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Diasporas scientifiques

Rémi Barré
Valeria Hernández
Jean-Baptiste Meyer
et al.

English Version

Synopsis – point two. Tentative characterisation of scientific and technical diasporas

Texte intégral

1Here we tentatively characterise S&T diasporas as organisational forms, assessing their role, activities and positioning. We start with some S&T diaspora case studies, analysing four aspects: origin of the network and members' motivations, activities and products, relations with the home country, and organisation and functioning.

2Increasingly over the past ten years, expatriates from developing countries working in highly skilled jobs in Northern countries have been forming organised groups. The survey conducted for the purposes of our report identified some two hundred such groups. There is clearly a movement under way to organise on a regional or national basis for professional purposes.

3However, in most cases the information available is too slight for an adequate assessment, characterisation and classification of the group. Not all of them meet all the criteria laid down by the panel to define S&T diasporas (i.e. Self-organisation of expatriates, activities geared to the development of the home country or region, sphere of activity in science, technology or higher education).

4To acquire a useful empirical information base, the panel selected networks or associations whose activities were well-documented, whose work is directed towards West, East or southern Africa, India, China or Latin America (the southern cone and Colombia). The data about them were entered in a matrix so as to compare them and make a transversal analysis. This purpose of this comparative approach to the groups' actual practices was to identify common features and provide a more general understanding of the phenomenon.

5Following the analysis matrix criteria, we here consider how the networks arose, their members' motivations, their activities and products, and the co-operative relations they forge.


How S&T diasporas are founded

6Some networks set up entirely on a government initiative are not as active or internally lively as they could be, but a complete lack of government involvement can also discourage expatriates who have taken the initiative to organise themselves as a group. One characteristic of S&T diasporas is the balance they define between dependence and independence.

  • 1 A network can be created by a government initiative and yet meet the "self-organisation" criterion (...)

7Some diaspora networks were initiatly set up on a government initiative1, others by expatriates themselves. This difference generates different internal dynamics. To take one example, the South African government regards its diaspora as a part of its development policy and a vector for skills transfer to sectors within the country that need highly skilled people. SANSA, the South African Network of Skills Abroad, is one of the arrangements set up to achieve this transfer. SANSA has all the features of an official activity (a firm material and symbolic grounding, free membership, free access to services) and can count on a consensus (at home and abroad) as to the value of its role. However, because it is government-run, some expatriates see it as foreign to their needs, with the result that members generally do not invest much energy in it. As a result, the network is not very lively considering how much it costs the government in terms of permanent staffing and infrastructures (see Part 2 of the report on CD-ROM, Chapter 8, M. Brown).

8Another danger with government-initiative networks is that of political dependency. Government policy on a network may be unfavourable simply because it was promoted by an earlier government, or because most of its members do not share government objectives. The Caldas network of Colombian expatriates, for example, functioned very well to start with, but its momentum collapsed with the arrival of a new government; network members became discouraged by the enormity of the tasks confronting them.

9However, there are also dangers with networks formed purely from spontaneous private initiative. For the AAAA, an association of Addis Ababa University alumni, the lack of government commitment makes it difficult to establish a base in the home country. As a result, co-ordination is poor and the group weak, its activities limited to individual initiatives.

How networks grow

10There are two ways in which networks develop: empirical processes based on affinity and proximity, and a systematic process, generally with help from the home country, using IT infrastructure.

11As we have seen, an S&T diaspora may be formed either by spontaneous self-organisation or in response to an appeal by the home country government. This will affect the way the network builds up. A self-organised S&T diaspora usually develops empirically, by word of mouth, appeals via Internet newsgroups, or simply through networks of contact among expatriates in their host countries. In other cases the process is more systematic and requires some degree of organisation, using the records of a national agency (e.g. Records of grants and fellowships), lists held by consulates, or mobilising expatriate members of associations of university alumni who have maintained links with their alma mater (a very effective method for US universities).

12Mobilisation is less effective when contacts are indirect, using systematic census methods, as there is no help from social networks. Expatriates who are contacted this way but do not join, say this is not because they are not interested, but because they have no immediate reason to do so.

Members' motivations

13Members' motivations vary; professional and philanthropic reasons play a significant part but are not the only factors.

14S&T diaspora members' motivations are very varied, reflecting the fact that they belong to a wide range of occupational categories: junior and senior scientists and engineers, long- or short-stay post-doctoral and doctoral students.

15All initiatives leading to the creation of a S&T diaspora start from some kind of personal motivation:

  • Professional motives, e.g. Expatriate doctors who continue clinical practice in India so as to maintain their experience of particular diseases in order to develop vaccines. Another example is that of professional organisations of expatriate Indian ICT specialists whose prime purpose is to provide their members with a social circle in their profession in the United States.
  • Economic and financial motives in the case of associations of Indian professionals seeking contacts with local markets, or networks of Chinese or Indian managers working for a multinational corporation.
  • Philanthropic motives, especially in health and education. Typical examples are Indian students working in a village for a period, and doctors exercising their speciality free of charge in hospitals for the poor. Large associations with highly-qualified members, such as the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) with its 35,000 practitioner members and 10,000 student members, are able to send a constant flow of volunteers.
  • Political motives, as with the Uruguayan and Ethiopian associations.

16In fact, personal motivation is often a mixture of factors. There is no single explanation why a person gets involved in an S&T diaspora network. In general, a nationalist approach does not seem to be people's main reason for joining (many network members are highly critical of their home countries) but rather, in most cases, the desire to work on projects that are directly useful to their compatriots, or are interesting from a professional standpoint.


17The S&T diasporas' basic activities are building a scientific community, gathering, managing and circulating information about members' skills, organising scientific events and training, and contributing to S&T infrastructure in the home country.

18Almost all S&T diasporas provide services to members, such as help in becoming integrated in the host country and disseminating information useful to expatriates. In many cases this type of activity predominates. Most S&T diasporas work to develop links among expatriates:

  • help for students arriving from the home country,
  • establishing a communication and information network among members via the Internet,
  • producing a network newsletter or other material means of communicating and maintaining links.

19However, a defining feature of S&T diasporas is that helping the home country by taking part in S&T development is also one of their objectives. What this means in practice depends on the network's particular aims and its relations with the home country. Example activities are:

  • creating debating forums, particularly on issues relating to the scientific and technical development of the home country;
  • establishing databases on expatriates with their fields of specialisation, their disciplines etc.;
  • activities to strengthen the home country's teaching, research and innovation infrastructure.

20These activities generally go hand in hand with such support and assistance activities as:

  • mobilising resources for humanitarian causes and for the education of young people at home or abroad;
  • helping new arrivals integrate in the host country;
  • training the second generation of expatriates;
  • representing expatriates in dealings with the authorities in both host country and home country.

21Some S&T diasporas that have reached a certain size also:

  • send books, journals and technical equipment to the home country;
  • put actors in the home country in touch with relevant information sources;
  • exchange scientific information and technical knowledge among different expatriate centres aboard;
  • join forces with partners in the home country in projects set up in the host country or region.

22For example, the AAAA mobilised to raise funds to support Ethiopian AIDS research; the Colombian expatriate group ASIS is mainly involved in health, environment, IT and engineering in connection with specific needs in the Colombian provinces.

23S&T diasporas are particularly effective agents for developing in Northern countries issues specific to the scientific agenda of the South. An expatriate scientist interested in development co-operation is not only aware of the specific problems of Southern societies, but also shares the culture and language of the co-operation partners, so facilitating interactions with local communities.

24S&T diasporas activities can be divided into four main groups:

  1. Collectively building a scientific community with an interest in the home country, through such actions as:
    • hospitality for students, scientists and teachers in host countries and helping them return home and integrate into home society again (examples in Taiwan, China and Korea);
    • circulation of individuals on specific subjects, organising scientific encounters, fostering the circulation of information and equipment, helping to mobilise resources for joint contracts. Home country scientific institutions can then call on such cooperative communities (e.g. Experts from the Colombian network Caldas who took part in establishing a national electronics and automation programme, and Latin American S&T diasporas working on biomedical science and environment).
  2. Gathering, managing and circulating information about members' skills, so that individuals, institutions and businesses can find qualified people for particular projects (the SANSA network, for example, offers every possibility for distance recruitment for very precise profiles).
  3. Scientific events and training: this may involve prior production of state-of-the-art reviews, manuals and teaching programmes, or training in the home country, advisory services for government agencies or institutions, business or ngos. It may mean helping to run or assess projects or programmes in the home country (e.g. Chinese university teachers in the USA who temporarily return home under the expatriate skills circulation programmes recently introduced by the Beijing government).
  4. Contributing to S&T infrastructure in the home country, e.g. Communication equipment, computers, documentary resources and libraries etc. Many S&T diasporas ship books, journals etc. To their countries of origin.

25The S&T diasporas are obviously not the only organisations involved in this kind of activity. But their first-hand knowledge of local conditions, constantly updated by regular contacts, is a significant advantage over development initiatives by host country administrations without detailed knowledge of the way the target communities function. S&T diasporas can be vectors of more effectively targeted transfers.

26In conclusion, the finding that S&T diasporas fulfil two important roles (ensuring that Southern issues are taken into account in the North, and as vectors of effective transfer of knowledge to communities in the home country) justified the notion that they can be used to leverage an overhaul of French development co-operation policy. An approach that challenges the routine framework and favours a “local” policy can now be envisaged.


27Relations with the home country include relations with the home government and with actors in business and in scientific and technical circles. These relationships vary, but there is every reason why they should be complicated.

Relations with government authorities

28The type of relationship an S&T diaspora has with its home country government strongly affects its capacity to invest in the home country. It can be a dependent relationship, one of latent conflict, or a complementary one.

29China is an interesting example in this connection. Chinese expatriates have managed to set up relatively independent structures that nonetheless enjoy official recognition in China, expressed both symbolically and materially. To take advantage of the potential their diaspora represents, the Chinese authorities have changed the legal framework (recognition of dual nationality and dual job-holding), have improved economic conditions for returnees (salaries in some cases far above the equivalent Chinese salaries, bonuses, etc.) And established a specific status for expatriates wishing to work in collaboration with China (honorary posts, national awards, remuneration, etc.).

30On the expatriate side, Chinese organisations in the United States have efficient administrative, electronic and editorial logistics that make it easy to communicate among themselves and access information – two key points for the internal dynamics of such a large group. Although it is difficult to assess quite how independent of the Chinese government these groups are, some have sufficient autonomy to display a degree of pragmatism and not dependent too heavily on the vagaries of domestic politics.

31The Indian diaspora networks, by and large, although relatively independent of their home government, are not yet as successful as their Chinese counterparts. The government has not set up structures and arrangements to manage relations with the welter of expatriate associations, networks and organisations covering everything from business and health to philanthropic investment and education. The Indian diaspora has immense potential in these fields: it has critical mass and its members possess skills that are recognised the world over, particularly in ICT.

32However, the Indian government does not accept dual nationality or dual job-holding and has no explicit policy on the status of the diaspora, so reducing expatriates' capacity to invest in India. Some official instruments encourage relations with the diaspora while others restrict them because of suspicions that some expatriate organisations are involved in illegal activities such as money laundering. This contradiction has been analysed by a special committee investigating the role the Indian diaspora could play with regard to the home country (see Part 2 of the report on CD-ROM, Chapter 9, B. Khadria).

Relations with business

33Expatriates with a foot in each world can be excellent ambassadors for national interests and well-qualified discussion partners for entrepreneurs in both countries. This is an important part of the role of some S&T diasporas.

34Relations between diaspora networks and the private sector are shaped by globalisation and the functioning of international markets. To take the example of companies delocalising production from industrialised countries to the emerging countries of Asia (especially in high technology sectors, biotechnology, informatics etc.), Diaspora networks can help their home countries benefit from this global market trend by acting as mediators between the private sector of the host country and potential partners in their home country.

Relations with the home country scientific and technical community

35S&T diasporas are in a delicate position vis-à-vis S&T professionals in the home country, who may be destabilised by S&T diaspora activities.

36African expatriates mention a particular problem with regard to colleagues who have stayed at home. They say it is hard to develop a reliable partnership, because home country networks are very tight-knit and the arrival of new partners may disrupt established situations and traditions. This can discourage initiatives outside of pre-existing relations. The weight of existing relationship patterns was also mentioned in connection with Colombia and Ethiopia.

37This tight-knit social web that protects interests (or indeed patronage systems) can be a real obstacle to relations with the diaspora, yet for the S&T diasporas to act effectively, they need to be recognised and integrated into the fabric of home country institutions.

38However, official recognition of the role of expatriates does not necessarily solve the problems. The fact that China pays a bonus to expatriate scientists coming home as visiting scientists, or appoints them to head major scientific institutions, makes relations difficult between local scientists and their expatriate colleagues (see in Part 2 of the report on CD-ROM, Chapter 10, Y. Guo).

39Expatriates have an extraterritorial status that protects them from dependency on the authorities back home. This exteriority is paradoxically dangerous if expatriates get to thinking they can dispense with all negotiation when they want to make a practical contribution to the home country.


Relationships within the network

40Some S&T diasporas succeed in establishing a varied system of communication and relations among members, with the home country and with the host country. Others are narrower in scope despite using high-quality IT resources.

41S&T diasporas are characterised by the methods members use to communicate among themselves. These methods shape relations among members and with host country and home country.

42For some S&T diasporas, the core of the system is the membership list in a computer file. This is the case with the South African network, which has a powerful computer arsenal but a low level of social life with regard to home country and host countries alike.

43Some Indian and Chinese associations, by contrast, have developed structures in which information circulates well, internally and to the host country and home country. They use not only electronic means but also magazines, television and radio, plus social events such as parties, meetings and ceremonies, which are very effective as symbolic communication and also for establishing links with local host country communities.

44Relations between expatriates and home country nationals are not simple (see previous section). To work together for development, both must be involved in initiatives, choices and decision-making. Matching what the diaspora can offer with needs in the home country requires a space where this exchange can take place, priorities can be selected and resources allocated. Some networks have created this type of exchange, albeit on an occasional basis, for example holding general assemblies in the home country capital for local representatives of the network from host countries. But if exchange and representation is not regular, it does not lead to decisions to which the actors are prepared to commit themselves.

Use of information and communication technology

45S&T diasporas, even those from countries that have less advanced telecommunications infrastructures, make extensive use of the Internet. But it is conventional use: posting a website, using e-mail. New technical possibilities in the past two years have made distance working in collaboration with others increasingly easier; the technical factor is now less of a limitation than are organisational factors and readiness to make use of opportunities.

46Today's networks of highly qualified expatriates were born of the Internet. Many were created directly by using the Web or e-mail to hunt for, contact and recruit potential members around the world. There are now few S&T diasporas networks that do not make regular use of the Internet in their activities.

47The S&T diasporas websites we examined fulfil two key roles for their organisations:

  • supporting the self-organisation process (presenting the network, informing members or partners, common actions and decisionmaking);
  • providing for the sharing of knowledge, information and experience (documentation, teaching materials, publication, surfing).

48Before, the expatriate was only able to maintain limited, sporadic links through periodic visits home, even if these links were useful. Now, activities are much more reactive and synchronised. The S&T diasporas make intensive use of ICT. Countries with weak Internet infrastructure may have diasporas that are very active on the Web. This is because IT capability can partly be delocalised, in the sense that a computer in a Southern country can use the Internet to access a whole network of technical or social resources in the North. Many S&T diaspora networks' electronic lists are managed from outside the country on the Internet hosts of the organisations to which their expatriate members belong.

49However, the S&T diasporas make only conventional use of their ICT resources. The websites do little more than disseminate information. While many of them display their goals and activities, few regularly update the information, offer online help or have an internal search engine. Even very recently, most collective use of the Internet was based on message managers. One can fairly conclude that the S&T diasporas under-use available ICT potential. This is less due to lack of skills (many have computer specialists among their members) than to organisational problems.

50However, use of the Internet as a medium for collective activities has been growing over the past two years, and new functionalities are emerging. The notion of shared editors is becoming better known and use of these cooperative workspaces is spreading. The changes under way allow visible traces of group activity. We are heading for the start of real online working; exchange and construction of common knowledge, storage of online exchanges. Different areas are interconnecting. Also, the improvement in translation tools is making multicultural exchanges easier. Intellectual distance working will become easier, and these developments will boost the activities of S&T diasporas that know how to use them to advantage.

51However, interconnection does not in itself guarantee a firm, lasting and productive link. High-quality human mediation is indispensable. Those S&T diasporas that have proven capable of good electronic communication and generated a momentum, have had active moderators or coordinators.

Relations between networks: the federal model

52Where local organisations form a federation, a model we encountered in several instances, their capacity to negotiate with home country and host country improves. The current emergence of federations of migrants' organisations offers S&T diasporas the possibility of joining forces with others to develop their projects.

53Migrants' associations like the Hispanic home town associations (htas) in the USA and the African and Asian migrants' solidarity organisations in France are becoming stronger, and this is partly because they are coming together in federations. Federating in this way is an undoubted asset for diasporas, as it enables them to achieve a fairly large critical mass and several specialisation and spheres of activity.

54The purpose of these federations is to give their member associations sufficient capacity to conduct development projects in their home countries. Their goals are to:

  • pool skills and share technical resources,
  • develop training for members and make the organisations' activities more professional,
  • acquire the capacity to negotiate with State institutions (home country and host country) and access to project financing and cooperation funds.

55Because federations have more resources, infrastructure and social relations, they can sometimes hire office staff so that association members can concentrate on co-operation and development activities for their home countries and building links between home country and host country.

56At present, most S&T diasporas are small (in terms of membership numbers and resources) and mainly rely on members' availability. Members spend their spare time (after work and time with their families) on running the organisation and handling relations with home country and host country. This obviously weakens the organisation and points up the need for professional input in addition to the voluntary work. Federating with other groups makes this possible.

The reference area: national or regional

57ALAS (Association of Latin-American Scientists) and the MIDA programme (Migration for Development in Africa) are examples of S&T diasporas, or federations of S&T diasporas, built up on a regional basis. This is a particularly suitable form of organisation for small countries.

58Regionalisation of S&T diasporas is often deeply meaningful for members because, as they say themselves, away from home they feel less like nationals of a particular country than African or Latin American, for example. The specific national reference is replaced (in France, for example) by pan-Africanism.

59The question is then what institutional support and discussion partners they may find. In practice, regional-scale S&T diasporas are not created and supported by countries but by international organisations: ALAS (Association of Latin-American Scientists) by Unesco, and currently the MIDAS programme (Migration for Development in Africa) by the IOM. These programmes emerge from identifying/ contacting expatriate regional/continental skills that are then made available to each State in the region concerned (from a database). This is a wise approach because it makes it possible to meet very specific needs by covering a wider range of skills than a single country's expatriates can encompass.

60For small countries with few mobilisable expatriates, the advantage is obvious. This programmatic approach provides them with a critical mass they could never have achieved on their own. Often, however, governments do not get deeply involved because they do not feel directly concerned. Their support for the activities of regional S&T diasporas is uncertain and requires constant investment by the international organisations in question.


61From the above examination we see that there is no single S&T diaspora model that stands out: for each defining criterion, we find S&T diasporas right across the spectrum of possibilities

62We have examined the cases of a certain number of S&T diasporas according to the origin of each one, its members' motivations, its activities and products, its relations with the home country, how it is organised and how it functions.

  • 2 A self-organised community of expatriate scientists and engineers working for the development of t (...)

63Although we have identified active networks that match our definition of an S&T diaspora2, we have not identified a standard form of S&T diaspora. We have also seen that several of the S&T diasporas identified were recently formed, or had recently changed their form.

64We conclude that the S&T diaspora is a form of organisation that is growing, is not stabilised, is not sufficiently well known and will probably develop further.

65This analysis suggests that in view of the complex, multiform and still evolving nature of S&T diasporas, a support policy cannot be designed as a simple extension of conventional support policies.

66Before examining the hypothesis that a policy of supporting S&T diasporas would be useful, we set out some with facts to help assess current trends in S&T diasporas and in the policies of home countries and host countries.


1 A network can be created by a government initiative and yet meet the "self-organisation" criterion laid down to define S&T diasporas (see definition in introduction). A distinction must be made between the event that leads to the founding of a network, and the network as "object".

2 A self-organised community of expatriate scientists and engineers working for the development of their home country or region, mainly in the areas of science, technology and higher education.

© IRD Éditions, 2003

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