From The Economist Online Edition
Emigrés have long sought to bring pressure to bear on governments in their adopted countries. Now their influence is being felt at home too
WHY does Macedonia have no embassy in Australia? Why might a mountain in northern Greece soon be disfigured by an image of Alexander the Great 73 metres (nearly 240 feet) high? Who paid for the bloody war between Ethiopia and Eritrea? How did Croatia succeed in winning early international recognition as an independent country? And why do Mexican candidates for political office campaign in the United States?
The short answer to each of these questions is a diaspora—a community of people living outside their country of origin. Macedonia has no embassy in Australia because Greeks think the former Yugoslav republic that calls itself Macedonia has purloined the name from them, and the Greek vote counts for a lot in Australia. So, as a sop to local Greeks outraged by its decision to recognise the upstart Macedonia, the Australian government has not yet allowed it to open an embassy in Canberra.
The case of the missing embassy is an extreme, but typical, example of how diasporas have long exerted their influence: they have lobbied in their adopted countries for policies favourable to the homeland. But now something new is taking place: diasporas are increasingly exerting influence on the politics of the countries they have physically, but not emotionally, abandoned. An example of this trend is the case of the monumental Alexander. The Greek diaspora is so proud of Alexander the Great, whose Macedonian kingdom encompassed what are now parts of northern Greece, and so keen to establish him as Greek, that it wants to carve his effigy on a cliff face on Mount Kerdyllion.
The Greek authorities in Athens are horrified, but the Alexander the Great Foundation, based in Chicago, is eager to get chipping, and says its members will cover the $45m cost. Grotesque as it may consider the scheme—the monument would be four times the size of the American presidents carved on Mount Rushmore—the Greek government may yield. It is to rich Greek-Americans that it turns when it wants to promote its interests in America.
Similarly, it was to its citizens abroad that Eritrea looked when it decided to wage a pointless border war between 1998 and 2000. Small, poor and just six years old, the country was in no position to fight its much bigger neighbour, Ethiopia. But of Eritrea's 3.8m people, about 333,000 were émigrés and, astonishingly, the government was able to tax their personal income at 2% a year. This helped to finance, and thus to perpetuate, a terrible war.
Croats abroad also did their bit for their country, both before and after independence in 1991. In the early 1990s, not long after European communism had collapsed but before the Yugoslav federation had begun to disintegrate, the cry went up in Croatia for Croats of the diaspora to come home. Some did, returning to fight in the war that broke out in 1991. Other Croats abroad raised money: as much as $30m had been mustered by 1991. Meanwhile, Croat exiles were lobbying hard in Germany, which in turn bounced the European Union into early recognition of the new state. Fiercely nationalist exiles forked out at least $4m for the 1990 election campaign of Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's arch-nationalist president, and in return were awarded representation in parliament in 1992, by which time the country had won its independence. Twelve out of the 120 seats were allotted to diaspora Croats, who cast their votes in consulates abroad, or in community centres, clubs and churches designated by the authorities in Zagreb. By contrast, only seven seats were set aside for Croatia's ethnic minorities.
Since 1996, Mexicans abroad have also had the right to vote in national elections, although the legislation to allow them to do so without coming home has yet to be passed. Still, with 10.8m citizens of voting age out of the country, many political candidates reckon it is worth their while to campaign in the United States, where 99% of the absentees live. Even if just a small proportion comes back on polling day, that may be enough to tip an election.
The diaspora's new right to vote, however theoretical it remains, was a right reluctantly given. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico uninterruptedly for over 60 years, thought expatriate Mexicans were unlikely to support it. It was probably right. Although the diaspora was not composed of political exiles implacably hostile to the government of the country they had left, the émigrés were probably sophisticated enough to dislike the PRI's self-serving policies. Moreover, nationalism, which so often makes exiles sympathetic to the government back home, was hardly an issue in Mexican elections.
As a rule of thumb, though, émigrés are nationalists, even though they may at the same time be loyal citizens of their adopted country (96% of Australia's Croats are naturalised, and not known as lukewarm in their Ozziness). Perhaps the strength of nationalist feeling has something to do with feelings of guilt among those fortunate enough to live abroad, especially when the home country is under some kind of threat. Perhaps it has something to do with not having to live with the consequences of nationalism pur et dur. Perhaps it is because exile sharpens the sense of the country left behind. Issues may simply seem clearer from afar. In any event, absence certainly seems to make the heart grow fonder—and fierier.
If you doubt that, just imagine what would happen in Ireland, north and south of the border, if Irish-Americans were allowed to vote in Ireland's or Ulster's elections. Irish-Americans tend to be strong supporters of republicanism, and in the 1970s and 1980s they raised huge amounts of money for republican terrorist groups such as the IRA. Or imagine what would happen to Cuba's politics if the exiles of southern Florida could vote as well as rant.
Wired and wonderful
In the past, absence also made the power of the diaspora grow weaker. Scatter a few million émigrés across the globe, and, being everywhere in a minority, they are weak. They are influential only where they are concentrated, as, say, Swedes are in southern Finland; or where they are especially well-organised, as Jews are in the United States and Armenians are in France. That is certainly the way it used to be. But nowadays jet planes, rapid communication and in particular the internet have enabled dispersed exiles to come together cheaply and effectively for the first time in history.
This change is most evident not among the best known, older-established diasporas but among the younger ones. Thus the influence on China of the huge community of overseas Chinese is, so far at least, chiefly felt through commerce and investment; it is not yet directly political. Similarly, émigré Indians have yet to exert much out-of-body-politic influence on the homeland. Expatriate Scots count for little in Scotland. And, though passionately interested in Israel and ready to support it financially, the Jewish diaspora—the first to be given the name, after the Babylonian captivity—is probably more influential outside than within the Jewish state.
Look instead at the Tamils, and in particular at the long war fought by the Tamil Tigers against the government of Sri Lanka. Superficially, this looks like a classic struggle between an oppressed group trying to win the right to secede and an intransigent government unwilling to let it. The Tamils have indeed been hard done by in the past, and Sri Lanka's government forces have committed their share of atrocities. The guerrillas have a skilful leader, some useful exiles abroad and foreign friends who lend support. Such has been the pattern often enough in struggles elsewhere—as, for instance, when the United States wanted to break away from Britain.
But the Sri Lankan civil war has not been a standard affair. For a start, it has been unusually brutal: 65,000 lives have been lost. The Tigers have ruthlessly exploited not just child soldiers but also suicide bombers. And they have done so for most of the past 19 years with the support of a generous community of exiles. Some 60m Tamils live in India, and Sri Lanka's politics have on at least one occasion fatefully affected India's: Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister of India, was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991 in retribution for India's involvement in Sri Lanka's civil war. But the truly Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora lies not in India but in Europe and North America. In 2001 the United Nations put the number of Tamil refugees abroad at 817,000. Taking into account those with citizenship of other countries, the total may be even bigger.
Many are poor, but a glance at the Tamil Guardian—"a weekly update for the global Tamil community"—suggests that the diaspora includes many others who are educated, prosperous and committed to the homeland. A broadsheet, it reprints serious articles from such papers as the New York Times, as well as covering the politics of Sri Lanka and the sporting and cultural activities of the diaspora; the Tigers receive uncritically fulsome coverage. Nor does it appear to want for advertisements.
Expatriate Tamils do not rely on their newspaper alone. Anything judged to be of interest to the community—a critical article in The Economist, for instance—may be circulated on the internet among Tamil émigrés, particularly academics, and a flood of rather similar protests may ensue. A demonstration can be similarly conjured up if necessary, as when, in 2001, Sri Lanka appointed as high commissioner to Australia a general accused of brutality.
Both through voluntary contributions and through extortion, the diaspora has been used to help pay for the Tigers' long military campaign, which involves boats and naval forces as well as rockets, missiles and the usual paraphernalia required by soldiers—plus the cyanide pills that all Tigers are sworn to swallow if captured. At the same time, the diaspora has given succour to the exiled leadership, whose main base was for decades in London.
Second thoughts from abroad
If for many years the diaspora helped to sustain its side of Sri Lanka's vicious war, all the while condoning rather than condemning Tamil atrocities, so it has recently started to exercise a more benign influence. A few years ago, America, Britain and India all decided that the Tigers were not an entirely wholesome liberation group, and took steps to declare them terrorists instead; Britain proscribed them in February 2001. The disconcerted diaspora began to close its wallet.
Then came September 11th 2001, followed by a string of hideous suicide bombings in Israel, and the diaspora realised that the Tigers' record of 150 or more such bombings did not put them in good company. It was time to call a halt. A ceasefire was signed in December 2001 and talks have since been held in Thailand and Norway. Unexpectedly, the Tigers' leaders have even dropped their insistence on a completely independent homeland, saying they will settle for "substantial autonomy" instead. The outlook is now hopeful. For this, the diaspora can take some credit.
Arrivederci, Buenos Aires
With luck, the Tamil diaspora will soon be called upon to perform a more traditional role, that of helping to pay for the development of their homeland. Some diasporas are poorer than the people they left behind: so impoverished are the 537,000 Argentines of Italian origin that regions of Italy like the Veneto have organised "emigrant re-entry projects" to try to find jobs for those who want to come home. Most exile groups, however, are relatively well off. Even refugees who have fled their country with little or nothing tend either to go home eventually or to make good in a new country. It is largely the prosperity of emigrants, combined with their levels of education, that gives them their influence back home. All in all, émigrés of one kind or another send about $100 billion home each year through official channels, 60% of it to poor countries, which may receive another $15 billion unofficially.
Much of this money is sent by underpaid Filipinas in Asia or exploited Bangladeshis in the Gulf. Yet exiles' earnings may well be higher than those at home, sometimes much higher, thanks not only to wage differentials but also to their qualifications: perhaps a third of highly educated Ghanaians live abroad, and three-quarters of Jamaica's population with higher education can be found in the United States alone. El Salvador values its emigrants' remittances ($1.75 billion in 2000) so much that it has made provision for legal aid in the United States to those of its citizens who want to claim or prolong political asylum.
Most poor countries are now resigned to losing their exiles physically, but that does not mean they cannot get hold of some of their money, or their expertise. Increasingly, this is an organised endeavour. So, for example, if you had been flying into Accra on July 22nd 2001, you might well have been going to a Ghana Homecoming Summit, organised by the country's Investment Promotion Centre to harness the skills of the Ghanaian diaspora and get it to cough up even more than the $300m-400m that it already sends home each year.
Why should it? Leaving aside sentimental considerations, one inducement is increasingly frequently offered: in return for money, voting rights. Apart from Mexico, Croatia and Eritrea, Armenia and India have also promised them. Filipinos would like them. Turkey, like Eritrea and Mexico, has amended its constitution to give them, but Germany, where the Turkish diaspora is heavily concentrated, is not keen to have foreign elections held on its soil.
Other countries have found other ways of exploiting their expatriates' political energies. Eritrea is one of the most advanced, perhaps because about 90% of eligible Eritreans abroad voted in the 1993 referendum on independence. Diaspora Eritreans then helped to draft the constitution, which guarantees them voting rights in future elections.
An alternative is to bring the exiles home in person. Turkey's Islamist party, now in government, has parachuted diaspora leaders into safe electoral seats in Turkey to reward them for fund-raising abroad. Afghanistan has pondered putting its ex-king back on the throne. Bulgaria has turned its ex-monarch into a prime minister. The Balts have been émigré importers on an almost industrial scale. Since becoming independent in 1991, Estonia has recruited from the diaspora two foreign ministers and a defence minister, plus lots of civil servants, especially in the foreign ministry. Latvia's popular president was brought back from Canada. It has also had the services of an American-Latvian defence minister, a bunch of members of parliament and a handful of diplomats, all mustered from the ranks of its émigrés. Lithuania's huge diaspora has supplied it with a president, the current chief of general staff (both Lithuanian-Americans) and several historians, novelists and poets. Unlike most expatriate Balts, Lithuania's are not all fierce nationalists.
The diaspora's influence is not always welcomed. Some exiles are simply mistrusted, especially if they were abroad when the going was hard. Thus Thabo Mbeki and those of his colleagues who struggled against apartheid from outside South Africa do not always command the respect of those who stayed and fought it from within. These exiles, though, were more like political exiles of the conventional kind—the enemies of English monarchs who plotted from France, the Cubans who launched the Bay of Pigs invasion from the United States, Russian revolutionaries who wandered Europe to escape the tsar, and so on. Diaspora exiles are different: their motives for leaving are often economic as much as political, and many have no intention of going home.
Home and away, all at once
Still, they can be a pain in the domestic neck. Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian émigrés helped to pay for and arm the guerrillas who proved crucial in NATO's war to rid Kosovo of its Serb oppressors. But those same émigrés, many of them left-wing in ideology and criminal in their connections, were less welcome when the time came to build the peace. Similarly, Albania's diaspora, smaller and on the whole right-wing, disastrously backed Sali Berisha, until the pyramid schemes that briefly beguiled his countrymen came crashing down. The Turks of northern Cyprus are not always convinced that the Turkish-Cypriot community in London, almost as numerous, is lobbying for the objectives they really seek.
Since September 11th, diasporas have come under new scrutiny to see whether they harbour or breed terrorists. They were already the object of growing interest among academics; and think-tanks such as the Rand Corporation in California had issued warnings that some diasporas might become fifth columns for hostile governments. Yet the influence of émigrés can be exaggerated. Eva Ostergaard-Nielsen, of the London School of Economics, points out that diasporas seldom make a government adopt a policy unless that policy is also in the country's national interest. But they do undoubtedly, and increasingly, mingle homeland interests with those of their adopted country, and carry their own concerns back home. As Tip O'Neill, an American politician of the old school, once said, "All politics is local." Now more than ever.
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."
Reproduction is authorised provided the author's permission is granted.