“Diaspora engagement is about building the right quality of networks in your communities abroad” – Dr. Martin Russell
For global stakeholders as well as people generally interested in diaspora engagement, Dr Martin Russell is a very familiar name who presents a wealth of knowledge and experience in all areas of diaspora affairs.
Being inspired by his numerous efforts in consolidating diaspora engagement and expertise, we were privileged to interview Dr. Russell and talked about a range of issues including diaspora and his life.
A sense of how Dr. Martin Russell became involved with Diaspora Affairs
Dr. Martin Russell grew up in Ireland and according to him, on his very first day of college he wanted to be a Mathematician! As luck and destiny would have it however, whilst pursuing his undergraduate studies, one of his electives was on the role of Collective Memory and US Foreign Policy.
By the end of his undergraduate program, Northern Ireland was coming into a progressive peace process and so Dr. Russell begun to look concretely at the role of the Irish-American community in the peace process as it was evident that the Irish Diaspora had played a critical role in the road to peace.
At the same period, Dr. Russell narrates that his college professor saw something in him that he couldn’t see. “He saw that I had an ability to work in and around the topics of diaspora and International Relations. And so, as luck will have it, he recommended me for a Masters’ position at the University College of Dublin with the Clinton Institute; which was named after former US President Bill Clinton because of his role in the peace process. It turned out that I was a very good fit given what I was researching and so I did the Masters, finished my PhD then stayed in academia for a bit doing a little research and teaching. Most of the research was for the government of Ireland in a project called ‘Supporting the Next Generation of the Irish Diaspora’ with Prof. Liam Kennedy and other researchers.”
As he notes, “The Irish government has an incredible policy instrument called The Emigrant Support Programme (ESP) which is essentially set up to allocate funding to Irish Diaspora Organisations all over the world and particularly to help vulnerable members of the Irish Diaspora such as those having issues with mental health, loneliness, substance abuse, and so on. Whatever those welfare needs are, these organisations are able to help them; and also of course Ireland is quite strong on culture so those organizations help to promote Irish culture globally also.
After I finished the research, I did a little bit of teaching and lecturing and quickly realized that my entrepreneurial heart was beating stronger than my academic one; so, I did a short Fellowship at the United Nations University in Maastricht, Netherlands. In Maastricht, they had such a great team and still do. But then I began to travel the world to advise on diaspora engagement with colleagues.
I was very lucky to have my great people believe in me over the years so that has been a big part of my journey. Personally, I think that it is very important at every part of one’s career to have someone to believe in you, whether you are in early, mid or late career.
An example of such a person would be Kingsley Aikins, who is now a close friend and colleague, who sat on the board of where I studied in the University College Dublin. He had helped to run one of the most successful Irish diaspora philanthropic organisations and we started working together on a global diaspora strategy toolkit that was launched at the first Global Diaspora Forum in 2011. We then got a lot of enquiries from companies, governments, different organisations, and unilateral agencies on how to go about shaping Diaspora Engagement. So, that is what I, Kingsley and other people in my network have been doing.”
Are you more inclined to focus more on the Irish or Global diaspora?
“Our focus is global; however, we are very proud of what Ireland does in terms of diaspora engagement and want to share that knowledge with the world. We quickly realized that the size of our state (lines on a map) is unmatched by the size of our nation, and so we see our nation as a global notion built through a sense of affinity and belonging in what it means to be Irish.
Between Kingsley and I, we have worked on diaspora engagement globally in over 25 countries. From Africa, Europe to the UK, a little bit in the Caribbean, the Balkans, Middle East and different places so whilst very passionate about Ireland, we have put in the airmiles on diaspora work!”
What accounts for the success of the Irish government in engaging their Diaspora?
“Three questions that need to be asked from the start of diaspora engagement are:
Who is your diaspora?
Where are they?
What do they do?
All this goes back to data.” – Dr. Martin Russell
“One thing that makes engagement difficult is that a lot of diasporas may have a mixed relationship with their governments and so they do not necessarily have a positive outlook on the political landscape or whatever is happening back home. This can be very difficult in getting them to share their ideas. Therefore, it is about building networks and relationships for long term success in diaspora engagement.
For example, Ireland has a Global Irish Diaspora Directory which contains a list of diaspora associations. This is also linked back to the Emigrant Support Programme (ESP) mentioned earlier. That programme is a fund with an average of ten to eleven million Euros per annum to support diaspora organisations, who apply for financial support for their operations abroad.
Historically, a lot of that money has gone to the UK and US because that is where a lot of Irish people went particularly in the mid twentieth century to the 1980’s; more recently, there has been a shift of the trends towards Canada, Australia and other destinations and so you’ll see more organisations beginning to pop up globally which is great. Their application for funds, is also a way of gathering information and provides a snapshot of where these organisations are. The Irish government publishes information every year on who gets what in terms of the organisations, because it is public money being spent.
In my opinion, the directory is a very useful tool for every Irish emigrant, because they know where to go and who to turn to when they need help or connections. Naturally, a lot of people in the diaspora feel nervous about giving out their data to governments, and so the Irish directory for example is a list of organisations rather than people and that’s a very useful lesson to learn, in that it figures out how to help the organisations rather than concentrating on particular individuals.”
Why don’t governments typically help their diasporas around the world?
“Interest in diaspora affairs in the past years has grown very quickly and is still growing, therefore I am very hopeful for the future of diaspora work. As someone who has been involved in diaspora projects and writing policies for governments as well as different institutions, I think that one has to take a long-term view because there is a tendency to see diaspora engagement as a quick fix.
At the Networking Institute, we often do a presentation called ‘25 reasons why diaspora engagement fails.’ The first reason is captured in the popular phrase ‘Fuzzy Math’. Here, many governments focus on the ‘mathematical’ aspect of getting money from people in the diaspora. For example, if they have a total of X number of people in the diaspora and each of them can give out a hundred dollars regularly, then our problems would be solved! Unfortunately, things don’t work that way so a long-term view has to be considered.
Another thing is that governments mostly focus on the economic aspects of the diaspora probably too quickly. You have to earn the respect of the diaspora, their trust and this may mean there are probably things a government won’t want to hear in that journey. If you commit to that listening piece, there are many case studies that have proven this impactful for engaging diasporas.
Another important area is culture. A professor once told me that diaspora engagement is all about culture. You have to go through the process of engagement and I think that’s a lesson that most governments are learning. For example, when you look at Ghana and the Year of Return that was organised, you see more culturally sensitive engagements emerging, and that is what would actually lead to the economic aspects of engagement.
Don’t forget that diaspora engagement should typically be fun. Most people are living busy lives so they will have limited time to engage with back home. Another key point is that some are successful and others may be struggling in your diaspora. Mostly in government policy, only the successful ones in the diaspora are engaged. I believe diaspora engagement should do two things: engage the successful but support the vulnerable.
It is important because the vulnerable part is often missed. What has been sad in the pandemic is that it has exposed a lot of challenges for governments who have been running around trying to figure out how to help their vulnerable communities abroad. At the Networking Institute, we’ve published on this before, so I think engaging with the vulnerable is something we should be shouting about from the rooftop. I’m very proud that Ireland has never forgotten the importance of this.”
Being a media platform working to use communication as a tool in consolidating diaspora engagement, what would be your advice for us on us on how we can be better?
“First thing you need is patience! For my PhD thesis, I wrote a chapter on diaspora media. Diaspora Media has always been big and powerful. We are in an age of technology where that power is even going to be greater. If you look at, for example, what is happening in the US with issues of social justice and the attention that is going around it and rightly so, Diaspora Media has never been more important. If you have the agency or medium of the message, there is power within that. And so, the important thing is that the message should be authentic and has to represent the true composition of your diaspora. My PhD back in the day was about diaspora and peace building. I have never seen that distinction being more important than when you are talking about a conflict, because you have to find a way of being holistic in your message.
The second layer, not necessarily how you can do it better, is just representing the sector that you want to engage. You need to be both hi-tech and hi-touch and it is about finding that balance between the two. Obviously during the pandemic, we have to be more high-tech but, in the aftermath when we get the opportunity to sit down with people again then we need to be high-touch. It’s about blending this both online and offline.
We are at a stage where recognition of diaspora engagement and diaspora media needs to be elevated. Diaspora organisations and non-profits as well have had many issues in terms of a communication gap. If you look at the pandemic, it has been these diaspora-based organisations that have really stood up and led the way in relation to the challenges, but yes you have to help them. A lot of diaspora members have fulltime jobs and they run these organisations on the side and so it becomes more of a passion project rather than a professional one, and so we need to support them to professionalize the sector.
I also think it is important to engage the next generation of diaspora. It is important to engage kids meaningfully about what their country of ancestry is and what it actually means to them. There are many ways in which you can do that and I think parents will be happy with this especially during lockdown when the kids are looking for things to do! In terms of next generation for the sector too, the signs are very positive for the professionalization step I mentioned as some brilliant younger experts, such as Loksan Harley and Emira Ajeti, are bringing new energies and ideas to diaspora work. It is just about trusting that talent and giving them the platforms or opportunities to showcase it.
And so, in all I wouldn’t say to think how about you can do it better, but how to purposefully and truly to represent the diaspora phenomenon by giving those with an authentic voice & story to tell access to your platform to do that. I wish you all the best on that journey!”
What does Dr. Russell do to relax?
“I am a big soccer fan, my favourite team has been Tottenham Hotspur for a very long time. And being Irish, we have a few beers as well – usually when Tottenham lose!”
“Diaspora engagement is about building the right quality of networks in your communities abroad. You can see, for example that Ireland and many other countries, have done incredibly well in engaging their diasporas and building networks for areas such as foreign direct investment and job creation. The networks needed to achieve this are different from the networks that help people who are struggling abroad and getting frontline help to them. It’s all about building networks and trusting the people who are within those networks to do what they are good at. And so, I think if you can really focus not only on building those networks of affluence and influence for the development of your country, but also the networks of care that celebrate all that connects us such as culture, support, and such, that are equally as important then you are on your way to success.
Once these networks can be built, then can something special happen for any country, city, or region in terms of Diaspora Engagement.
Interview and Image Credit: Dr. Martin Russell