Tapping Our Trans-Local Potential for Change

Panther Kuol speaks at the Engaging Diasporas in Development Project launch.

This post was written by Joanna Ashworth and Shaheen Nanji, Project Directors.    

Simon Fraser University, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), is convening a public dialogue series called Engaging Diaspora in Development: Tapping Our Trans-local Potential for Change to explore the unique role of diaspora living in Metro Vancouver and the impact of their continued connection to the global south.

The first dialogue will be held on January 19th at SFU’s Wosk Centre for Dialogue (580 West Hastings Street, Vancouver) and will focus on diaspora-led efforts to reduce poverty and stimulate economic development.  Subsequent dialogues will examine health, education, peace and security and the overall impact and potential of diaspora in development. The dialogues are organized around the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) themes.

As the project directors (Dr. Joanna Ashworth is the former Director of Dialogue Programs at SFU and now a Senior Research Associate with the Centre for Sustainable Community Development and Ms. Shaheen Nanji is the Director of International Development with SFU International) we bring our own unique skills and experiences to the planning and are also well guided by a dynamic project advisory group of community and academic leaders who you will meet through these blog posts and through their active involvement in the community dialogues.

The term diaspora is protested by some, and embraced by others. While there are several definitions of diaspora, most have an explicit or implicit assumption of commonality based on ethnicity and nationality, a strong and shared sense of ‘home’ and a, sometimes mythical desire to return to that location. Diasporas are groups who have, through their history and often over several generations, migrated to more than one other place, reconstituted themselves as a community in their new locale, and who maintain social networks with their counterparts in other locales. Their sense of community can be formed by various commonalities, such as geographical origin, ethnicity or ancestry, or religion. What is at the core of the diasporic experience is a diversity of experience and hybridity of identity, and it is this core that forms the basis of the unique diasporic perspective on development.

Development is also a contested and sometimes contentious term. What we mean for this series of dialogues is simply this: Development refers to social processes of change, primarily in the Global South. When we speak of the trans-local potential of the diaspora it infers that social networks here in Vancouver inform the local actions taken by diaspora in global south communities. An example. Canadian born poet and artist Nadia Chaney (with a Muslim father and Catholic mother from India) has worked with street youth in Vancouver for a very long time. Most recently she has taken this local knowledge and expertise to her work with Partnerships for Youth Empowerment in Bangalore, India. Another example. Southern Sudanese refugee and SFU student Panther Kuol (pictured above) is deeply connected to his Canadian community and university. And he is actively engaged with his Sudanese diaspora in the historic referendum that he hopes will pave the way for southern independence. While he will continue his studies he aims to develop a business here in Canada that will in some way help others in his homeland.

So you see, Metro Vancouver is rich in diasporas originating from the Global South, from the established Chinese and Indian diasporas to the newer Afghan and Bhutanese diasporas. Members of the diaspora engage their communities, here in Vancouver and around the world, to facilitate change in their places of origin in a variety of ways. Remittances of funds to help support family members abroad, diaspora-led awareness- and fund-raising during crises like the recent Haitian earthquake, and smaller initiatives, that include community financed start-up funds for small businesses or fundraising to build schools receive periodic attention in the media. But what is the advantage that the diaspora bring to these efforts to reduce globally inequality? And what is the potential? There are so many stories of Canadians (yes, most diasporas ARE Canadians) doing awe-inspiring projects, and we want to hear them. So that we can understand, and we can ensure that we, as Canadians, are making the most of the tremendous resource that exists as we engage with the world.

These blog postings aim to jumpstart a dialogue with metro Vancouver’s citizens about the little discussed role of many of our trans-locally connected citizens, particularly from the global south, who are actively involved and representing Canada in their development work.

See the video from our project launch here.

Watch for the postings noted below leading up to the January 19 public dialogue. For more information on “Engaging Diaspora in Development: Tapping our Trans-local Potential for Change” take a look at our project website.

#2  Doug Olthof, Development Specialist, James Buswumtwi Sam, Professor of political Science, SFU: Sharing the stories of diaspora in development in Metro Vancouver

#3 John Harris, Professor and Director of the School for International Studies, SFU: What is poverty and what to do about it

#4 Sumana Wijeranta: Mobilizing the Sri Lankan diaspora and starting up a Foundation to create change

#5 Miriam Egwalu: Small economic hand up changes a village in Uganda


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