Although the saying goes that ‘what is out of sight is out of mind’, this is far from true when discussing diaspora peoples’ relations to their home countries, particularly in war-torn contexts. In conflict-stricken Syria alone the volume of external transfers arriving annually reaches about $1.5 billion (World Bank); this amounts to around 651 billion Syrian pounds, that according to some reports surpasses the annual total for local salaries and wages that are estimated at about 478 billion Syrian pounds. The question arises here is ‘Do diaspora individuals and communities influence policies and practices within the urban arena in their home countries? And if they do, then how is this influence created and nurtured?
The relationship between the Syrian diaspora and their homeland, and their continued role in impacting their country has been always one of my key interests to investigate; as I am a Syrian architect based in Vienna, who is passionate about development through the lens of urban design, policy and the power of communication and networks. I truly believe that diaspora have a role that goes even beyond the purely economic into more public policy and community practices as well.
There is insufficient shared knowledge about diaspora influence on urban policy in situations of crisis. When people have been displaced and their homes have been damaged or destroyed, it is important that ‘reconstruction’ is just and equitable - based on good policies - and influenced domestically and internationally by informed and impactful positive actors. It is particularly important in the context of the Syrian crisis where 5.5 million Syrians are out of the country and a further 6.3 million are internally displaced; leading to a situation where there are large numbers of diaspora actors, and also a massive need for urban rebuilding.
The role of diaspora on home-country policies and practices concerning built environment has largely concentrated on the economic influence of such diaspora, particularly due to remittances and inward investment. However it appears to be less analysis and theory about other areas of influence that are more socially orientated, and concentrate on emerging social media and other routes that are networks of influence from diaspora, that engage varied stakeholders in patterns of influence reaching both policymakers and practitioners. In order to understand the role of diaspora in influencing urban policies and practices of their home country, there are five areas that need to be analysed.
Diasporas Typology: There is a need to understand the typology of diaspora. For instance in the case of Syria, there are many different types of people who are outside the country - either having fled as refugees, or otherwise located round the world before or during the crisis. There are many different types of people and situations that come under the ‘diaspora’ concept; for example business persons, academics, activists & politicians (on varied levels from local to national and international), creatives & celebrities, urban professionals and experts, remittance-senders, and workers in international organisations & NGOs.
Channels of Influence: It is important to delve into the range of influence channels, and how these impact on different levels of policymakers and practitioners in the urban field. Does the ‘type’ of actor determine some predictability in the ‘type’ of policies and practices they wish to influence?’ For example, are all diaspora business interests socially-concerned or is there a higher likelihood of a primary focus on maximizing profit.
Social Relationships: It is important to examine the relationships that diaspora have in their home and host countries, with the formal political or civic establishment as well as with other varied social, economic, academic and professional institutions and with many varied individuals and groups (for example national policymakers, local policymakers, local planning officials, professionals: such as architects and civil engineers, civil society and community, citizens, family households etc); and how this may affect the diaspora influence on urban policy and practice ‘back home’.
Policy & Practice Interplay: The interplay between policy and practice is a key area that influences the diaspora role; with a framing around different layers of policy and different practices in the urban context. There are varied contexts of policy making and implementation, as well as independent ‘practices’ that are unmediated by formal policy processes. For example an absence of policies and a context of largely positive self-regulated practices, influenced for example by collective social norms and strong civic society institutions; or conversely an absence of policies and a context of largely self-serving practices by powerful stakeholders such as developers and corrupt officials.
Areas of Influence: The areas in which diaspora may have influence are varied and include economic, political, social and environmental areas, as well as influence on the knowledge-base about urban reconstruction policy and practice. These areas should be explored, and potentially others, to understand how the processes of diaspora ‘influence’ on different stakeholders occurs; what are the processes, strategies and conscious and unconscious pathways of influence that impacts on policymakers’ and practitioners’ knowledge, attitude and behaviour change.
How to support diaspora role in reconstruction process:
Diaspora types in conflict contexts are being categorised as either peacemakers, disruptors or a mixture of both elements. Other studies show that diaspora influence and interventions are neither solely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but part of context of multiple flows and influences and fragmentation (Galipo, 2011). Diaspora communities normally lead the reimittance contributions, but their role may entail political involvement and civic-oriented in their homeland, and advocacy in the host country. They also might play a big role in promoting peace and political stability in their homeland, for the most part, indirectly through civil society, development and business engagement.
Furthermore, in the context of peace agreement during the post-conflict reconstruction period, the diaspora can assist the new governments in drafting treaties, agreements and constitutions, identifying policy priorities for social, economic and political reconstruction, and formulating strategies for implementation. It is in this way that the diaspora contributes to the rehabilitation of political institutions and civil administrations badly weakened or devastated by conflict. Diaspora role in their homeland’s reconstruction can be enhanced by creating a space in which diaspora can; (I) design a model of diaspora influence and intervention processes, based on strong contextual foundations, which can be applied as a practical mechanism to facilitate these interventions regarding recovery and reconstruction; and (II) contribute to improved urban policy environments, through greater understanding and research about participation of diaspora recovery and reconstruction area; in Syria and internationally; (III) to develop a tool to analyse and measure their impact on public policies, for aiding stakeholders to implement participatory processes that influence policy and practice in urban recovery.