Diasporans: what’s the fuss about?

24 Mar

So our Republican President was recently in Botswana. Among some of his activities was a session with Zambians resident and working in our neighbour’s backyard. That turned out to be the climax and most discussed part of the visit. Save the $10,000 donation that raised an uproar.

President sparks debate

Anyone that has followed the career of His Excellency must by now know how forthright he is. Tact and diplomacy have never been his style. This he has compensated for with a reputation as a “man of action”. But that is not the focus here. The main theme is his undisguised message to our brothers and sisters in the foreign space. Was he off the mark?

I think not. There is a lot more that can be digested.

We did not join in on the meeting but all we have is what has been reported. The issue of land was a similar issue that arose in Ethiopia and Mr. Sata was very clear on that. This seems to be quite an issue for our colleagues. I am not too sure what other grievances they raised.

Why leave the motherland?

One needs to appreciate the reason our compatriots left their motherland for a foreign land. From interactions and other sources, it mainly is for economic reasons. They are pursuing career goals, perceived higher incomes, improved standard of living and in a nutshell, a better life than home offers.

Is that a reflection of what state Zambia is in? Is it so bad that it can not offer a decent life and future? I would like to believe it depends on what one’s pursuit is. There are examples of individuals that have tasted success within the border confines of Zambia.

If then it is an individual choice, why the noise about the men and women that have opted to cross the border for greener pastures? From my spectator chair, I think it has more to do with the demands made by our brothers and sisters. They want land, access to credit and privileges like those. Therein lies the genesis of the debate. Why the preferential treatment sought? Should their being out of the country afford them opportunities different from the Zambians that have remained behind?

The real issue

The term Diaspora has been popularised and anyone out of the country has fallen under this bracket in all loose discussions. However, we need to make a distinction for this analysis and associated debates. The diasporans of interest are the ones capable of making a significant contribution economically. The ones with the skills sets critical for national development, with incomes of note worth their quality. Of course, there are those in odd jobs and if their consolidated incomes can trickle to the local economy when pooled, let us include them.

It is the quality of contribution that should be our prime area of focus. At some point last year, the African Development Bank noted that Africa benefits in Diaspora remittances up to about $40bn annually. This is on account of approximately 30mn africans that are not in their motherland. 64% of these are within Africa and the rest outside the continent. Even more interesting is that the African diaspora has about $50mn held in western banks at very low interest rates.

What is thought provoking here is that this estimated amount is more than the aid that hits the continent annually.

There is an opportunity here. Africa needs the Diaspora as they also need their motherland. The relevant question then is how can they be integrated into the development of the country and continent at large?

This perhaps is the angle the discourse in Botswana should have taken. What structures is the government putting in place to benefit from the “prodigal” children? The cry for preferential treatment will not be heard and we all will protest. We all negotiate our way through finding land, paying for it and developing. We all decry access to financing for business or asset acquisition. Even the coming of the well intentioned Citizens’ Economic Empowerment Commission (CEEC) has not in anyway changed that. With all these challenges, no one would expect those requests from Gaborone to be welcome.

The key questions

This is because questions abound. Do the Diasporans earn the right to be treated differently on account of income? Is it a fact that they earn far much more than locals to warrant this special place? Should the incentives be for their personal benefit such as putting up a house? Or more meaningful activities that can add value to an economy hungry for growth?

The cardinal question also is how much money is being made in the Diaspora?

This discussion should take a more comprehensive and structured form than it has currently. Latin America has deliberate structures in place to tap into their nationals in the Diaspora. Nigeria and Rwanda are on record as having set off on this path to integrate the involvement of their nationals in economic development. Zimbabwe has benefited tremendously over the last decade from their Diasporans.

Actions worth pursuing

It follows then that we need to do a few things as a nation through our government. Firstly, how much money is being made out there that can find its way to Zambia?

Secondly, what incentives or investment schemes can be devised to entice the diasporans to invest back home for the benefit of the nation? In relation to this, what then will be the structures needed to support this? We must be able to track what is being made and can be channelled back home.

Thirdly, what should be done to ensure the opportunities our brothers and sisters chase out there are created in Zambia? This will in the long term mean we have our skills being applied for the advancement of Zambia instead of other countries. This is especially critical in fields such as health and education, cardinal pillars for development.

In the final analysis, my take is that preferential treatment must not come because I have gone out of the country. Let us distinguish which diasporans need support and incentives whose end result will be the nation’s development. Through remittances and real investments.

In the absence of all this, it will be just another noisy debate that yields nothing of benefit for our country.

So for my brothers and sisters out there, put your hand up and earn your place at the table of preferential treatment.

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Posted by on March 24, 2012 in Economic


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