Diaspora strategies for the knowledge economy

Governments around the world are beginning to think about their expatriate populations in new ways. Rather than expatriate business, cultural, scientific and policy actors being understood as ‘lost’ to their countries of origin, active efforts are now being made to identify and link highly skilled offshore citizens to national economic development projects through initiatives such as formal mentoring programmes, international advisory boards, and investment programmes. Diaspora Strategies are most often found in those countries that have experienced ‘brain drain’ and so are having difficulty accessing the capital and skills needed to succeed in the global economy. Today these countries include not only the developing countries of the so-called ‘South’ in which diasporic relationships have long been part of development strategies, but also ‘middling’ developed countries of the so-called ‘North’ such as New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Singapore and Ireland.


The active building of formal relationships between expatriate experts and economic development projects originated in developing countries during the post-war period, and was subsequently institutionalised in the UNDP initiated Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) programme. Still in operation, this programme has projects in over thirty countries, and involves experts who volunteer to go back to their countries of origin for periods usually ranging from one to six months. A more economistic understanding of the role of expatriates began to emerge in the 1960s, marked most notably with the emergence of the term ‘brain drain’ based on the human capital approach of Gary Becker (Meyer and Brown 1999). So-called ‘brain drain’ policies involve efforts to prevent or regulate flows of scientific and technological expertise from developing to developed countries. The challenge for policy makers was how to run ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain gain’ by encouraging highly skilled migrants to return home.

Today it is argued that ‘brain gain’ strategies have largely failed (World Bank 2005). Consequently many governments have begun to explore new policy measures that encourage expatriates to participate in their countries of origin without requiring them to return home. No longer is the diaspora simply the concern of migration officials, rather economic development agencies have become central, assisted in some cases by the efforts of international organisations. For example, the World Bank recently held a technical workshop in Latin America that focused on the design of Diaspora Strategies and contextualised these in the need for new forms of industrial policy predicated on high productivity employment. The result is active mobilisation of expatriates through initiatives such as investment conferences, industry and sector specific web links, the creation of expert databases, direct appeals by national leaders, short term visits by academics, mentors and industry specialists, and the explicit targeting of financial, market and technical expertise. It is in this context that expatriate presence in all OECD countries has also been measured for the first time (Dumont and Lemaitre 2005).

Unlike earlier diasporic networks that privileged cultural and educational relationships (such as embassy groups and alumni programmes), the primary aim of the formal Diaspora Strategies is to facilitate the transfer of advice, technical skills, finance, and market knowledge (market standards, financial practices, corporate governance) allowing more ready access into offshore markets. There is an explicit discussion about the need for Diaspora Strategies to distinguish between ‘alumni models’ that involve mass mobilization and the ‘overachievers model’ that focus on elite actors and target those who can influence corporate investment and decision making processes. In many cases, efforts to use Diaspora Strategies to help build a ‘knowledge based economy’ are also explicitly linked to new understandings of the role of universities and the establishment of business incubators in which connections can be made between fledgling businesses and expatriate networks (Lalkaka 2003).

The rise of Diaspora Strategies is significant because it demonstrates how state agencies, policy makers and individual citizens themselves have begun to think beyond national borders and are make efforts to generate non-territorial forms of organisation. However, to date the vocabulary of these strategies is that of the knowledge economy. Expatriates are being cast as new sources of financial, human and social capital. It is competitiveness, growth, skills, entrepreneurship and innovation that is privileged, and only rarely community and identity. Whether or not this in sustainable longer term remains to be seen.


Dumont J-C and G Lemaitre 2005 Counting Immigrants and Expatriates in OECD Countries: A New Perspective. OECD Directorate for Employment Labour and Social Affairs.

Lalkaka R 2003 Business Incubators in Developing Countries: characteristics and performance. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management 3(1/2), 31-55.

Larner, W 2007 Expatriate experts and globalising governmentalities: the New Zealand diaspora strategy. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 32 (3), 331–345.

Meyer J-B and M Brown 1999 Scientific Diasporas: A New Approach to the Brain Drain. Paris: UNESCO MOST Discussion paper No 41.

World Bank 2005 Transforming Brain Drain into Brain Gain: Diaspora networks of highly skilled for the benefits of countries of origin Workshop for public and private sector leaders, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 26-27 April.

Wendy Larner

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