A stroll down the busy Wilmslow Road in South Manchester and you will pass Indian Curry Houses, Afghani Eateries and an Egyptian Café. A walk along The Mile End Road in East London and you encounter sights and smells from around the world. The Diaspora communities that inhabit our cities and towns are one of Britain’s greatest assets. Over the last half a century most if not all British cities have become a microcosm of cultural diversity which has bolstered the fabric of the British urban environment. Lauded by the majority, first, second or third generation Diaspora communities add vibrancy to Britain and form an important part of our 21st Century national character.
But how well are Diaspora communities politically integrated and politically represented? In the political elite there is little of either. Amongst the top brass in public services numbers are low and the same can be said in the world of big-wig business executives. Systemic change in these areas will take a lifetime. But there is a glaringly obvious role for the many Diaspora communities to bring about greater political integration at a grassroots level: Development, Peace Building and Diplomacy. Everyone will be a winner.
There have been some projects that have started to recognise the role that the Diaspora could play in some aspect of British foreign policy. For example earlier this year the Somali Diaspora living in Britain were engaged by the independent think tank Chatham House on how to think differently about the problems that are the scourge of their fragile African home. The work was described as ‘unprecedented’ by the School of African and Asian Studies lecturer, Laura Hammond. But it shouldn’t be.
Last week I went to the ‘Voices Across Borders’ Event at the House of Commons which hoped to address the typical avenues that are taken by the British government in development, peace building and diplomatic policy making. The All-Party Parliamentary Group hosted an overview of the research carried out by the International NGO International Alert in some of Britain’s Diaspora Communities. The research gathered information from the Congolese, Pakistani, Somali and Sri Lankan Diaspora communities and asked the groups their thoughts on how government policy makers could engage with the communities to help resolve conflict in their home countries. The panelists, which were made up of community leaders, were overwhelmingly positive about the experience.
As I mentioned before engaging with local communities for the purpose of resolving conflict is a natural and obvious thing to do. Communities provide easy, non-political pathways of communication between the Diaspora and those who are conflict-affected. There is a greater depth of local cultural understanding and personal experience of life ‘on the ground’ amongst Diasporas. Engaging Diasporas in diplomacy simplifies things and creates more direct relations between Britain and the conflict affected state. For example, The Tamil Diaspora in London plays an important role in raising awareness about the current situation in Sri Lanka. Although the war has officially ended, diverting the eyes of the International community, the Tamil ethnic group remain second class citizens. The activism in the Diaspora has made politicians and the media more aware of the situation.
Dialogue between local communities and policy makers, at the Department for International Development or The Foreign Office, would be mutually beneficial. Policy makers can learn a huge amount from Diaspora communities about the conflict or problem in question. The Diaspora provide assistance with language, their own historical experiences and local customs which are often ignored.
On the part of the Diaspora member, their voices will be heard, they can raise awareness about their country of origin and they become involved in a vital political process.
My impressions from the evening left me with the feeling that the community representatives were happy to give up their time for the project but remained cautious over whether something will come of it; whether preliminary interviews will be transformed into real collaborative initiatives. The only downside to the evening was the no-show from MPs. Three were promised but only Lord McConnell was there and he had to leave after ten minutes.
What if the MPs’ absence was symbolic of the way that development and diplomacy should be addressed in the future? I would tentatively suggest that in the future the reigns of foreign policy should be more equally shared between political and non-political figures.
In what might be considered a radical approach to peace building and development, MPs should perhaps step away from the front line and allow members from the Diaspora and prominent and well experienced NGO professionals to lead conflict response with their corresponding actors in the country in question. I envisage a local-to-local policy network that is given the financial backing of Government but is not hindered by political etiquette that sometimes oversees the real needs of the people affected by conflict. This framework would also bypass the maybe blurred depiction of reality given by a host government to Britain.
For example, in the war ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo at the moment, the Diaspora in Britain and their pre-existing relationship with their former homeland would definitely be of some use to the Foreign Office or DfID. Or, would aid to Rwanda have been better managed if there had been local knowledge available to the British government about how much the local people were actual recipients of aid?
I would say it would have done. There is no doubt that a significant number of members from the Diaspora communities of Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan want to help their former homeland cement a peaceful future and want to help Britain act as a driving force in that process. The answers to sustainable peace and security are in need of re-evaluation. Having seen the near-impotence of the International community with regard to Syria, Britain could take a different direction and using the Diaspora could be part of it. This is by no means a black and white issue but it is an idea that I think should be addressed.
The world is globally connected – why not use it? The UN cannot be relied upon to ensure change, it is time to let the people from below have a go. I ask why not deploy diversity? It’s on our doorstep.