Migration is often equated with immigration, but every immigrant is also an emigrant with ties to a place of origin. With the help of modern technologies such ties are growing broader and deeper, and diasporas – communities dispersed across borders from a professed place of origin – are becoming a more conspicuous force in global affairs. They act as filaments for the cross-border flows of money, goods and ideas that established authorities at every level, from the global to the local, are struggling to govern. Diasporas are thickening. How is the international system adapting?

Diaspora governance is a multi-layered matter, involving not just national and international but also local institutions and processes. In theory a jealously guarded prerogative of national governments, migration policy often falls in practice to local institutions: the colleges, hospitals, banks and law enforcement agencies dealing with the absence of their own people or the presence of ‘others’ in their communities. At this level, diaspora governance involves, for example, migrants’ transnational enterprises and Hometown Associations working with consular representatives of the origin state, municipal actors in both regions channeling migrants’ money into public good projects, and destination regions fostering ethnic-based support networks and improving migrant access to local education, healthcare, and legal and financial services.

The border-crossing nature of such activities is of increasing interest to an international community that is seeking ways to cooperate multilaterally over the management of international migration in the absence of a centralized global migration governance framework akin to the International Monetary Fund or World Trade Organization. Though aware of their interdependence over international migration, states see it as an issue over which they, and no international bureaucracy, should exercise sovereignty. In lieu of an international institutional framework, efforts are underway to link migration to the established international development agenda, which is one of the few areas of global governance where widespread consensus exists, and therefore a powerful vehicle for mobilizing the international community.

Diaspora governance in the international arena therefore centres on humanitarian and development organizations helping migrants to contribute to the country of origin, and on the efforts of states – facilitated by multilateral institutions such as the International Organization for Migration and the Global Forum for Migration and Development, and various Regional Consultative Processes – to build dialogue, shared understandings, and cooperative approaches amongst states linked by international migration. A central problem for those seeking to collaborate in this way is that migration policy has traditionally fallen mainly to destination states, where migration is most immediate. They have found themselves without institutional counterparts in origin states where, until recently, no one was tasked with managing people who had spatially exited the national population.

But this governance gap is rapidly disappearing as origin states evolve formal institutional mechanisms to ‘engage’ their diasporas. Up from a handful of states twenty years ago, now around half of all United Nations members have such an institution, often housed within the Foreign Ministry, that is responsible for coordinating relevant policies across government. They sometimes promote return, but more often build diaspora communities and help them contribute positively to the homeland, for example by establishing networks, honouring ‘model’ expatriates and monitoring dissident exiles, as well as encouraging emigrants and their descendants to retain ‘national culture’ and refrain from embarrassing or undermining governments.

Often this kind of ‘paying court’ entails addressing diaspora grievances, supporting their struggle for legal protections abroad or property rights, social security and electoral participation at ‘home’. Meanwhile, diaspora institutions work with and through – and occasionally against – diaspora networks to monitor cross-border recruitment and crime, and to facilitate remittances, investments, philanthropic donations, technology transfers, and connections to the centres of world power. Once a violation of the territorial basis of international politics, diaspora governance is now becoming a normal form of political organization.

Three interlocking explanations help us to understand why the forms of governance described above are proliferating at such a remarkable rate. From one perspective, patriotic loyalties give origin states leverage over the formidable material resources of migrants: their money, their scarce skills, their connections to global decision-makers and opinion-shapers abroad, their hybrid identities and chameleon-like cultural competencies that make them ideal intermediaries between nation states. From this perspective, states see diasporas as the cultural lubricant greasing the wheels of globalization.

A second strand of explanation focuses less on national interests than on ideas of ‘nationality’ that constitute these interests in the first place. Is it the case, for example, that racial states – where citizenship is contingent on ethnicity – are inclined to embrace their emigrants just as they malign their immigrants? Or do liberal democratic regimes also seek to incorporate a multicultural diaspora within the origin state? Is diaspora governance an expression of right-wing, long-distance ethnic nationalism, or a brand of post-liberal democratic citizenship? Either way, from this explanatory perspective, national identities, rather than national interests, matter most for diaspora governance.

A third and final perspective on diaspora governance suggests that states are driven not only by national interests and ideas, but also by international expectations. From this perspective, the rush by migrants’ origin states to establish diaspora institutions reflects wider efforts by sections of the international community to find cooperative solutions to the shared challenges of managing international migration. Viewed in this way, states’ diaspora initiatives are part of wider international efforts to govern global migration. Advised and urged by experts in think tanks and international organizations to seek ‘migration for development’, they are steered towards an appreciation of how engaging diasporas furthers their own interests. What began as a good idea gathers the moral force of convention.

Diaspora governance, then, is part of wider efforts to govern globalization by incorporating cross-border communities into the existing international system, and by adapting that system to a transnational world. By extending states’ authority and infrastructural power beyond their territorial jurisdictions, diaspora governance disrupts the neat, traditional symmetries of place, power and identity that bind the modern system of nation states, giving inklings of a post-Westphalian world. Whose utopia is being created?

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