Somali-Swedish diaspora engagement in the Somali region

Many diaspora actors have a desire for stronger inclusion in policy processes that concern the Somali region and diaspora engagement. This offers opportunities for development agencies.

Nauja Kleist
30 May 2018

Former Deputy Mayor of Mogadishu speaks at a conference between Somali diaspora returnees and locals to promote good relations, June,2017. Wikicommons/AMISOM - Mohammed Imam Nur Ikar. Some rights reserved.

Diaspora groups have been recognized as development actors in policy circles since the early 2000s. Most attention has been paid to remittances sent to developing countries, whose volume is triple that of official development assistance. However, disaster relief, development projects and knowledge transfer are significant development contributions as well. Somali-Swedish diaspora engagement in the Somali region is a case in point, with activities ranging from water provision in drought-affected areas to promotion of women’s rights. Programmes supporting such involvement may strengthen its development potential but institutional and administrative constraints risk undermining the impact. 

Since the outbreak of civil war in Somalia in 1991, Somali refugees have settled all over the world, including Sweden. Somalis are well known for their transnational engagement in their erstwhile homeland, providing a lifeline in times of crisis and contributing to long-term processes of change. Sweden has become a significant hub for Somali diaspora engagement, with a rich and diverse civil society engagement.

There are numerous registered diaspora associations supporting development in the Somali region, including women’s associations, NGOs and umbrella organizations. Informal diasporic networks spanning several continents, mosques and businesses are also diaspora actors. Two diaspora support programmes exist, offering matched funding for Somali-Swedish diaspora associations working with development and for social entrepreneurship.

Diaspora projects receiving matched funding typically concern sustainable development, gender equality, human rights and job creation, in line with Swedish development priorities. However, many diaspora activities are self-funded through donations from Somalis in Sweden and sometimes globally. These projects tend to focus on health, education, water provision and drought relief. 

No matter whether their activities receive external funding or not, many diaspora actors explain their involvement as motivated by a sense of moral obligation in the face of suffering. “It’s like you have an obligation to give back” as one female activist put it, while a man explained how his development engagement was kicked off by a visit to his native town. Being devastated by the poverty he encountered there, he decided to do something himself. “There are opportunities in Sweden and there is funding for organizations”, he said and continued, “there is nobody else; who can it be rather than us?” “There is nobody else; who can it be rather than us?” 

Opportunities and challenges  

Somalia is a significant partner country for SIDA, being the fourth biggest recipient in 2016. Both SIDA and Somali-Swedish diaspora groups thus have extensive engagement in the Somali region. On the one hand, SIDA has a strategic interest in cultivating a strong relationship with Somali-Swedish development actors to further contributions in alignment with overall Swedish priorities and interests. On the other hand, progress in development and reconstruction in the Somali region is of huge importance for Somali-Swedes. Likewise matched funding for diaspora engagement makes it possible to upscale certain types of diaspora involvement. There are thus mutual opportunities and interests. 

However, it would be naïve to think that the relationship between the development industry and diaspora groups is all roses. One challenge concerns development modalities and priorities. Diaspora engagement tends to be flexible and cross-sectoral, spanning the often strict division between development and humanitarian relief in development cooperation agencies. Furthermore, some diaspora actors are simultaneously involved in family affairs, collective development projects, and perhaps a political career. They do not necessarily have a detached or neutral position vis-à-vis the target areas and populations, in other words, but may be personally involved at several levels. This causes skepticism among some development professionals concerning the effectiveness and compatibility of diaspora activities with development cooperation. Some diaspora actors are simultaneously involved in family affairs, collective development projects, and perhaps a political career.

Conversely, some diaspora actors question the appropriateness of Swedish development priorities and a rights-based approach that they characterize as out of touch with realities on the ground, while others emphasize the importance of gender equality, for example, and human rights. No matter what, diaspora actors call for more reconstruction and service delivery in contexts of abject poverty and post-conflict – like in much of the Somali region. Another challenge is extensive administrative procedures in combination with relatively short project duration periods of projects receiving matched funding. Most diaspora associations are run by volunteers and the excessive time spent on application, accounting and reporting constitutes a considerable constraint for many activists. 

What should be done?

Diaspora engagement in development is significant, long-term, and may benefit hard-to-reach populations. While it may be upscaled by matched funding, it is not determined by such support. That said, diaspora engagement is no silver bullet to development and there are no quick fixes. So what should be done? 

First, introducing enhanced flexibility vis-à-vis reconstruction activities and service delivery as well as faster and simpler administrative procedures would facilitate involvement in diaspora support programmes. It would also have wide resonance among diaspora actors and in the Somali region. This is important given the continued fragile situation and occurrence of complex crises.

Second, intensifying dialogue between policymakers and diaspora groups may enhance partnerships and mutual understanding. Many diaspora actors have a desire for stronger inclusion in policy processes that concern the Somali region and diaspora engagement. Here it is a final consideration that such collaboration offers opportunities for development agencies and diaspora actors alike. 

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