this has changed in the past 15 years because of the growth in low-cost communications and cheap flights.


Constantly in touch
“Now when a migrant arrives somewhere they can text their mother back home as soon as the aeroplane hits the tarmac. They can remain constantly and intimately in touch with the places that they came from because you can watch soap operas from the old country on your laptop,” says Guest.

“You can send money home in seconds. It is very easy to run a cross-border business with your cousin back in Karachi or Addis Ababa. This means that the networks that migrants create are a tremendously important force.”

For many, the classic illustration of a migrant’s influence is Chinese businesswoman Cheung Yan, who noticed on arriving in the US that locals threw away gargantuan quantities of waste paper.

“With the outsider’s ability to see things that are invisible to the native-born, she also saw that lots of ships were coming from China to America heavily laden but they were going back half-empty. She put those two insights together and turned it into a multibillion-dollar business.”


Family connections
In time, the waste paper was on its way to China to a recycling factory set up by Cheung using her family connections. Today, her company, Nine Dragons Paper, is neither American nor Chinese but has made “both countries richer by a very large amount”, Guest says.

Migration creates trust because emigrants can talk to someone back in China or Ireland or wherever – they know who to call. The person who is called trusts them because they went to school together, or they come from the same village.

“When you get information that you trust and that is relevant you can make decisions very quickly. You can seal a deal instantly, so it accelerates the flow of trade, investment, accelerates the flow of ideas. That is tremendously useful,” says Guest.


Restrictive policies
However, the value of migrants is being more greatly appreciated at a time when many countries – facing economic difficulties and stiffening public attitudes – are adopting restrictive immigration policies.

In the US, highly skilled foreign graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to get in to the country, or to stay on – a policy that has been described as stupid beyond belief by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In the UK, foreign student numbers are being cut by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which is under pressure to cut headline immigration figures to soothe public anger over housing, access to public services and just the changing face of British society.

“The British policy is completely absurd. Education is one of the UK’s biggest export industries. It’s as if the government was to tell Rolls-Royce that it has got to stop selling jet engines to foreigners. It is insane,” says Guest.

However, where Guest and others see the benefits of migration, others see only threats from immigrants – particularly for those on low wages, or those who believe they could end up on lower wages.

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