Love (from Afar) in the Time of Covid-19: Diaspora Humanitarianism and Pandemic Response

By Bashair Ahmed and Paul Asquith

Published on African Argument

With close links to origin countries, diasporas can mobilise quickly in a humanitarian crisis. They have access to affected communities, and they know how to deliver critical resources in areas that are difficult to access. Most importantly, they often enjoy the trust of these communities because they are engaged with them long before the onset of a crisis. Diasporas will also continue to be involved after a crisis has subsided, making them an essential partner in recovery and preparedness.

For many in the international aid sector, recognition of diaspora humanitarian action has been a very recent phenomenon. However, while some will be aware of the support diasporas provide to their kith and kin in origin countries during complex emergencies, such as in Somalia or Syria, it has not been widely recognised in the humanitarian sector until the last decade or so, and it is an area that is still poorly understood.

One of the gaps that we seek to explore is the phenomenon of diaspora humanitarian action, and how it is likely to continue in parallel to ‘traditional’ humanitarian actors in the response to Covid-19. With minimal recognition and even less effort to coordinate with diaspora, is it possible that diaspora are outflanking traditional humanitarian actors in the response to the coronavirus pandemic? For example, Sudanese health professionals are coordinating globally to support Sudan’s Covid-19 response, including sharing technical expertise and raising funds and Armenian health professionals are linking up with their diaspora colleagues in the US to share knowledge on how they are responding to the pandemic. We ask difficult questions as we seek solutions on how we can do better in the face of the stark and unprecedented challenges we face. In particular, we look at these challenges through the lens of diaspora and the humanitarian system(s). Will governments and International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) seek to work with the diaspora as partners, or involve them only in the role of ‘recipients’ or as a ‘financial resource’? How will diaspora humanitarian responses adapt to a world of lockdowns, travel bans, and economic recessions? Will the role being played by diasporas in response to Covid-19 and subsequent recovery be a part of a mass transformation in how humanitarian action takes place?

Saving lives vs saving livelihoods

Policy-makers and practitioners around the world are having to grapple with the particular challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. On the macro- and national policy levels, difficult decisions have to be taken between safeguarding public health and safeguarding the economy, and striking the most effective balance between the two has already proven challenging. In very simplistic terms, do you prioritise saving lives, or saving livelihoods? And indeed, are the two separate or intertwined? As noted by Hanage and other epidemiologists, this is in many ways a false binary: if you prioritise safeguarding economies, there will still be huge economic damage as the number of fatalities rises and health systems are overwhelmed; whereas if you prioritise saving lives, you need to effectively subsidise or even nationalise large parts of the economy, which costs large amounts of money. Countries in the Global North have largely chosen to prioritise saving lives, despite the economic, political, and indeed ideological pain this may cause them, because they have the resources to do so.

The picture in the Global South looks even bleaker; the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is predicting up to one billion infections and three million deaths. For countries in the continent of Africa, however, the Global North response is not a luxury most can afford. In particular, those who are displaced or live in camp like settings have even fewer choices. Many states, for example, have adopted public health lockdowns and economic shutdowns and many of their poorer citizens who rely on finding work each day in the informal economy are suffering greatly as a result. It is not clear how sustainable this approach will be in the medium and longer-term. In addition, there is likely to be pressure on leaders in developing countries; from above, to adopt solutions developed in very different context; and also from below, to ease any economic lockdown that is hurting the poor and vulnerable. Countries in Africa will, therefore, need to develop their own home-grown responses to the pandemic.

Moreover, according to epidemiological modelling experts, approaches to saving lives and saving livelihoods promise different outcomes in Africa, and will need to be fine-tuned to local contexts and led and implemented from the bottom up if they are to be successful.[1] There is already a lively global debate about the validity and applicability of ‘lockdown’ and ‘herd immunity’ approaches, and it is likely these will play out across the continent in the coming weeks and months. To complicate matters further, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that there is currently no evidence yet confirming that surviving Covid-19 confers immunity to the virus, which may render these debates irrelevant and require different approaches to be developed.

Changing the face of ‘business as usual’ in humanitarian response

As we ponder the future, what is clear is that ‘business as usual’ in the humanitarian response is getting a resounding ‘not working’. For practitioners, there is also a raft of challenges to overcome. How will humanitarian agencies and INGOs deploy staff overseas safely in the absence of a vaccine and with shortages of personal protective equipment and tests? Also, how can they move their staff with various travel restrictions? How can there be feedback from the communities they serve? How are INGOs and their staff to survive the economic shutdown financially? Those who rely on public donations and lack significant financial reserves will struggle to survive for long, even with some government support.

INGOs that rely on government or multilateral funding have already seen unedifying examples of national governments being slow to deliver on financial pledges to support the global humanitarian system, or even withholding, or threatening to withhold, funding for domestic political reasons. The COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, a plan set out by the UN other international organisations and NGOs with a humanitarian mandate, is still around 70 per cent short of what has been pledged. The aid and development sectors are also in a precarious position, even if they are not forced out of lockdown as essential key workers or because of poverty. If your ‘business model’ relies on deploying staff and on reliable supply chains that allow the movement of relief supplies to areas affected by emergencies, how long you can keep your staff sitting safely at home awaiting the opening of airports and ports?

And what will the humanitarian system look like after the crisis? Will the desire be to return to ‘business as usual’? Or will it be forced to adapt – as a matter of survival – and embrace the ‘localisation’ agenda? We argue that maybe this is a chance for everyone to thrive, and improve how humanitarian assistance is decided on, allocated, and provided.

Diaspora responses in times of crisis

How does the diaspora respond in times of crisis? A simplified summary of their interventions includes money, skills, and time. Diaspora remittances are an important form of financial support that the diaspora provides both on an ongoing basis and in times of crisis. Remittances to Africa last year through formal channels alone exceeded US$86 billion according to the World Bank, outstripping aid flows to the continent; informal remittances (cash taken by people travelling back, money raised through church and mosque collections etc.) are estimated to be almost as large as formal remittance flows. In some countries such as Somalia, remittances are the lifeline for 40 percent of the population. Indeed, it is the data showing the sheer volume of remittance flows from the 2000s onwards that first piqued the interest of policy-makers and researchers about the connection between migration and development.

Remittances tend to be either counter- or a-cyclical, and flows to areas affected by natural disasters, humanitarian emergencies, and complex emergencies often increase at a time when other investment flows are reducing (i.e. capital flight). This pattern has been seen across multiple regions and contexts, and the diaspora are motivated to give more in an emergency for various reasons, such as motivation to contribute to their community.

Diaspora philanthropy and resource mobilisation in humanitarian crises does not just include sending money to extended family members, however. Diaspora also raise funds for relief efforts and collect and transport relief supplies to affected regions (whether clothes, food, medical supplies and equipment, educational or other materials). They volunteer their time, both ‘here’ in terms of resource mobilisation and media advocacy, and ‘there’ in terms of volunteering missions to areas where the emergency is most acute.

Diaspora skills, know-how, and expertise are also applied in humanitarian crises, both on the ground, as in the case of diaspora medical professionals and engineers who provide vital services in areas affected by emergencies, and from afar, in terms of remote advice and expertise. They also provide vital access to local networks, as well as knowledge of local conditions, languages, and customs, and can serve as a vital bridge between international and local efforts to respond to humanitarian crises.

Moreover, diaspora contributions span the entire spectrum of what is increasingly being recognised as the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’. They help with preparedness and resilience building, emergency response, right through to post-crisis reconstruction and helping rebuild economies shattered by emergencies with remittances and investments in affected areas. The old distinction between ‘humanitarian’ activities and longer-term ‘development’ activities is already looking increasingly threadbare.

Most significantly for our argument here is that the diaspora do all of these things in parallel to more ‘traditional’ humanitarian and development systems and organisations. Hence, one of the challenges facing both ‘traditional’ and diaspora practitioners is enabling and improving coordination between them.

Enjoining the good and forbidding the bad

It is also essential to acknowledge concerns about diaspora action in humanitarian emergencies. Diasporas are not a cohesive or coherent group – they are communities made up of people, like any other. Many provide vital support in times of crisis, but a minority may do more harm than good. Inadequate coordination with other humanitarian actors can lead to inappropriate or wasteful interventions or duplication of efforts. Some diasporas can, directly or indirectly, end up supporting factions in civil wars and insurgencies. And while there is an essential role for the diaspora in helping debunk myths, conspiracy theories, and so-called ‘fake news’, they can also end up perpetuating these. After all, diaspora communities are no less immune to these than any other groups. We have already seen the effect of fake news – whether in attacks on 5G phone masts in the UK or the ‘film your hospital’ trend in some circles in the US – and other attempts to discredit or dismiss the pandemic.

Covid-19 can infect anyone, however the response to it is not equal, rather it has shown glaringly social, economic and social inequalities and increasing racism. For example, the controversial comments made by French doctors about testing a potential treatment in Africa, which received widespread criticism, including by the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who remarked, ‘Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine’. And it extends to those fighting on the frontline, such as the high death rate from Covid-19 among medical professionals from Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities backgrounds in the UK.

Communities following alternative sources of authority – traditional, religious or political – may resist restrictions. Churches, mosques and other places of congregation have already become sources of infection in Asia and Europe, and will probably become so in Africa, yet there is resistance to these measure such as in Cameroon. Insurgents are unlikely to respect government public health directives. It is for these reasons that the Head of Africa CDC at the Africa Union, John Nkengasong, has warned the pandemic risks becoming ‘a national-security crisis first, an economic crisis second, and a health crisis third’ in Africa.

It is important to acknowledge these concerns and work to mitigate them. Equally, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and it is just as important not to exaggerate the risks of diaspora involvement in humanitarian response. We have already seen in other health contexts such as the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa that despite initial scepticism of, or even outright hostility towards, diaspora humanitarian interventions from more traditional humanitarian organisations and actors, they carried out vital work to help defeat the outbreak.

What’s next? Potential implications for the humanitarian sector

Covid-19 poses enormous challenges to the international humanitarian system; it also poses challenges for diaspora humanitarian action. We suggest here some likely trends and potential adaptations to how the diaspora respond.

The first area of impact is likely to be on diaspora financial flows (remittances and investments). As noted above, these tend to increase in times of crisis. Still, given the marginal position of many diasporas and migrant communities in countries of residence, they are also likely to be disproportionately affected by the outbreak both in health terms and economically. We have already seen some evidence that diaspora communities in the Global North are being impacted more severely by Covid-19, with higher numbers of deaths for these groups. But as the economic shutdown deepens into economic recession, diaspora communities will have less money available to remit or invest, or to donate.

The second area of impact is likely to be travel bans. We know from previous examples of diaspora intervention that they provide support in many cases by travelling to affected regions, both to transport relief and other materials and to volunteer their time and expertise. These modalities of diaspora response will become much harder, if not impossible, while travel bans remain in place.

Diaspora humanitarians are already starting to adapt their responses. Groups, networks, and individuals are mobilising to provide advice on protective behaviours to local communities in affected areas, expertise and access to networks of health and other professionals in origin countries. They are also mobilising resources (financial and material) and conducting lobbying and advocacy. Just as many people in the Global North are having quite difficult conversations with parents and grandparents about the need to take the pandemic seriously and follow government advice, so many in the diaspora are having difficult conversations with their extended family in Africa.

It is not just diaspora humanitarians who will be forced to adapt in their response to Covid-19; the same is also true for the international humanitarian sector as a whole. Operating in silos is no longer an option; collaboration based on evidence is critical. We are seeing elements of this, but there is much more work to do. The pressures on both the INGO sector and the diaspora humanitarian sector are likely to grow, as resources become even scarcer in the economic recession. This will require both sectors to work together more effectively and collaborate, rather than compete.

We urge INGOs and humanitarian agencies, therefore, to build partnerships with diaspora groups and networks involved in humanitarian response to Covid-19, in ways that the comparative advantages of each are complemented and built on for the benefit of all.

Overcoming this pandemic will only be possible through a massive, concerted effort involving local communities and national governments in African countries, international humanitarian and development agencies, multilateral donors, and of course diaspora humanitarians. Diaspora groups and networks can also play an essential role in supporting the development of local, bottom-up responses to the disease in Africa that are effective and sustainable.

Challenges and opportunities for more effective humanitarian response

We should also consider what the future of humanitarian response can look like, both in response to this global pandemic in the near-term, but also in the longer term when we come out of it. The world humanitarian system was arguably under unprecedented pressure even before the coronavirus outbreak, with a growing gap between the needs of vulnerable people on the one hand, and the resources and systems to respond to these. This trend looks set to increase during and after this current crisis.

Beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, there will likely be significant changes to how the humanitarian sector operates, with a greater emphasis on ‘localisation’, i.e. relying more on local staff in countries affected by humanitarian crises, rather than flying in foreign aid workers. And digital technology will be at the heart of this shift, with Africa already leapfrogging on the Fintech front. There is opportunity and risk here in terms of closer collaboration with diaspora humanitarian responses. The danger is that INGOs have already used localisation as a reason not to work with diaspora, in part because they seem to struggle conceptually with the extent to which the diaspora are active both ‘here’ and also ‘there’, and they may try to do so yet again. However, there is also an opportunity for the humanitarian sector and for diaspora humanitarians to collaborate more effectively together to improve outcomes.

Diaspora humanitarians often instinctively grasp the importance of the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’ and have expertise and experience in delivering interventions that span the full spectrum of responses, from resilience-building to emergency response, and from this to post-emergency reconstruction and longer-term development efforts. Equally, diaspora local knowledge and access to networks of trust mean they are well-placed to help INGOs implement localisation programmes.

History has shown that the diaspora will continue to respond to humanitarian crises, irrespective of whether or not the humanitarian sector recognises or seeks to work with them. The challenge and opportunity for the humanitarian sector, therefore, is how it can work along the grain of diaspora humanitarian response, rather than against it, to improve how they help the world’s most vulnerable people. Again, closer joint-working is key – humanitarian actors need to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate closely with diaspora humanitarians to improve the impact of both.

End Note: 

[1]See, inter alia, https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/modelling-suggests-suppression-strategy-will-save-more-lives-covid-19-poor-countrieshttps://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/197093/what-covid-19-pandemic-means-africa-malaria/;https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30411-6/fulltext;https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7159847/