Over the past three weeks, I have published posts concerning issues that arose during Israel’s 1st Digital Diplomacy Conference held earlier this year in Tel Aviv. This week’s post will be the last in this series and will deal the issue of using digital tools for diaspora diplomacy.
New Patterns of Migration?
The 21st century is often depicted as the migration century. Whether it is refugees fleeing political persecution, citizens fleeing their homes due to war and violence or Polish doctors looking to establish practices in the UK, the global population is on the move. The establishment of new political entities such as the EU, alongside the globalization of the marketplace, have also fuelled this process of migration which has resulted in the formation of large Diasporas all over the globe.
However, migration and Diasporas are by no means unique to the 21st century. Following perpetual fighting amongst European powers, the 20th century also saw mass exoduses of civilian populations migrating from one country to another.
Diaspora diplomacy is also not unique to the 21st century. Diplomatic actors and foreign ministries have long since sought to connect with, and utilize, their Diasporas. One interesting example is Israel’s diaspora policy which altered during the 1980’s. Although Israel always regraded the Jewish diaspora as a foreign policy asset able to exert influence on foreign governments, its altitude towards expats was quite different. These were often regarded as cowards who fled Israel and abandoned it. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin went as far as to call Israeli ex-pats a “windfall of weaklings”.
However, throughout the 1980’s Israel began to alter its attitude and engage with expats. These were now seen as possible nodes in global networks of influence, finance and trade. By the late 1980’s, Israeli embassies were tasked with fostering and managing these new relationships with expats.
While migration, expats and Diasporas are not new to diplomacy, the 21st century has witnessed two important changes in Diaspora diplomacy brought about by the global proliferation of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) and SNS (Social Networking Sites).
New Diasporic Communities?
The first change in Diaspora diplomacy brought about by ICTs is the use of digital tools to ease the migration process. Traditionally, migration has been viewed as an emotionally demanding experience given one’s separation from his country, culture, community and family. During the 1980’s and 90’s maintaining ties with family members and communities was achieved mainly through letters or expensive telephone calls.
Yet ICTs and digital tools may have elevated some of the emotional burden placed on migrants and Diasporas. SNS such as Facebook and Twitter enable migrants to remain in close contact with their former communities. Smartphone applications such as WhatsApp help friends to maintain close ties while Skype had reduced the cost of continuous communication with one’s family. As such, it is possible that ICTs and digital tools have made migrating somewhat easier.
The second change to Diaspora diplomacy is the transition from imagined to virtual communities. Diasporas may have previously been conceived as imagined communities given that their size and geographic dispersal prevented expats from being personally acquainted with all members of the Diaspora. However, all Diaspora members were still part of the same community given their shared origin, language culture, norms and language.
Yet ICTs and digital tools have brought about the migration of Diasporas to the virtual world. Diasporic communities now utilize the internet and SNS to form websites, forums and dedicated profiles. Some of these are used to share information on upcoming cultural events, others contain information and analysis regrading events in countries of origin while other platforms are used for occupational purposes. The migration of Diasporic communities to the online world may have thus facilitated their transition from imagined to virtual communities that help large groups pf people maintain close and personal ties.
The question is how will these two changes impact diaspora diplomacy?
Digital Diaspora Diplomacy
Digital transformations tend to have contradicting and even conflicting consequences. For instance, the use of digital tools by diplomats has enabled them to engage with both foreign and domestic populations. The digitalization of Diasporas may also have conflicting impact on Diaspora diplomacy.
The fact that migration may now be a bit easier than it once was might lead to an increase in the global patterns of migration. As such, embassies may soon find themselves servicing and engaging with a growing number of expats. On the one hand, the growth of Diasporic communities may increase the importance of embassies and further facilitate the transition of power from the MFA to the embassy level. On the other hand, embassies may be over whelmed and over-burdened given the need to service ever growing communities (e.g., consular aid) with ever shrinking resources.
Another contradiction lies in the formation of virtual diasporic communities. One the one hand, embassies may now utilize SNS in order to strengthen their ties with virtual Diasporas. Dedicated Facebook pages and Twitter profiles may be used to disseminate information on upcoming embassy events. Similarly, embassies may use SNS to share information regarding events in countries of origins thus maintaining links between expats and their former homes. Such links are of strategic value to embassies as they may transform expats into foreign policy assets able to increase trade between countries and influence local policy makers. Finally, embassies may use SNS and other digital tools to reach out to diasporic communities outside national capitals. Thus, digital tools may enable embassies to overcome spatial limitations to Diaspora diplomacy.
On the other hand, virtual Diasporas may have already migrated to SNS and digital platforms. In the UK, for instance, African Diasporas often maintain their own websites and forums. Other smartphone apps are also used to transfer information regarding job opportunities. Thus, expats may have no incentive to join additional forums maintained by embassies. This state of affairs requires that embassies dedicate time and resources to mapping Diasporic virtual networks and then move to gain access to these networks. However, there is no assurance that Diasporic communities would grant such access.
In summary, migration and Diasporas are not new to diplomacy. Yet innovative technologies are impacting Diasporic communities and will subsequently impact Diaspora diplomacy. Embassies need to develop the competencies necessary to meet the challenges, and reap the benefits, that lay ahead.
Interested in Diaspora Diplomacy?- Follows our Facebook channel on May 20th as the Oxford #DigitalDiplomacy Research Groups holds a Diaspora Diplomacy Workshop. See more here.