Diaspora plays vital role advancing democracy in Africa



The National Endowment for Democracy has long recognized the important role the diaspora plays in advancing democracy and good governance in Africa, according to Dave Peterson, NED’s Africa Director. Although our emphasis with our small grant program has been on supporting indigenous African civil society organizations rather than American-based organizations, from time to time we have supported African diaspora groups to conduct programs, he told a forum on the Role of the Diaspora in Promoting Democracy and Good Governance in Africa (above), convened by the Constituency for Africa and the National Democratic Institute, and hosted by the African Union Mission to the United States.

Many members of our Africa program team, as well as other NED departments such as our finance, grants, World Movement for Democracy and fellowship programs have come from the African diaspora. They typically bring a greater depth of knowledge about the politics of Africa, as well as assets such as language ability and passion, that have been invaluable to our program.  I know this is the same of the Endowment’s sister organizations, NDI, IRI, the Solidarity Center, and the Center for International Private Enterprise, as well as other democracy promoting organizations such as IFES, USIP, the Open Society Foundations, and USAID.  Beyond our institutions, of course, the African diaspora is active on a host of fronts, from lobbying Congress and the State Department, to raising funds for all kinds of political activity back in Africa.

But upon reflection, this issue is more complicated than it might seem. For example, in terms of NED support to diaspora organizations, this has usually occurred when they have something to offer that African-based organizations do not, such as when local capacity is low, or political repression is high.  In can often be very sensitive politically, such as in the case of Ethiopia. Many of you are probably familiar with ECDC, the Ethiopian Community Development Center, that we supported to do research and civic education after the fall of the Derg in Ethiopia more than 20 years ago.  Yet they had difficulty sustaining this project in Ethiopia.  A similar diaspora effort, the Ethiopian Red Terror Documentation and Research Center, was also forced to shut down.  These were worthy efforts, and not confrontational with the government, but were nevertheless deemed undesirable.

The divisions that exist back in Africa can often be found in the diaspora community abroad. In meetings we have held at the Endowment on Ethiopia, as well as many other African countries that I can recall such as Congo, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, these debates have often been pretty lively.  In the case of Eritrea in particular, the political environment has been so closed that we have been compelled to support diaspora organizations exclusively.  In some cases we have supported diaspora-based radio programs or, increasingly, web sites, that provide information unavailable in closed media environments.  We try to be careful that such programs are objective and fact-based, rather than partisan.  In the case of Equatorial Guinea, we’ve supported the diaspora group EGJustice (left) to do some excellent work in expanding political space in that very difficult country.  A few years ago, we met with some Gambian diaspora representatives who were seeking support; not long afterwards some of these individuals attempted a coup!  NED does not support regime change; only democratic strengthening and reform. Fortunately, Gambia now seems to be on the right course, and I know members of the Gambian diaspora have been very supportive.

Another example of where this gets tricky is the case of Nigeria. Back in the Abacha days, NED supported a couple organizations, NADECO and MOSOP, the Nigerian Democratic Coalition and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, through their diaspora representatives based in London.  Of course, the Nigerian government at the time was not pleased, and we came under a lot of pressure.  Few if any other donors would touch them, but when the transition occurred in Nigeria, many members of the organization, including exiles, became prominent members of the new government, and we felt vindicated.

A couple other favorite examples I might cite are the Cush Community Relief International, based in Nebraska, that did some great work with youth in Jonglei State of South Sudan during the CPA; and the US-Africa Leadership and Government Academy, a Texas-based group that is building local government capacity in the Kasaai provinces of Congo.  Such groups have not been in opposition to the government, but have clearly sought to strengthen the political leadership of their countries.

Unfortunately, many African political activists have found themselves forced into exile, and from time to time NED has been able to help them continue their efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights, whether from the US, or sometimes England and France, to closer to home, such as South Sudanese who have taken refuge in Uganda. Too often such political activists who have been forced to join the diaspora have great difficulty just surviving abroad, let alone continuing their political work, and at NED we have been trying to come up with ways to keep such talented activists involved, such as our emergency fellows program.

Last week I testified at Congressional hearings on the upcoming elections in Liberia, and included on the panel was an American-Liberian activist from Staten Island.  The Liberian community in Staten Island is evidently a force to be reckoned with, and her congressman was attentive to the concerns she raised.  My impression is that the Liberian diaspora in the US has been especially active in supporting democracy, whether by lobbying Congress for aid to Liberia or in supplying technocrats to serve in various positions in the reconstruction of the country, or providing direct assistance to various causes.  At NED we have supported some American-based Liberian journalists who have advocated for greater press freedom back in Liberia.  But we also know that during the civil war, Charles Taylor was getting some support from the diaspora.  Certain other conflict situations in Africa, such as Somalia, may be exacerbated by members of the diaspora.  On the other hand, I know that members of the Somali diaspora played a vital role in rebuilding a democratic Somaliland, some of whom we were proud to support in that endeavor.

I must acknowledge that the modest resources we have been able to provide are a drop in the bucket of the many initiatives that the African diaspora has engaged in to support democracy. But as I said at the outset, it’s complicated.  The diaspora can be a force for democracy and peace, but it can also support conflict and misinformation.  This should not be surprising.  What is very clear, though, is that those of us who are concerned about democracy, especially in Africa, but around the world for that matter, need to listen to and work with the diaspora more, to take advantage of their talents and to support their dreams and efforts for a world that is more free and democratic.  We are all in this together.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email