Expertise: Dr. Martin Russell

Dr. Martin Russell quote

In the latest edition of Expertise, MIEUX Expert Dr. Martin Russell, co-founder of the forthcoming DiasporaLab, gives his views on the evolution and current trends in diaspora engagement, one of the areas that governments, especially across Africa, are developing as part of comprehensive migration and development strategies.

Dr. Russell is the co-founder of the forthcoming DiasporaLab to be housed at UCD Clinton Institute and runs his own consulting firm. He has trained, spoken, and written on diaspora engagement in Africa, Caribbean, Central Asia, Central and Latin America, Europe, Middle East, United Kingdom and the United States. Martin also sits on the Advisory Board of

In his capacity as MIEUX expert, he collaborated in the Action Malawi III to support the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in drafting the Malawi Diaspora Engagement Policy and Action Plan.

MIEUX: How has the concept of diaspora engagement evolved over the last 10 years?

I think one of the key developments has been the confidence in the sector. 10 years ago, I sensed people kind of “got it” and knew it was related to migration in some way but there was little hard evidence of impact or confidence in the sector. So that’s been a big change: an increase in the evidence base, more market confidence in impact as activity has grown and an exploration/interest from new regions.

Of course, we still have a long way to go. But the signs are positive as another key evolution is that the concept of diaspora engagement has shifted from predominantly financial (based on remittances) to a more nuanced portfolio of soft skills in areas such as cultural, educational, political and social development. I’ve had discussions on diaspora at world-renowned financial institutions, innovation/entrepreneurship labs and universities. That’s the exciting part of the next journey of this field – we’ll be encountering new potentials that we did not have 10 years ago. 

MIEUX: What are the good practices stemming from the Irish example in diaspora engagement?

The Irish example is a fascinating one to study for many reasons. For example, diaspora engagement was historically part of the fabric of the Irish story. We are “an island off an island” so emigration has always been in our lives. But in terms of structuring diaspora engagement, we are relatively young. Political framing through the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade only really kicked off in the early 2000s but since then they’ve done a remarkable job in designing a framework that is recognised as a global leader.

So, in terms of good practices, I think there are 3 or 4 ones. For governments, I think it is important to create the culture of diaspora engagement --more by facilitating activities rather than trying to implement everything. Related to this, it is important to invest in the diaspora community and its infrastructure of diaspora community organizations. They’ll be able to do things governments cannot – for example, supporting vulnerable members of your diaspora or deepening realistic data on your diaspora. The Irish government do this through the Emigrant Support Programme which, to my eyes, in one of the best policy instruments out there on diaspora engagement.

Another important practice is that policymakers must bring the public and private sector together. Building segmented, interest-based networks are important in this and the private sector is needed. Finally, engage your successful and vulnerable diaspora. Invest your time and resources to understand the layers of your communities abroad and how you can help them. Give to them before asking them to give. And remember, diaspora engagement takes time.

Excitingly, in Ireland, I think we are only on the cusp of what is possible with our diaspora and when you look at how they’ve contributed to date – whether it be the Peace Process, during the financial crisis, or building our story abroad – then that is a phenomenal opportunity. I’d also love to see the Irish share their story and practices on diaspora engagement more – I think we are seriously under-utilising this as an instrument of diplomacy and 21st-century statecraft.

MIEUX: Could you please explain the “diaspora engagement model” you are currently developing?

The questions I got asked most during MIEUX and other consultancy work were, “Who does diaspora engagement best?” and, “How can we do it?” In response, I began to look globally at the best-case studies on diaspora engagement from countries such as China, India, Ireland, Israel, Mexico and build relationships there. And I began to build some modelling of diaspora engagement from these relationships. Of course, every country has a different context whether it be cultural, historical, political or social but there were some founding facets of best practice to shape a model.

The model as it stands today works on 4 key pillars: Institutional and Leadership Development, Engaging Human Capital, Engaging Economic Capital, and Supporting your Diaspora. Cutting across these stands you can safeguard the necessary institutional apparatus needed for diaspora engagement whether it be government or community based (e.g. Civil Society Orgs). You can design activity and outreach to ensure the necessary trust is built within your diaspora community. Then, you can begin to do some of the more aspirational stuff to truly impact transformative development. The model also is not exhaustive, it is a responsive one which will change as the engagement develops.

I don’t doubt that if you ask me again in 5 years’ time what the model is, we’ll have some different elements. That’s the way it should be; diaspora engagement is never static and there is no “silver bullet”. We’ve seen this already with data and when trying to shift remittances to investment. Diaspora engagement is a hard-contact sport, you need to wire technology with touch and put in the hard yards.

MIEUX: How do you see the interplay between national development plans, SDG goals and migration policies?

Across my work in diaspora engagement, I’ve become a big believer in the “plug-in” model: a mindset of ensuring what we do in diaspora engagement in a specific city or country plugs into the national development plan, regional agenda and global policy agendas such as the SDGs.  We should never over-claim on diaspora engagement; it is still an emerging sector, so it needs to build its relevance this way. However, the policy coherence piece between national development plans, SDG goals and migration policies needs to be central to our thinking moving forward.

Overall, I’ve taken a bit of a different view to many of the mainstream migration players in terms of the SDGs and the role of migration. I think there was a concerted push to make migration a stand-alone goal of the SDGs and we’ve got to be honest enough to admit that was not achieved. Yes, migration is included within a goal of the SDGs but it is not a stand-alone goal. It is okay to admit a little failure and I do sense a lot of folks working within migration went into a closed-door mode. The braver call is to admit the shortcoming and go about helping to fix it.

With the development of the Global Compact for Migration, I think we are entering a new phase on the interplay of national development plans, SDG goals and migration policies. We need to build integrated soft and hard results around changing the culture, mindset and narrative on migration and development work, all of which will not happen overnight.

In this context, I think interest and investment in diaspora engagement will only grow across all sectors. Why? I think diasporas have the potential to be a positive force for migration. Unfortunately, it’s common that when people talk migration they talk of borders and identity but when people talk diaspora they talk about affinity and belonging, framing diaspora engagement as something much more appealing.

I firmly believe that this is the best time ever to be working in migration. The challenges are immense but the rewards just as much. So, I finish with this message, continue to believe in the values of your work, sweat out the negativity because they’ll run out of steam quicker than you and be brave in your decision making.

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