Tapping into Irish diaspora could make bi0g impact at home


Our diaspora is a great but little used resource; we should do as other nations have done, notably Israel and India

THE ECONOMIC forum of the Global Irish opening today at Farmleigh is a welcome initiative at a time when the country needs every break it can get. It’s also a welcome recognition that we have a formidable, well connected and talented resource in the Irish diaspora that can help in Ireland’s recovery.

The Irish diaspora is quite staggering in size and depth. In addition to more than 34 million Irish-Americans registered in the 2000 census, not including five million who claim to be Scots Irish, there are also 3.8 million Irish-Canadians, 1.9 million Irish-Australians and 500,000 Argentinians of Irish heritage. Add to that 800,000 Irish-born people living overseas, the 3.1 million Irish citizens living outside the country and the 72,000 Irish passports issued in 2007 alone and the sheer scale of this diaspora is both impressive and daunting.

World diaspora statistics are equally impressive. One person in 35 in the world is an international migrant and the number of people who have settled in a country other than their own is 180 million – 3 per cent of the world’s population. Each year more than three million people migrate. What were once globally dispersed communities are being brought closer together through developments in transportation and communications. The internet is now bringing a sense of sustained and immediate connectedness. People can be both “here” and “there” at the same time. Networking enables people to maintain simultaneous connections with two or more nation states.

More and more national governments are introducing diaspora strategies and recognising the role that key members of the diaspora can play in developing their home economies without having to return home permanently. Brain drain can become brain gain and brain exchange. Israel, India, China and Taiwan have led the way with innovative programmes all based on reaching out, identifying and engaging with their global populations.

India’s relationship with her diaspora is a useful pointer. The old flows of people in one direction and capital and technology in the other are being replaced by more complex and decentralised two-way flows of skill, capital and technology between specialised regional economies. There are 20 million people of Indian origin living in 70 countries worldwide. Their earnings equal two-thirds of the GDP of India, which has a population of more than a billion. The 1.7 million Indians who live in the US have enormous clout. Sixty per cent of foreign-born Indian Americans have university degrees – three times the figure for the US as a whole – and 46 per cent hold management or professional positions.

More than 300,000 people of Indian origin work in the IT sector in the US and, as they moved into positions of influence in the sector, they increasingly looked to connect with their homeland. In the US they proved in the 1990s that they had the complete range of skills for leadership within the sector.

They helped develop a mixed US/India business model with front offices in the US and back offices in India. With US input an Indian venture capital industry grew. There were 13,000 Indian science and engineering doctorate recipients at US universities between 1985 and 2000 – 58 per cent of them accepted jobs with US firms and stayed in the US but they kept their links with friends, family and professional contacts in India.

Israel is the gold standard when it comes to dealing with diasporas. Billions of dollars are raised annually through philanthropy and bonds. Tens of thousands of young Jewish people return to Israel annually on organised visits and the diaspora have driven the venture capital market. In the 1990s the Israeli economy experienced a dramatic transformation and emerged as one of the world’s leading countries of high technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Key to this was the engagement of their highly educated diaspora. In 1991 only one venture capital firm was operating in Israel. By 2000 more than 100 such firms were active and they invested $1 billion a year in start-ups which made Israel the third-largest recipient of venture capital in the world. From zero companies in 1990 there are now more than 100 Israeli companies quoted on Nasdaq.

As a global leader in the area of diaspora philanthropy, the Ireland Funds since 1976 has raised more than $300 million ($210 million in the past 15 years) and funded more than 1,200 organisations in Ireland and beyond. Its networks among the global Irish are now active in 12 countries and 39 cities. It organises more than 100 events annually, attended by 40,000 people, and has built a database of more than 100,000 names. What started as a purely philanthropic effort has become a network of people interacting with Ireland on many levels.

This week the Ireland Funds published a research report entitled A comparative review of international diaspora strategies that looked at what other countries are doing in this area, with a particular focus on Israel and India. Ideas suggested in the report include the setting up of an Irish diaspora electronic portal, developing the concept of the Global Irish 1000, building knowledge networks, devising programmes for the next generation and baby boomers, extending citizenship, exporting education, accelerating talent, growing venture capital funds, issuing bonds, recognising exceptional performance, initiating “asks and tasks”, growing philanthropy and convening regular meetings of committees to assist with Ireland’s economic recovery.

Diaspora initiatives are easy to start but difficult to maintain. There tends to be no shortage of interest and conferences but without specific “takeaways” or “projects” the initial enthusiasm dissipates.

Countries sometimes wrongly assume that their diaspora is a homogenous and tightly-knit group. In reality, the networks tend to be diffuse and diverse with a range of social, economic and ethnic characteristics. In fact, it can be argued that there is no such thing as an Irish diaspora, rather hundreds of different Irish diasporas. Such variety requires tailored strategies.

Countries sometimes try to engage as many members of the diaspora as they can but just because individuals are, statistically, members of a diaspora does not mean they have a sense of belonging. The key to success is identifying highly motivated individuals who are willing to stick with initiatives for a long time, battling against the odds and lending credibility to it.

In summary, then, Ireland’s diaspora constitutes an immense source of “soft power”. By implementing a comprehensive diaspora strategy this can be cultivated and converted into “hard impacts”. The key to success is developing a series of well researched initiatives and ensuring excellence in execution. Focus is being given to this area now by governments, business, non-profit-making organisations and academics, with NUI Maynooth leading the way in Ireland.

Ireland now has the opportunity of joining Israel and India as the three best countries in the world in harnessing the power and influence of their diasporas. The Farmleigh initiative is an excellent first step towards achieving that objective.

Kingsley Aikins is chief executive and president of the Ireland Funds. The full report, A comparative review of international diaspora strategies, can be downloaded from www.irlfunds.org