Contribution of Rwandan Diaspora: Setting the record straight

If you have followed the wrangles on social media this week about the genuine contribution Rwandans in the diaspora make towards their homeland, you will have noticed a striking difference of opinion.

If you have followed the wrangles on social media this week about the genuine contribution Rwandans in the diaspora make towards their homeland, you will have noticed a striking difference of opinion.

On one hand, there are those who believe that the only way to contribute to developing one’s country is to pack your bags and move back, and others believe that every Rwandan, no matter their location or job title, has an opportunity to contribute towards improving Rwanda.


Before I elaborate my position on this matter, let me draw your attention to a statement made by President Paul Kagame during Rwanda Day in Atlanta, USA, on September 20, 2014:


“…you understand that as we deal with our own problems back at home of unity, of development, of disease, of education, giving our people skills and employment, creating an environment where business can thrive, it doesn’t stop in Rwanda, in that small geographic space of Rwanda. The idea behind these actions, this thinking, is big; it goes beyond Rwanda.”


For some time now, it has been abundantly clear to many of us that as long as there are Rwandans living, working and studying beyond our country’s physical borders, then by virtue of our shared goals, Rwanda stretches from Kigali to Kinshasa, Musanze to Marseille, Huye to Berlin, and Rubavu to Guangzhou.

We very much value Rwandans living outside the country as much as we value those living in the country - from bakers to bankers, cleaners to clinicians, students to scientists. They all have a role to play.

However, this isn’t how Gatete Thierry Kevin, a Rwandan blogger sees it. He insists that ‘there is an entrenched mental emancipation issue with the African diaspora’ and that: ‘the reason they still live in misery in the West is because they haven’t begun to see Africa as the land of opportunity that it really is.”

He concludes that: ‘so they accept to do humiliating work, to live like second class citizens in the West and compensate by sending a pittance home every once in a while…’ I find this statement factually incorrect because of its generalisation aspect, and here is why:

Remittances aren’t a pittance:

Remittances – money sent home by migrant workers to finance businesses, contribute to development projects, and assist friends and families back home – are funds regarded by serious economists as a better alternative to Overseas Development Aid that still accounts for our national budget.

When the sender sends remittances, they have the ability to allocate the resources where they are needed the most – tuition fees, unexpected bills, etc. Therefore, on a micro level, remittances provide a safety net by acting as an informal welfare state for many in need of the supplement.

On a macro level, as remittances continue to outstrip donor aid and making a real difference in the lives of many in developing countries, they are increasingly seen by those in charge of economic planning as an important source of development finance.

For instance, speaking to this paper last year, Norbert Haguma, vice chairperson of the Rwanda Diaspora Global Network, indicated that in 2014 alone, remittances from the diaspora were $174 million, more than the revenue from tea and coffee exports combined.

On the continent, World Bank figures show that in 2010, an estimated $40 billion was remitted to Sub-Saharan Africa, and that this figure is based only on money transferred through official channels. Including unofficial channels, estimates were in the region of $60 billion.

But since remittances are assumed to only help families, let’s draw on how China and India leveraged their diaspora to become a source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) at the start of their renaissance.

According to the Centre for International Private Enterprise, between 1979 and 1995, in China, 80 per cent of FDIs came from China’s diaspora communities. The same report indicates that $2.8 billion of the $10 billion in FDI to India came from their diaspora.

I’m not oblivious to the differences in population of India and China when compared to Rwanda, but the point I’m trying to make is that there is potential to harness more investment from the Diaspora – but we cannot do that if we don’t embrace them.

Similarly, our diaspora can be leveraged to become bridges for, and initiators of, FDIs much like it happened in China.

Since the Chinese diaspora were well positioned to do business back home because of their widespread entrepreneurial experiences, specialised knowledge and relationships which allowed them to overcome language, cultural and legal barriers that frustrated non-diaspora investors, FDI inflows were facilitated by diaspora communities. Rwandans in the diaspora are capable of performing this role.

Away from remittances, it is quite inaccurate to state that diaspora don’t see Africa as the land of opportunity. This is because, as well as providing remittances, the diaspora is a major source of foreign direct investment, private sector development, technology transfer, patriotic philanthropy, tourism, political contribution, and so on. Why then would you want to contribute all this in a place you believe is hopeless?

Many good ideas and initiatives have been introduced and supported by the diaspora. For instance, the Diaspora Business Incubator, a platform that serves as the go-to support hub for all diaspora investments including access to treasury bonds, and promoting Made-in-Rwanda products is making it possible for more diasporas to contribute; while Mergims is making it easy and cheaper for clients anywhere to send payment for basic products and services in Rwanda.

In summary, Rwanda doesn’t end at the Gatuna or Goma border. I believe that, individually, people are free to make the decision to remain where they are, or return home to explore opportunities.

The problem is to not contribute in developing your country as if someone else will do it for you. Therefore, instead of dismissing what diaspora communities have contributed so far and continue to, and putting everyone in the same basket, we can instead work or discuss more ways to leverage their knowledge and experiences.

Scholars from the University of Nottingham recently cited India’s decision to concentrate on the over 300,000 Indians who worked in the ICT sector in America in the 90’s as the main reason India was able to gain lift-off in ICT.

The Indian diaspora, who constitute a large percentage of Silicon Valley’s tech executives, continue to extend their contributions beyond physical presence to establishing markets for Made-in-India software in Europe and America.

We too can improve access to information on available opportunities and let every Rwandan contribute from wherever with whatever job title.


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