Op-Ed Series – Vol.3 Issue: 3
June 18, 2020
Beyond Remittances: Covid-19 And The ‘Future’ Of African Diaspora – Homeland Relations
- COVID-19 provides a window for reflecting on the African diaspora and their relationship with their homelands, exploring continuities and changes, and paradoxes in the months or even years to come.
- COVID-19 could strengthen or weaken the relationship and commitment of African diaspora to homeland communities with serious socio-economic implications for the ‘poorest’ of the poor.
- The COVID-19 pandemic gives the impetus for a new kind of relationship, a broadening and deepening of engagement. It is possible and desirable that the relationship transcends remittances by expanding and deepening into a ‘two-sided’ or ‘multi-sided’ exchange.
- What COVID-19 has shown is the possibility of many African countries tapping into the expertise knowledge of their transnational citizens. This can be key in efforts at addressing the service gaps in their homeland countries.
It is incontrovertible that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to redefine everyday life across the world, including continental Africa. COVID-19 prevention and mitigation measures such as social distancing, lockdowns, and suspension of local and international travels are the new normal. This has implications for a variety of relationships and interactions, including those between the African diaspora and their homelands. It is no secret that members of the African diaspora are essential to the development stories of their homelands, and they are a core social support network.
The remittances from diaspora often surpass the amount of foreign aid that some of African countries receive. For instance, remittances to Nigeria in 2018 amounted to 6.1% of the annual GDP and was seven times more that the foreign aid received in 2017. As with other issues in the COVID-19 era, it is not impossible that the flow and volume of remittances would be impacted. Why? COVID-19 either triggers or worsens economic slow-downs in the Global North with implications for the earning power (jobs) and disposable incomes of African diaspora. Additionally, the travel-ban limits the ability of African diaspora to travel (and associated transfer of capital) to their homeland countries, at least in the short- to medium-term. To this extent, COVID-19 provides a window for reflecting on the African diaspora and their relationship with their homelands, exploring continuities and changes, and paradoxes in the months or even years to come.
At the minimum, COVID-19 will most likely reduce the flow of remittances to Africa in the short term. Before COVID-19, the remittance flow to developing nations was estimated to reach $574 billion in 2020 and $597 billion in 2021. With COVID-19, remittance flow to Africa has been adjusted downwards; it is estimated to drop by 23.1% to $37 billion versus the pre-COVID-19 estimate of $48 billion in 2019. Any significant drop in remittances (and this is one) has a direct impact on the socio-economic conditions of populations in most African countries, especially those who largely rely on remittance flows to cushion themselves from acute poverty. It also affects ongoing or planned economic investments and poverty alleviation initiatives by African diasporas. It could also reshape the relationship between African diaspora and government authorities and community leadership structures in their homelands. Perhaps it could reduce the leverage which the African diaspora have on their homeland.
Beyond the volume of remittances, COVID-19 raises questions and opens the possibility of transforming the mechanics of remittances; the change from cash-based transactions to technology-enabled formats such as mobile money. Many alternative platforms already exist, for example Ping express, WorldRemit or even Paypal. However, these platforms are less preferred because of high exchange rates and fees. COVID-19 offers a window for African Governments, Fin-Tech Companies and Financial Regulatory bodies (National and International) to address the barriers to the use of the new technology-enabled formats by Africans by reviewing regulations, exchange rates margins, charges and fees.
Expectedly, COVID-19 continues to impact African diaspora themselves with many losing their jobs (unemployed) or have their working hours reduced, leaving them unable to meet their own needs. Compared to the incidence of the Ebola virus in the MANO region in 2014, COVID-19 has made it difficult for members of the diaspora to rally support to their homeland. This new scenario has wider implications for the traditional nature of this diaspora-homeland relationship – is it time for home countries to begin to invest in their diaspora or to engage the diaspora in ‘other’ ways, or will this relationship continue to be ‘one- sided’? This is particularly important considering the disturbingly high death rates amongst ethnic minorities (including of African descent) in the Global North, many of whom constitute the diaspora and in most cases the bread winners of their families.
Of course, the prospect of African governments providing financial assistance to African diaspora would seem remote, still, the COVID-19 pandemic gives the impetus for a new kind of relationship, a broadening and deepening of engagement. This could include knowledge transfer (brain gain), technology exchange, investment advisory services, and cultural transfer services. The active role of African governments in facilitating the return of some of their stranded citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic could be the foundation of a new two-sided, and even a multi-sided relationship with African diaspora.
COVID-19 also alters the ‘physical’ dynamics of the diasporas’ engagement with the homeland. Before the virus, many in the diaspora (where they could), would travel back home frequently. Indeed, asides from holidaymakers or business travellers, the diaspora made up quite a large percentage of travellers to Africa. Going home means seeing loved ones, renewing cultural and emotional connections, checking in on local investments or just getting away from the hustle of everyday life in Western capitals. With the restrictions on international travel still in place, African diaspora are restricted to the use of technology to oil relations with their homeland, using platforms such as Skype, Zoom and WhatsApp. Video calls and online house parties have become the new norm. Interestingly, the video calls are also adaptable for monitoring investments and following socio-cultural events in their homelands.
It remains unclear at this stage if and how air travel will ever be the same (return to pre-COVID-19 era), the ongoing and expected changes to air travel will affect the engagement between African diaspora and homeland communities. On the one hand, the loss of revenue for many airlines heightens the fear of exorbitant prices. Given that airlines will need to change the processes of air-travel, including reducing the number of passengers or available seats, there is a higher chance that travel may become more expensive. And on the other, the introduction of new business models by airlines, including the streamlining of operations and flying routes, might mean that flight frequencies to some African countries will either be reduced or suspended (cancelled). This may reduce the possibility of African diaspora travelling to homeland countries and communities.
Beyond remittances and travel, the expertise of the diaspora has often been key in crisis situations. During the Ebola crisis for example, there were cases of Sierra Leonean doctors and other health professionals who returned home as volunteers. While doctors may not be flying home currently, they are being engaged in many countries albeit virtually. A case in point are the Ethiopian doctors and health experts in the United States who are being kept engaged through a live radio show. This clear effort at tapping into the expertise of African diaspora is not often without contention as there are times they have been perceived to be far removed from the realities of homeland communities. What COVID-19 has shown is the possibility of many countries tapping into the expertise knowledge of their transnational citizens. This can be key in efforts at addressing the service gaps in their homeland countries. It remains unclear if this relationship will be scaled up or sustained over the long-term, or whether it will be one of those ‘one-time’ engagements?
In conclusion, the diaspora continues to engage with homeland countries and communities in many ways. However, COVID-19 presents opportunities and challenges for the traditional relationship. It is possible and desirable that the relationship transcends remittances by expanding and deepening into a ‘two-sided’ or ‘multi-sided’ exchange. It is also an opportunity to leverage technology, and to reflect on ways of minimising barriers to increased knowledge transfer (brain gain) and cheaper and more efficient means of transferring capital to homeland countries. Crucially, COVID-19 will reduce remittances as it limits the capacity of African diaspora to raise and remit money and to visit and carry forward plans for investments in homeland countries and communities. Taking together, COVID-19 could strengthen or weaken the relationship and commitment of African diaspora to homeland communities with serious socio-economic implications for the ‘poorest’ of the poor. Clearly, COVID-19 will and is already changing the relationship between Africans in diaspora and homeland countries.
*Adeoti Dipeolu is a Research Associate and Doctoral Candidate with the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London. She is also the Program Coordinator of the ALC’s Leading Practitioners Reflection Series.