Today, about 10 million Bangladeshis are living abroad as migrants. Out of this, over 2.4 million Bangladeshis permanently live abroad either as citizens or with other valid documents in as many as 162 countries across the world. These permanent migrants living in different continents and countries are known as the ‘Bangladesh diaspora’ and have immense potential to make substantial contributions to Bangladesh’s development regarding sharing their skills, expertise, technology, and knowledge.
Mostly living in the industrial countries including but not limited to the UK, the US, Italy, Japan, Australia, Greece, Canada, Spain, Germany, South Africa, France, Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, these people make up the ever-growing Bangladesh diaspora. While reasons for their departure varies – jobs, education, improved standard of living, etc. – individuals within the diaspora communities maintain a particular affinity with Bangladesh having a desire to continue a connection, culturally, socially or economically, to their country of origin.
With this affinity comes an interest in matters related to the development of their homeland, be it the social and economic well-being of remaining friends and family members, humanitarian concerns, business interest, professional aspirations, or even a desire to return ‘home’ someday. But collectively or individually, if this interest is converted into engagement, the diaspora community can use their financial, time and intellectual resources to help reduce poverty, contribute to the expansion of the private sector, and enhance global competitiveness and overall development of the country.
Diaspora engagement is viewed as when the government of a given country increasingly recognizes the value that diaspora population brings to the development efforts and seeks ways to magnify the human capital and financial resources that emigrants and their descendants contribute to development in their country of origin. However, in Bangladesh, no such mechanism for recognition exists, and engagement is often limited to transfer of remittances only. This arrangement needs to go beyond and convert NRBs to direct investors in critical and emerging industries, generous philanthropy, and in the development of human capital and sharing and transfer of knowledge from the countries of residence to the country of origin in various ways.
Learning from Other Developing Nations
Regarding creating engagement, Bangladesh has a lot to learn from numerous other developing nations. Lebanon, for example, has a dedicated crowdfunding platform towards their diaspora, which raises contributions for social causes such as water and sanitation, building schools, etc. and have goodwill ambassadors to carry out the effectiveness. The African diaspora has contributed over $10 billion for philanthropic contributions. For India, the brain drain has now converted back into brain gain, with over 4,000 professors and 35,000 doctors returning to the economy and contributing. The Indian government’s initiative for involving NRIs in SME investment is also playing a huge role. And in China, about 70% of its entire Foreign Direct Investment is owned by its diaspora.
Another notable example is of Iraq, where an organization named Iraqis Rebuilding Iraq worked with Iraqi expatriates in rebuilding post-war Iraq, which again shows that non-residents never lose their connections with their nations. However, the bed stone of diaspora engagement lies in gaining the trust of the diaspora community first. The government needs to generate a sense of belief or perception that it values the diaspora’s contribution, wants them to contribute further, and a transparent and accountable mechanism would be followed in transforming their contribution into national development efforts.
The PIE Framework
A recent government study in association with A2i largely categorized the contributions and efforts for NRBs into three groups – philanthropy for community development, investment for economic and industrial growth, and expert engagement for knowledge and skill development. This categorization has been defined as the PIE framework and is being used to explain briefly how different countries have prospered using diaspora engagement.
Based on the learnings from international experiences, an effort is being taken by the government to design an institutional framework that would implement the PIE approach in Bangladesh. The model’s ultimate aim is to attach a return with each of the three avenues of diaspora contribution and encourage further engagement by promoting philanthropy with recognition, an investment with reward, and expert affiliation with remuneration.
A recent government study in association with A2i largely categorized the contributions and efforts for NRBs into three groups – philanthropy for community development, investment for economic and industrial growth, and expert engagement for knowledge and skill development.
Hindrance from Policy and Institutional Challenges
Despite government attempts at integrating the diaspora population into national development, multiple base-level issues exist which need to be addressed before any other strategy implement, with the most significant problem being the absence of an online database that contains information of these long-term migrants. The difficulty of collecting data from and engaging permanent migrants who do not have legal stay permit in their country of residence further cripples the process.
A policy-wise absence of clear provisions relating to diaspora engagement may become a key challenge as the existing policy provisions do not address the proposed PIE approach. The success of the model requires different ministries to get involved in new activities which may not always fall within their jurisdiction. Moreover, inter-ministerial coordination on a continuous basis also poses obstacles. The promotion of NRB philanthropy would also require the creation of special accounts to receive such funds from individuals and associations, which all government agencies cannot do without explicit mandates.
The Proposed Way Forward
The study proposes an immediate urge for a national initiative with substantial government ownership to develop an online database of the international diaspora community with the affiliation of embassies, missions, and consulates. Moreover, expatriates have been known to face a variety of security-related issues such as mistreatment, harassment, and safety upon visiting Bangladesh, and insecurity of properties and local investments; problems which need to be addressed as early as possible.
The government must also deploy measures to acknowledge the contribution of the NRBs, to honor successful NRBs in different areas. Foreign Missions of Bangladesh are also suggested to set up dedicated diaspora engagement cells with immediate effect to deal with relevant affairs and act as a primary touch-point for NRB integration.
An environment of trust and confidence is crucial to ensure the success of government’s initiatives to involve NRBs in national development. Implementation of the PIE framework can act as an initial confidence-building measure to encourage the diaspora, and over the long-run build monitoring mechanisms to emit useful feedback and reviews of progress back to the NRBs to keep them updated and involved throughout the entire development journey.