I was stoked about Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) visit to the United States. It was the realisation of an improbable event that the Ethiopian immigrant community would have thought impossible merely half a year ago.
Not to be accused of Trumpian hyperbole, but this is a moment in history that Ethiopians can ill afford to muck up. The leadership with the gusto, vision and sincerity to serve is here. We should flesh out the remaining imperatives taking full advantage of this gaping hole of an opening that Abiy has thrust upon us.
I know the cynics are out there cautioning against a messianic complex. Sceptics are warning of a sheep in wolf’s clothing since EPRDF is Abiy’s hosting party. While everyone is entitled to their worldview, the sceptics should act as a loyalist opposition and condemn the violence that is claiming lives, limbs and properties. They ought to roll up their sleeves and prepare alternatives. It is time to make up for lost time.
The diaspora community should contribute to this effort. The diaspora today is highly stratified, covering multiple generations and economic and political positions since my emigration from Ethiopia in 1974.
As a pioneering returnee to Ethiopia in the late 1990s, my perspective may be dulled by the pace of change in the composition of this entity over the last two decades. This desire to inject input into the current euphoria of change is because of the promises that portend Abiy’s United States tour.
A near-unanimous approval for an Ethiopian head of government by both Ethiopian resident nationals and the diaspora, especially one coming out of the womb of EPRDF – which is discredited to a large portion of the diaspora – is truly phenomenal.
It is a no-brainer that this creates a massive opportunity for synergy among Ethiopian residents and their diaspora kin. The diaspora is largely in an advantageous position economically but desperate to maintain spiritual, cultural, social, psychological and even economic links.
The political alienation from successive regimes in Ethiopia has dampened ambitions over the decades, and false starts and fits have in succession failed to live up to expectations. A sustained diaspora engagement is truly transformative and desired.
While the Jewish Diaspora in the creation and flourishing of Israel is a glaring example, many other useful comparisons are available. Chinese, Indian, Filipinos and, closer to home, Egyptians and Sudanese make significant contributions to the development and sustenance of their home countries.
Even Somalis and Eritreans, albeit with variable motivations, by coercion, or desperation – as is the case with Somalians – can be perceived to be doing a better job than Ethiopians. It is not because we are less nationalistic – one would argue that we are hyper-nationalistic – but as a result of a collective let down by past leaders that we remain reticent to engage in Ethiopia at the level of distinction among our peer countries.
The result is not just resignation but open hostility and counterproductive activities that parcel out punishment on our nation-state. Political engagement is a favourite diaspora past time with hardcore leftists moving the needle disproportionately in their direction. They have been punching above their weight for so long that they have embittered the silent majority into submission to the drudgery of daily immigrant life.
Individuals may send remittances in small lots to their families, but there are little or no structured investment considerations or charitable activities. The new political dynamics may change this trajectory and trigger a diaspora excitement toward engagement in the home country. The inertia is too great at the moment, thus lots of coaxing and cajoling has to be coupled with incentive-laced greasing to remove the friction.
A definitive study needs to be done on the role of diaspora in impacting economic development for source countries. Many studies do exist, and selective book reviews may suffice, coupled with scientific polling of our folks overseas.
Incentives previously granted, such as personal effects and tax exemptions, which was withdrawn as a knee-jerk reaction to abuse, should be reinstated with safeguards in place for proper policing, transparency and prosecution of violators.
Pull factors such as land, residential schemes and employment opportunities need consideration as well, just as dual citizenship should be put on the table. It is not unique to Ethiopia and has many benefits. Just as important is not to exclude Ethiopian-born non-nationals from investment options, such as the financial sector.
As many in the diaspora are well established in their resident countries and may not wish to relocate, remote investment modalities such as shareholding, equity exchanges, stock markets, securities’ exchanges and secondary bond markets are some of the platforms that will be significant in mobilizing the billions of investment holdings estimated to be present among the diaspora globally. The Ethiopian government’s delay in creating a stock exchange is a necessary first step in facilitating the mobilisation of resources.
Academics, lawyers, engineers and other professionals have also been deterred by layers of bureaucratic barriers to practice their trades. Accreditation notwithstanding, peer review or an independent accreditor should take the politics out of these decisions that prevent non-nationals from participating in the national economy.
Staffing returnees together with tenured civil servants at the diaspora desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will help. Unqualified bureaucrats have discouraged returnees such as me in the past. They can hardly be good recruiters when they cannot properly accommodate motivated returnees.
Regular dialogue forums need to be established for discussions between embassies and the diaspora community they serve. Joint committees for such discussions are an excellent vehicle for enumerating guiding issues and solutions.
A predictable policy environment, a reliable and independent judiciary that enforces contracts and adjudicates according to the law and a revitalised democracy are on the short list as well. I feel sufficient rhetoric has been heard that suggests this is forthcoming, but the emphasis needs to be put on its expedited implementation.
The diaspora on its part needs to take full advantage of this reform movement and not wait too long to participate. An early and sustained engagement on any level will only support the reform movement and silence potential saboteurs by denying them self-affirming oxygen. This is a long journey, not a destination. We need people to get on board this train and implement the reform as soon, and in any constructive ways, as possible.
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