Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Diasporas and Entrepreneurship

There is a very fine feature article up the Migration Policy Institute's website called Mobilizing Diaspora Entrepreneurship for Development.

Most debates about immigration focus on what migrants cost their host countries in social services and social coherence.  The valid but relatively weak counter-argument to this to point out the riches immigrants bring in terms of customs and languages and overall diversity.   But what if we added another element to this and started talking about immigrants and their descendants as job creators.  You know, the darlings of American politicians who must be coddled and their taxes lowered lest they flee and leave the United States in a state of perpetual high unemployment?  Somehow they don't seem to include immigrants in their definition of job creator (there is certainly very little coddling going on right now in the U.S. or France when it comes to migrants) but, as the MPI article clearly shows,  they should.

If you are going to play seriously in the global economy, the diasporans on your soil are one of your best assets.  As MPI says, "emigrants and their descendents are, in fact, uniquely positioned to recognize investment opportunities in their countries of origin and to exploit such opportunities by taking advantage of their ties in two worlds."  The diasporans know the language, have the contacts, and can smooth the way for their host countries to do business in the homelands by creating companies or helping host country businesses start ventures abroad. There are certainly a number of variables that have to be taken into account:  business and legal environment in both countries, infrastructure, availability of capital  and other factors like political instability or outright war, for example.  Nevertheless,  in the best of all possible worlds these transnational business ventures create jobs for everyone:  natives of both countries and migrants.

While host countries do not always see the bounty before them, the homeland countries do.  They harness the power of their diasporas by building transnational organizations that provide all manner of services to their diasporans from basic networking to mentoring, training and investment expertise.  The MPI article lists a number of these successful initiatives:  the Mexican Talent NetworkGlobalScot, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, IntEnt, and the Economic Initiatives and Migration Program (Programme Solidarité Eau) in France and Fundación Chile.

In adversity there is opportunity.  The migrant experience, however kind the host country may be (and they usually aren't) is one fraught with uncertainty and turmoil.  It is so hard to leave one's home for distant shores.  But in that experience migrants have and acquire more cards to play in the global economy than they know.  A modest suggestion?  Perhaps we could reframe the debate.

For example, to those who argue "English (or French or Japanese or German) Only" we can shoot back, "We will learn your language because it is to our benefit and because we want to feel at home here.  However, we will continue to speak our homeland language in our communities and in our homes and this is to your benefit because it will improve the position of this country in the global economy."

And the next time the word "immigrant' is thrown at us as an epithet, we might try gently but firmly replying:

"No, actually I'm a international job creator."

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