Scottish Connections (diaspora) work: qualitative research

Reports on findings from qualitative research looking at what successful a diaspora engagement strategy should consider and include. Provides a synthesis of existing evidence and an analysis of data from interviews and focus groups with key diaspora stakeholders.

3. Diaspora Engagement

The Development of Diaspora Strategies

A diaspora strategy has been defined as 'an explicit policy initiative or series of policy initiatives enacted by a sending state, or its peoples, aimed at fortifying and developing relationships with expatriate communities, diasporic populations, and foreign constituencies who share a special affinity'.[12] For many countries, 'arguably, the main intended goal of diaspora strategies is economic development'[13] or, perhaps rather more bluntly, 'familiarity breeds investment'.[14] Thus, diaspora networks act as an important conduit for portfolio and foreign investment between diasporas and homelands.

Some countries have developed diaspora strategies to try and counter a perceived 'brain drain' when talented individuals emigrate; such countries may have experienced difficulty accessing the capital and skills needed to succeed in the global economy.[15] Thus, some strategies focus specifically on its highly skilled members or its 'overachievers'. Such individuals are viewed as an important source of tangible help and resources and Scotland's GlobalScot network has been highlighted as an example of a successful process of matching diaspora members and institutions in the home country to generate and support collaborative projects.[16]

In the case of New Zealand, the development of a strategy was part of that country's neoliberal transformation and expatriates were seen as being useful in counteracting 'the feared market failure of brain drain'.[17] There was therefore a shift in policy, from encouraging skilled migrants to return to New Zealand to a policy of engaging expatriates in activities in their homeland without requiring them to return. This is similar to GlobalScot.

There is, however, a danger involved in diaspora policies which are overly focused on the economic aspects of the relationship. Thus:

The long-term project of building partnerships between governments and diasporas is much more likely to succeed if it has a strong foundation of good communication and mutual trust. Partnership is a two-way street. Too often, diasporas have felt that country-of-origin governments see them simply as cash cows.[18]

This is echoed by Ho et al,[19] who criticise diaspora policies which work along the lines of '"let me exploit our shared heritage for my sole gain" or "I see you as someone who can broker my interests"'. They argue for diaspora policies which adopt what they call a feminist care ethic. By that they mean policies which are not purely economic but also have an element of care or emotion tied to them. Thus, when resources flow between homeland and diaspora, there is a shared interest in preserving and narrating the story of the nation. Diaspora tourism is an illustration of the way in which these emotional ties are built up, as is diaspora engagement in cultural and social institutions and events in the homeland. Second, there is a 'moral' dimension whereby diasporas are always viewed as partners, not only for economic purposes but also to advance social agendas; diasporas may wish their contributions to be used in a particular way, perhaps in less advantaged parts of the homeland. Third, there is a 'service' dimension, where the homeland 'services' the diaspora and vice-versa. Such services tend to involve the provision of diplomatic protection and wider consular services abroad.

It is certainly the case that diaspora strategies have become increasingly varied and many have moved on from a purely economic focus. So, while diaspora relationships can be used to drive exports and/or inward investment, it has been argued that culture 'is the underlying glue that can bridge diaspora strategies', and it has been highlighted that many countries have not developed or focused sufficiently in this area.[20] What is clear is that members of the diaspora itself should be involved in meetings, fora and policy making, and they can contribute significantly to 'defining their home country's value proposition and nation brand'. Focusing specifically on Ireland, Aikins, Sands and White[21] suggest that culture is the great 'Gateway to Ireland' and has a powerful role to play in connecting with the 'Global Irish'. They state that:

Whereas a small number of exceptional people in the diaspora can make a considerable difference, the potential now exists for the first time to connect with very large numbers of the diaspora. These approaches are not mutually exclusive.

This more cultural focus has led to developments in diaspora tourism, with large numbers of tourists revisiting homelands to undertake genealogical research or to visit sites of personal meaning.[22] Some homelands operate 'homecoming' events; initially these may have been locally organised, such as Shetland's 'Hamefarins' in 1960 and 1985. More recently, they have been organised at a national level, such as the Welsh Homecoming of 2000, run by the Wales Tourist Board, the Scottish Year of Homecoming in 2009 and again in 2014, the 2013 Gathering in Ireland, and the Birthright Israel and Israel Experience programmes for Jewish youth from across the globe.

This development of diaspora tourism is an example of the shift in the relationship between diasporas and homelands. It reflects the fact that, over (and through) the generations, many diasporas may still wish to visit the home of their ancestors, without having any desire to move back to the homeland itself. Such tourism also, of course, has significant economic value, reflected in the diaspora strategies of several European countries.[23] In Ireland, for example, it has been a growth industry and large-scale Irish kin reunions are held each year where people of Irish descent congregate.[24]

Within diaspora strategies, there is often a service element, whereby the homeland services the diaspora, as well as the diaspora providing service to the homeland. This might involve the extension of citizenship, voting rights or diplomatic protection to the diaspora; Scotland, however, with a devolved government, would not be in a position to provide some of these elements. The diaspora, however, can 'service' the homeland through soft power, acting as ambassadors for the country and as informal diplomatic actors.[25]

As a result of legislative devolution in 1999 and, more specifically, the creation of a Scottish Government that could directly interact with the Scottish diaspora, Scotland has now been able to develop its own diaspora strategies and activities, following in the footsteps of countries such as Ireland. It is not necessary here to describe in detail the development of these, but we summarise it, before moving on to identify the themes emerging from this review, which informs the wider research study.

Scottish Government Diaspora Engagement

Although international relations are reserved to Westminster, Scottish governments have sought to engage internationally within the bounds of the devolution settlement, and engagement with the diaspora is a core element in this. In relation to North America, First Ministers post-devolution Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell attended Tartan Day celebrations in New York, and the Scottish Executive (as it then was) began to focus on the development of 'an international network of Scottish influencers that can assist Scottish economic success' throughout the world.[26]This work led to the establishment of the GlobalScot network, which has been seen as something of a model for leveraging highly skilled professionals among diasporas.[27]

Although the initial focus of diaspora engagement from Scotland was on business and economic development, this was not necessarily the chief interest of many members of the diaspora. In 2003-4, for example, the Scottish Parliament's European and External Relations Committee undertook an inquiry into the promotion of Scotland overseas and, of 74 submissions, 24 were received from diaspora individuals or organisations. It was striking that the majority of submissions from the diaspora referred to issues of heritage or ancestry and, in particular, Tartan Day as being the event that most engaged them. Subsequently, the Scottish Government commissioned research into improving its engagement with the United States. By 2017, Scotland had developed a more formal US Engagement Strategy.[28]

From 2007 onwards, the Scottish Government continued the work of its predecessor administrations, seeking to build on the ties of the diaspora, envisaging members as a potentially significant economic resource for Scotland and Scottish products throughout the world. Research identified eight areas of possible value that the diaspora represented to the Scottish Government, namely investment, transfers, trade, tourism, knowledge transfer, international influence, immigration and circular migration.[29] A subsequent Diaspora Engagement Plan was issued in 2010 and this clearly outlined, for the first time, the Scottish Government's 'ambitions for harnessing the power of Scotland's Diaspora'.[30] While the document spoke of a 'mutually beneficial' set of relationships, the diaspora was seen as a potential 'resource', which could 'contribute to the Government's core purpose of increasing sustainable economic growth for Scotland'. The three ways in which this could be achieved were identified as bringing the diaspora to Scotland to 'live, learn, visit, work and return'; promoting Scotland to the diaspora itself; and to 'manage' the reputation Scotland had with the diaspora, as 'an independent-minded and responsible nation'. Thus, this plan highlighted some strengths of a positive diaspora approach, but was strongly economic in its focus.

Perhaps because of this primary focus on economic growth, the Plan was targeted particularly at the 'lived' diaspora – those who had been born or who had lived in Scotland and then emigrated – and also the 'reverse' diaspora, namely immigrants to Scotland. The Plan also highlighted those organisations or agencies which were identified by the Government as 'key delivery partners'. These included VisitScotland, the Saltire Foundation, Scottish Enterprise and GlobalScot and they would present the opportunity to 'raise awareness of contemporary Scotland's strengths and culture'.

The Plan specifically highlighted the economic and communication aspects of engagement with the diaspora and this is a strategy that many other governments have followed. Clearly the diaspora can have a significant economic impact and can provide a significant source of skill transfers and wider civic experiences as well. However, establishing an environment in which the diaspora can fully contribute to the homeland, 'even in relatively more mature democracies'[31] requires new forms of thinking, and structures and policies need to be developed specifically for such aims.

Significantly, and in contrast to other countries which have developed a more cultural and tourism focus in their diaspora strategies, Scotland's Plan paid only limited attention to the 'ancestral' diaspora, although this is undoubtedly the Scottish diaspora's largest element. The Plan did, however, highlight this as an unfinished task and identified a priority to 'work with VisitScotland to develop a delivery plan to improve connections and service delivery around ancestral tourism opportunities and build connections with Affinity and Ancestral Diaspora groups'. Subsequently, VisitScotland have established an Ancestral Tourism Welcome Scheme, and of course, major initiatives like the Years of Homecoming have been targeted directly at ancestral Scots. Interestingly, the US Engagement Strategy, while retaining an economic focus, did emphasise the importance of strengthening educational links between Scotland and the US, particularly in regard to students participating in exchange programmes and their continued engagement as alumni.

More recently, there has also been the launch of Brand Scotland[32] in 2018, Education Scotland's strategy on international engagement, and ongoing work within the Scottish Government to develop a Cultural Diplomacy Strategy.

Emerging Themes

A number of themes emerged from an initial review of the literature on diaspora engagement and these informed our subsequent research – in particular the structure of and topics discussed in our interviews and focus groups

The main themes may be summarised as follows:

  • It is clear that there is no agreement on the size of the Scottish diaspora, nor of its wider location(s) and its general skillsets. In part, this is because, while data may exist on birthplace and ancestry, there is no way to measure accurately the size of the 'affinity' diaspora. There is therefore no comprehensive data on the Scottish diaspora currently available.
  • It is also clear that not all elements of diasporas are given equal weighting. Because of the strong economic focus in many strategies, those diaspora members involved in business and with the ability to invest in the homeland are often prioritised over 'ancestral' diaspora groups. In addition, those who may be classed as an 'affinity' diaspora have, in some cases, been deprioritised, not least for reasons of capacity. It appears, however, that in Scotland's case, the significance of this last group – who often include university alumni who have studied in Scotland, is now being recognised. It would appear that successful diaspora engagement should involve all its wider elements – 'lived', 'ancestral' and 'affinity' included.
  • Following on from this, a number of researchers (including ourselves)[33] have commented on the importance of engaging the diaspora in such a way that its contribution to the homeland is not seen solely in terms of investment and economic development. The diaspora does not wish to be seen simply as a 'cash cow'. The importance of cultural, historical and family connections must be recognised and emphasised. This research therefore seeks to explore the potential contributions of the diaspora in very broad terms, including, but certainly not limited to economic considerations.
  • It is pointed out in the literature[34] that the relationship between the homeland and the diaspora is a 'two-way street'. It is important therefore to explore what the diaspora feels it wants from Scotland, as much as what Scotland seeks from the diaspora.
  • Many researchers emphasise how diasporas are viewed as being important ambassadors for their homelands and how they can wield significant soft power as 'informal diplomatic actors'. This is a fruitful area to explore as, in the case of Scotland, there is clearly a great deal of goodwill towards the home country within its diaspora and many of its members may be willing to take on leading, if informal, roles.
  • A number of research studies have emphasised the importance of diaspora strategies which have a strong cultural as well as economic focus, so that ancestral diasporas are not excluded. The Scottish Government has a current Culture Strategy which includes a tourism focus.[35] It is now developing a Cultural Diplomacy Strategy and this will set out how the Government will assist the recovery of the cultural sector from the pandemic through international engagement, and how it will use the opportunities which cultural exchanges create in support of Scotland's broader international objectives.[36]
  • While they are considered very successful events and presentations of Scottish diaspora reach, research has shown that some in Scotland are uncomfortable with a focus on tartan and other traditional symbols of Scotland in events such as Tartan Day / Week to celebrate the links between Scotland and its diaspora.[37] It must be recognised, however, that many members of the ancestral diaspora in particular see a great significance in such symbols and their ties to Scotland are often focused around history, family genealogy and clan affinities[38]. Ancestral Scots may also contribute economically to Scotland through tourism and home visits and it is important that this is recognised.
  • University alumni are being increasingly recognised as important members of the diaspora. Some may be 'lived' diaspora, being born and raised in the country in which they study. But international students who study, for example at a Scottish college or university, may retain a strong affinity for Scotland after they graduate and leave Scotland. Strategies are increasingly making reference to alumni and Education Scotland emphasises the international aspects of Scottish education. An international strategy for higher education is also being developed by the Scottish Government and there are opportunities for cross-working with other forms of diaspora engagement. The contribution of the alumni is therefore discussed within this research.

These emerging themes have informed the interviews and focus groups which we have carried out and a fuller discussion of our approach is in the following Methodology section.



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