Interview with Cindy Horst: “Diaspora provide a lot of humanitarian and development aid and it is a pity that we do not recognize or support their contributions more.”

Cindy Horst, an academic and anthropologist, specializes in research on diaspora engagement. She focuses on the contributions that people with transnational connections make, and believes that research on diaspora contributions can challenge some of the negative perceptions about migrants. In her viewpoint, in academic and public debate ethnicity and migrant background are still seen as defining characteristics of individuals, which is limiting.

What is the origin of your interest in diaspora issues?

Both for my Master’s and PhD, I researched support networks at the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, which since 1991 host a large community of Somalis. Life in the Dadaab camps needs to be understood by studying the transnational connections of refugees. It would have been impossible for the refugees to only live on the food rations that international agencies distribute. My interest in diaspora came from the fact that the Somali communities across the world have very strong ties, and they actively use those connections to support each other and as a mobilising tool.

What informs and drives you in your work? 

I just got back from an inspiring conference organised by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM). We organized a panel where we discussed new ways of representing refugees. Especially in the media refugees are often represented in dehumanising ways as either vulnerable victims or as people not really deserving protection, which is far from reality and extremely limiting. What drives me in my work is the necessity to challenge misrepresentations without replicating the power relations that create them. We must think of different methods to produce an image of their life and their motivations that is reflective of their story. One of my main roles as an academic is to challenge people to see things from different perspectives, which can enable them to start acting differently. I think we should take this step even further and actually start working together with the people we write about when producing content. There are a lot of ways to co-create academic knowledge, for example we could train them to undertake doctoral research, etc.

Do you think that diaspora communities can play a different role in comparison with more traditional actors active in the sector? If yes, what are the features that connote diaspora communities as prominent actors in transnational activities and in the international human aid sector?

In different parts of Europe there have been attempts to engage diaspora communities in humanitarian and development aid. Somalis around the world for example do an incredible amount of aid work with very limited resources. All these actions happen outside the international aid frame, which has a series of advantages. For example, while accountability in the traditional international aid practice is based on technical measures, accountabilities of diaspora actions are based on personal relations and follow-up through social media. This aid is provided more quickly, it can reach many more areas and the diaspora has the necessary linguistic and cultural competence. At present, integrating diaspora communities in the international aid system is challenging mainly because diasporas are asked to fit into a specific frame of international support. According to me, this is not what diaspora support is about.

In your opinion, what are the pros and cons in delivering projects in cooperation with diaspora communities and organisations?

It really depends on how projects are delivered. Practitioners must be open to confront their ideas, without assuming that one system is better than the other. We should draw on the advantages that both parties have: on the one hand, diaspora’s flexibility, quickness and capacity to access many areas, on the other the structure and continuity of traditional organisations. It would help to observe and acknowledge what other parties are doing, in order to establish actions that are complimentary to each other and do not replicate one another.

Are you aware of any partnership already established among cross-sector stakeholders when it comes to diaspora engagement?

I also catch myself talking about diaspora communities and institutions as if they were separate elements, but people can have different roles at different times in different contexts. For example, there are Norwegian Somalis who have prominent roles within NGOs, research institutes and in politics. Some of them have moved back to Somalia now holding key positions, as for example the current Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre, who held a senior position in the Norwegian Refugee Council for years. We need to move beyond fixed categories such as ‘diaspora’, ‘Norwegian’, ‘Somali government representative’ to fully understand the activities of diaspora members.

What practical steps should be taken to improve the presence of diaspora communities in the relevant national and international fora?

The best way to collaborate would be to have more people in development and in civil society organisations that actually had an experience as diaspora members. Changing hiring practices would be required, but it is very difficult. We must realise that the criteria we use, also in the academic sector, often do not allow a wider participation. Hiring practices need to be changed so that they will not reproduce the marginalisation that we want to challenge.

Do you think that a conference like Diaspora in Action can contribute to deepen the understandings on the role played by diaspora communities on the global stage?

In order to be successful, conferences need to have a diverse group of participants and ensure a real communication among stakeholders, practitioners and diaspora organisations. In this way a conference becomes a platform to communicate and learn from each other’s perspectives. The value of a conference is often more in establishing networks and learning from each other than in concrete outcomes, recommendations or big policy shifts that are rarely implemented. The two main ingredients for a successful conference are to encourage people to understand what they can do themselves as individuals and within their institutions and to provide them with a wider political platform of like-minded people who want to make a change in the world.

We thank Cindy for her time and the insights. Find out more about her and her work on prio.org (link: https://www.prio.org/People/Person/?x=4969 )

Prof. Cindy Horst will be a keynote speaker at the Diasporas in Action conference in September. Diasporas In Action: Working Together for Peace, Development and Humanitarian Response, will be held at the University of Melbourne on the 26th-27th September 2018.


Join us: http://www.diasporasinaction.org.au/