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Development and the African Diaspora: Place and the Politics of Home

Development and the African Diaspora: Place and the Politics of Home

by Claire Mercer, Ben Page, Martin EvansClaire Mercer
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There has been much recent celebration of the success of African 'civil society' in forging global connections through an ever-growing diaspora. Against the background of such celebrations, this innovative book sheds light on the diasporic networks - 'home associations' - whose economic contributions are being used to develop home. Despite these networks being part of the flow of migrants' resources back to Africa that now outweighs official development assistance, the relationship between the flow of capital and social and political change are still poorly understood.

Looking in particular at Cameroon and Tanzania, the authors examine the networks of migrants that have been created by making 'home associations' international. They argue that claims in favour of enlarging 'civil society' in Africa must be placed in the broader context of the political economy of migration and wider debates concerning ethnicity and belonging. They demonstrate both that diasporic development is distinct from mainstream development, and that it is an uneven historical process in which some 'homes' are better placed to take advantage of global connections than others.

In doing so, the book engages critically with the current enthusiasm among policy-makers for treating the African diaspora as an untapped resource for combating poverty. Its focus on diasporic networks, rather than private remittances, reveals the particular successes and challenges diasporas face in acting as a group, not least in mobilising members of the diaspora to fulfill obligations to home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842779002
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 02/03/2009
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Claire Mercer is a Lecturer in Geography at the University of Leicester, UK. Ben Page is a lecturer at University College London. Martin Evans has undertaken consultancy and advisory work for the Department for International Development, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Overseas Development Institute, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo and Chatham House.

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Development and the African Diaspora

Place and the Politics of Home

By Claire Mercer, Ben Page, Martin Evans

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2008 Claire Mercer, Ben Page and Martin Evans
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-371-6



Between political belonging and moral conviviality

A home association meeting

A group of thirty people from Bali Nyong'a in Cameroon are meeting in Hackney, east London, on a Saturday night in the spring of 2007. The meeting is in the front room of a house, the home of one of the members, and the chairs have been pushed back against the wall to allow everyone to sit down; latecomers perch on armrests and congregate in the hall. This is a regular bi-monthly meeting of the Bali Cultural and Development Association – UK, referred to by members as 'the House'. Most people have come from London and the Southeast, but some have come from the West Midlands and further north in the UK; one couple has come from the Isle of Man. People drift in over a couple of hours and start chatting and catching up on news, and go to the kitchen to drop off food and drink to be enjoyed after their discussions. As they come in they sit down, catch the eye of some of the others in the room and greet them formally by rubbing their hands together then clapping slowly and loudly three times in a measured rhythm. Those already seated join in in unison, the rhythm speeding up as the claps peter out. Drinks and groundnuts are shared as the meeting gets going.

When the meeting is deemed to be quorate the President, a young law lecturer, calls the House to order and invites one of the women to open with a Christian prayer in English. After the prayer, people sit down and listen to the President's opening remarks, including a ritual invocation to members to come on time as the meeting is already behind schedule. As often happens there are visitors and potential new members so the President then invites people to introduce themselves. Each person gives their name and the quarter in Bali Nyong'a with which they identify. This prompts some teasing and comedy as different parts of Bali Nyong'a are given nicknames that capture their stereotypes – 'Njenka Intelligence', says one man, boasting about Njenka's reputation for scholarly connections. After introducing herself, a young woman who is new is cajoled into revealing her marital status by one man who asks whether the gate to her compound is open. His ribald question produces raucous laughter, which is only amplified when the woman replies that it depends who is pushing. The minutes from the last meeting are read.

Discussions begin with a debate about the group's constitution and in particular about when they are obliged to offer financial help to bereaved members. When a group member or the relative of a member dies, the House contributes a fixed amount to the bereaved family as part of its condolences. A distinction is drawn between first- and second-class deaths, with the former being actual members, their spouses, children and parents and the latter being 'brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles'. The House currently gives £75 to a member whose family suffers a second-class death, but the President proposes tightening up the definition of 'second-class' in order to limit the House's liability. His aim is to give a more significant contribution (£100) to fewer people and also to have more money left over from group levies to give to development projects back in Bali Nyong'a. Trying to define who counts as a brother or sister proves hard, with particular disagreement about whether or not it is necessary for a sibling to come from the same womb. One member claims that, since their family are title-holders in the Palace in Bali Nyong'a, the House should recognize their status by always contributing in cases of bereavement regardless of biological relationship to the member. The discussion turns to whether the money should be drawn from the House's existing funds or whether an ad hoc collection should be made at the time of each death. It is clear that most members regard this sum as only a token (particularly if a corpse needs to be repatriated to Cameroon), and as individuals they often feel obliged to give more to bereaved families as a supplement. One member points out the extra burden faced by women, who are expected to prepare food to take to bereaved families when the House attends the wake-keeping. She asks why women are expected to bring food, which takes time to prepare, whereas men bring drinks, which do not. As a working woman she proposes that women should be allowed to take drinks to bereaved families if they so wish. This comment causes some consternation, particularly from other women, one of whom argues, 'This is a cultural House. Have you ever heard of women buying drinks in Bali?' To which others respond 'Culture evolves, culture changes.' After an extended, loud and passionate debate, the House concludes that women should be allowed to bring drinks to wake-keepings if they so choose.

During this debate a more senior member of the House arrives and announces that at 10pm they will be speaking, by mobile phone, to the traditional ruler of Bali Nyong'a, known by his title of Fon, who is in his palace in Cameroon. This is not usual during meetings but has been prompted by a land dispute back in Cameroon referred to as the 'Bawock crisis' – a violent conflict between Bali Nyong'a and Bawock over government officials' demarcation of their shared boundary and rival claims of land ownership on the boundary. The dispute has degenerated into running battles between young men of Bali Nyong'a and Bawock; homes and property have been looted and destroyed, and scores of people have been rendered homeless. The 'crisis' has made national headlines in Cameroon.

Shortly after 10pm, the man with the phone announces that he has established a connection to the Fon, and the House performs the formal greeting. The man then stands in the middle of the lounge, holding the mobile aloft on speakerphone. The Fon, who is barely audible, updates the meeting on the Bawock crisis and the Bali Traditional Council's position for over half an hour in Mungaka, the Bali Nyong'a vernacular. Not everyone can hear, either because they do not understand Mungaka or because the phone volume is low, so there is some background chatter during the call. When the Fon has finished speaking, the meeting greets him again in the formal manner, and the call is disconnected. The meeting then discusses the issues raised before pressing on with its own agenda.

The last item to be discussed is the cultural gala to be held that summer, at which the House is planning to launch its new uniform, a 'traditional' outfit made to order in Cameroon. The gala will provide an opportunity for the House to showcase dance and food from Bali Nyong'a to other Cameroonians in London so that 'people in the UK will know the Bali are here'. It will also raise funds for their annual development project, which will equip the health centre in Won, one of the quarters in Bali Nyong'a. In order to select which dances will be performed the Cultural Secretary of the House has brought to the meeting a DVD of traditional Bali Nyong'a dances. People watch while they eat the food that has been brought, including familiar dishes from West Africa such as jollof rice, fried plantains, roasted fish and chicken, fufu-com, yam and njamma-jamma (a vegetable dish). It is agreed that the House will meet for rehearsals led by four members who know how to do the dances and can teach those who do not. Since there are insufficient members who know how to sing in the vernacular, and since not enough of the right musical instruments can be found in the UK to form a band, it is agreed to use recorded music. After 11pm, when people have finished their food and drink, they begin to leave, some rushing to catch the last train home, others sharing lifts in their cars.

Key themes: place, sociality and development

This meeting was just one of many we have attended and was characteristic of the hospitality offered to us as strangers and researchers. This particular meeting also illustrates three of the key themes of this book. First, this is a meeting about 'place'. A place is 'a meaningful location' (Cresswell, 2004: 7), somewhere invested with layers of meaning by humans over time. What we describe as a place is usually defined in distinction from a space. The concept of space is conceived as abstract, non-normative, generalizable and measurable. It is about distances and flows. In contrast the notion of place is associated with the local, the specific, the unique and the particular. Places are the locations that matter to people because they return to them, build memories around them, write their histories and call them "home'. What holds the Bali Nyong'a group together, as in all of our case studies, is a shared sense of belonging to a particular place, even though some of the members have never even been there. For that reason these groups are often called hometown associations because the places to which they refer are hometowns. In this book, however, the term home association is used to emphasize the fact that the homeplace is not always a town – it might be a village, a town, an area (comprising several towns and villages) or even a nation. However, the scale and boundaries of that homeplace are often as intangible as they are contested. Sometimes the delimitation of boundaries is literal, as in the Bawock case. But, as often, it is more subtle and concerns social as well as geographical boundaries (Fanso, 1986). For example some people who are not from Bali Nyong'a choose to belong to this meeting because their husbands or wives are from Bali Nyong'a and because it is a well-run group. Furthermore though almost everyone at this meeting shares a sense of belonging to Bali Nyong'a they all identify with different quarters, compounds and families, some of whom claim a status superior to others. Place, then, is not a bounded territory in any simple sense. Members say that when you are in the meeting in east London you are in Bali.

Second, this is a social meeting that combines pleasure and obligation. The pleasure comes from the fun of seeing friends, sharing food and gossip, and feeling at home amongst the convivial company of those who share and understand the experience of living in Britain. The obligation is to look after members in Britain by offering mutual support, particularly in times of need. This socializing is central to the longevity of associations like this one.

Third, this is a meeting that weaves together issues of diaspora, culture and development. The essence of diaspora identity is the ongoing and shared commitment to the maintenance of the place called 'home'. This might mean the improvement of a particular geographical space, but it might also mean the maintenance of the 'culture' that is an expression of that place anywhere in the world. So, the performance of Bali dances in London and the collection of money to improve health care in Cameroon are simultaneous and inseparable manifestations of the diasporic condition. From the perspective of the diaspora, the process of development binds together a concern for the welfare and improvement of their people and their territory. Hidden in the term 'their' is the inevitability of a politics of belonging, which is about policing that boundary of who is within the group and who is outside it.

Why home associations matter

Diaspora groups are attracting attention from aid donors, governments, NGOs and academics because of the increased interest in the relationship between development and migration. The argument goes as follows. Globalization has enabled an expansion of the world economy, creating better opportunities for individuals. But, since the benefits of globalization are distributed unevenly across space, they have increased inequality between nations and provided an incentive for increasing international migration. The proportion of international migrants relative to the world population remains relatively steady at 3 per cent, so the gross number of international migrants is rising with global population growth (GCIM, 2005). There are now around 200 million international migrants, almost half of whom are women (GCIM, 2005). Remittances from these migrants to their homes form the crucial link between international migration and social and economic development (World Bank, 2006).

At a global scale, recorded remittances are now significantly larger than overseas aid flows and comprise an annual flow of around US$240 billion into the Global South (Ratha and Xu, 2008). Though only US$10.8 billion of this is estimated to be sent to Africa, remittances from migrants are nevertheless an increasingly important source of money in urban and rural areas of the continent. However, much of this flow is 'private' in the sense that it moves between individuals, who are generally assumed to use it for personal consumption and immediate social needs. This means that these remittances are not being directly invested in the provision of public goods such as schools, hospitals and water supplies. In contrast, diaspora groups, with their interest in specific development projects, offer a potential means of transferring capital and skills for the provision of public goods and services to the Global South. In addition these diaspora groups appear to have a direct knowledge of and links to beneficiaries in needy areas, which might enable them to bypass the unwieldy bureaucracies of state and development agencies. Diaspora associations might provide the crucial link between international migration and African development.

There are many immediate caveats that should be added to this argument. For example the distinction drawn between public and private is clearly over-simplistic. National economies benefit from recipients' private remittances and this benefit is in the public interest because it improves macro-economic conditions, theoretically liberating capital for infrastructure investment. For example, remittances can reduce foreign exchange shortages and offset balance of payments deficits without incurring interest liabilities or necessarily increasing the level of imports of foreign goods and services. Also those families who do receive remittances often spend them on public services, such as schools and hospitals, which generally rely on user fees. In addition the kind of consumption commonly associated with remittances (house construction, household needs and food) puts money into local economies. The argument also places a burden on diaspora associations that might well be unreasonable given their small scale and limited resources. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on international remittances in this argument underplays the significance of national remittances. Finally, it should be clear from the outset that the volume of money remitted to Africa through groups is very small relative to that remitted by individuals to their families. However, despite these objections this book takes seriously the idea that diaspora groups could be an important element of the relationship between migration and development. The book aims to understand how diaspora associations work, whether they do steer some of these remittances towards public goods, and whether donors can, or should, engage these groups as a way of reducing poverty in Africa. In so doing, the aim is also to use these associations as a means to understand better the relationship between migration and development.

Three overarching questions are used to articulate our objectives. What is the structure and character of African diaspora groups? What development work do African diaspora groups do? And, how do we understand the political work of diaspora groups? The book is organized around these questions and we answer them by following the diaspora associations from four homeplaces: Bali and Manyu in Cameroon, and Newala and Rungwe in Tanzania (see Maps 1.1 and 1.2).

What is the structure and character of home associations?

Home associations now operate between continents, and a key trigger in the current resurgence of interest in them is the apparent shift in the scale of their operation. However, important facets of their character and structure have been overlooked because studies of domestic and international migration have tended to proceed independently of one another. Two separate lines of enquiry have been pursued, each speaking in different academic registers. The first, in African Studies, has understood home associations as ethno-territorial groups that unite indigenes of a given home through a series of interconnected 'chapters' located within particular African nation-states (Trager, 2001). A second, which has emerged at the intersection of work on diaspora, transnationalism, migration and development, has privileged the experience of international migrants and their potential contribution to the development of 'home' (e.g. GCIM, 2005).


Excerpted from Development and the African Diaspora by Claire Mercer, Ben Page, Martin Evans. Copyright © 2008 Claire Mercer, Ben Page and Martin Evans. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
List of Acronyms

Part I: Why home associations matter
Chapter 1 - Home associations: between political belonging and moral conviviality
Chapter 2 - Contexts and comparisons
Chapter 3 - Rethinking research on African diasporas and development

Part II - The history and structure of home associations
Chapter 4 - Home associations and the nation in Cameroon
Chapter 5 - Home associations and the nation in Tanzania

Part III - The developmental and political work of African home associations
Chapter 6 - Welfare and social support in the diaspora
Chapter 7 - Modernizing burial and death celebrations
Chapter 8 - Education and inequality
Chapter 9 - Infrastructure and accountability

Part IV: Home associations, migration and development
Chapter 10 - Conclusions

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