By Asmar Osman | Issue #22
More than 12 million Bangladeshis live across the world, of which around 2.4 million reside in the host countries permanently, and whom—despite many academic and policy debates—we can identify as the Bangladeshi diaspora. The sheer size of this community, along with its potential for engagement and development, is remarkable.
Why should we pay attention to their social capital in particular? The answer lies in the opportunities for knowledge-sharing and networking, particularly in education, skills, science, and technology. These collaborations could play a pivotal role in driving sustainable development in Bangladesh. Moreover, by tapping into the human resource potential of the diaspora, we can alleviate the government's burden of investing in long-term social protection schemes. This prospect may spur policymakers to embrace affirmative decisions prioritising diaspora engagement in the country's development trajectory.
Bangladesh, as a country, has its interests. But what will be the stake of the diaspora? The reasons behind their involvement are two-fold: finding solace in doing something good and seizing the opportunity to expand their networks and pursue personal goals. The development and migration nexus offers diaspora communities a chance to contribute to their home country's sustainable development while advancing their interests and aspirations abroad. In essence, this becomes an alternative social protection plan, fostering the growth of human resources among relevant stakeholders. Key informant interviews with researchers and diaspora members revealed that various incentives drive their engagement. Older-aged diaspora groups seek recognition and respect, middle-aged members value acknowledgement and some financial benefits, and new immigrants facing challenging times prioritise economic advantages. These incentives may act as magnets, attracting diaspora members to continue supporting and contributing to their country of origin.
Bangladesh has been fortunate to get continuous support from the diaspora communities since the country's liberation war. The financial remittance they sent significantly impacted the country's economic development. Meanwhile, their role in knowledge transfer has played a critical role in Bangladesh's development. For example, an American-Bangladeshi scientist Dr Hussam invented a filter that has saved thousands of lives from Arsenic contamination. The American-Bangladeshi scientists Rubab Khan, Dipanker Talukdara, and Selim Shariar—among many others, have built a firm footing in the scientific arena. American Bangladeshi Iqbal Quadir founded the Grameen Phone, transforming the country's digital communication scenario. British Bangladeshi Nadia Samdani continues art philanthropy endeavours in Bangladesh and beyond, for which she received the honour of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. American-Bangladeshi Rudmeela Nawsheen flourishes in Silicon Valley with IT endeavours and transferring technologies to Bangladesh. Also, inventions of the Bangladeshi diaspora have a global impact, which includes Jawed Karim (co-founder of YouTube), Salman Khan (founder of Khan Academy), and many more.
The Bangladeshi diaspora's emerging position in the host countries widens the opportunity for their engagement with the origin country. For example, in the UK election, four British-Bangladeshi won. Similarly, four Bangladeshi-origin candidates won in the American midterm election in 2022. Foysol Chowdhury, the first-ever Bangladeshi-born member of the Scottish Parliament, has raised a strong voice against racism. According to a report from The Economist, the new generation of British Bangladeshis is doing excellent at school. A recent mapping exercise estimates that many Bangladeshi diaspora members are well-positioned in the host countries and have the willingness to contribute to Bangladesh through their knowledge and skills.
There are challenges. Bangladesh still lacks a diaspora-centric policy and institutional mechanism to nourish the endeavours backed by a rights-based approach of acknowledging the diaspora's contribution and assisting them in their needs. The Bangladeshi policy measures often fail to effectively recognise and utilise the diaspora's social attribution—in a mutually beneficial manner. In general, the local education and skills development institutes are yet to facilitate an institutional exchange and transmission of knowledge mechanism between the diaspora and local communities. Moreover, the review of policies and discussion with the stakeholders reveal that the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment (MoEWOE) and the Ministry of Education (MoE) lack a robust joint action plan with a dynamic coordination mechanism.
States have the ability to actively engage, enable and empower diaspora communities by implementing policies and taking actions that prioritise communication, outreach, and collaboration. By fostering effective communication channels, the Bangladeshi government can ensure that diasporas are engaged, and their voices are heard. Outreach efforts can bridge the gap between the state and the diaspora, fostering a sense of connection and shared purpose. In addition, it can leverage the diaspora's collective strengths and resources to drive development initiatives through partnerships with diaspora organisations and individuals. These proactive measures by the government enable them to harness the potential of diaspora communities and create a conducive environment for their active participation in development endeavours.
The good thing is that Bangladesh already has a dedicated Ministry (i.e. MoEWOE) and a full-fledged policy to cater to the Bangladeshi expatriates' needs. Still, the policy primarily focuses on short-term migrant workers. A visionary policy supported by a time-bound action plan is a mandatory stepping stone. But initially, long-term policy measures may not seem lucrative for the diaspora. On the other hand, some quick and respectful actions may help to rebuild their bonding with the origin and their willingness to participate in the development journey of the origin country.
What are those immediate plausible actions? The first and foremost task is to define the Bangladeshi diaspora through a flexible operational definition, including the new generation diaspora, by providing a diaspora card or something similar to them to create their respectful engagement base. As two-thirds of the total Bangladeshi diaspora population resides in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, the area-centric all-out diplomatic endeavours—engaging the diaspora spokespersons as public diplomats—could bring visible changes quickly. To utilise the potential, the MoE, in collaboration with the MoEWOE, must initiate a formal partnership between the two countries' skills accreditation agencies and educational institutes. As long as coordination remains a crucial challenge in the active engagement of the diaspora members in Bangladesh's development, a specialised wing in the MoEWOE aided by an Advisory Group including diaspora members requires formation with a clear road map and specific business rules. So that's all to start with!
Asmar Osman, an economist by education, has been working as a Development Researcher with the Human Development Research Centre (HDRC), Bangladesh, since 2005. He has a decade-long research experience on the migration-diaspora-development nexus with the IOM and ILO. Apart from research with a purpose, Asmar loves to be with kids, reading, and doing nothing. He lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Mail: email@example.com