An Untapped Resource: What Diaspora Has to Offer Beyond Just Sending Money Home

TEXT: Sabin Selimi , Nadire Selimi , Mitko Pistolov , Clara García Parra - 28. September 2020

Contrary to common perception, diaspora does not work as an outside-inside dynamic, where members of a community abroad send money to their families back home. Instead, diaspora benefits are fluid: people move abroad, come back, move back out again. In the process, they are not only transferring knowledge and utilizing their networks, but also introducing new ways of doing things that challenge existing norms. This fits with the concept of circular migration and brings up the question of how can development projects tap into that resource? In this article, we explore and share with you novel ideas about engaging diaspora as economic and social investors.

Sending knowledge back home

The RisiAlbania project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), partners with businesses to support them in introducing innovations. Across all its areas of intervention, the project is tapping into diaspora knowledge.

For instance, within its agribusiness portfolio, an analysis of project partnerships shows that many of the farmers that work with fruit and vegetable exporters have spent time in neighboring Greece or across the Adriatic into Italy and brought back new ways of managing their land. They are fast in adopting new ways of doing things and follow better the steps necessary to obtaining group GlobalG.A.P. certification - the gateway for Balkan agricultural products to access EU markets. Two partners in the medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) sector, MEIA and BIOBES, are owned by returnees from the United States and Greece respectively—and they use their networks and knowledge acquired abroad to grow their business. A similar case is also Gladiola Dona from Hospitality and Tourism Academy: a returnee from Austria who brought her knowledge and drive to Albania and has founded a successful hospitality academy.

Working in development also brings up practical questions about what exactly constitutes diaspora and how to engage it. For instance, ethnic Albanians are spread across several countries. Within RisiAlbania, some partners have roots in North Macedonia in the ICT sector. One of the founders of Manoolia and the portal grew up in Germany and has returned to Albania to run a successful IT company that aims to attract productive investments to the country. Elmaz Osmani from STEAG is Swiss Albanian and has been instrumental in convincing his company to establish an office in Albania where they employ young talent.

Doni Fruits is one of the project’s largest partners in agribusiness. A team of Kosovars, who run the company, have been keen early adopters of the GlobalG.A.P certification. They are now bringing the certification to Kosovo, which means that engaging with ethnic Albanians also has the added advantage of spreading innovation faster, given people’s footprint in several countries.

We are a stakeholder, not a net contributor

To attract direct diaspora investment into the economy, a first entry point is to start by improving the business environment. This is why, over the years, the Enhancing Youth Employment (EYE) project of the SDC has been working to support the business ecosystem in Kosovo. The project helps businesses and social enterprises in targeted sectors to improve their access to business services, as well as supporting them in creating new jobs.

Moving beyond remittances means also establishing the right infrastructure to incentivize diaspora to support or establish enterprises. Enterprises with a strong focus on addressing education and employment, in particular, play a major role in community development and social innovation while offering services that are currently unavailable for the local community.

A great example is the Kosovo Finnish Schools International. Its founder, Alejtin Berisha, who has lived and worked in six different countries, was credited by Forbes for “changing the educational landscape around the globe”. Seeing the endemic lack of quality education in Kosovo, Alejtin created the Kosovo Finnish Schools International built upon the Finnish education system—often credited as one of the best education systems in the world.

“Diaspora has the right knowledge, experience and most importantly networks, to create sustainable businesses that will be able to export products or services in the EU and beyond. Therefore, we cannot expect economic growth without diaspora’s significant involvement as a stakeholder, not as a net contributor, as we have had for almost 30 years now,” says Alejtin.

Alejtin also emphasized that strengthening the rule of law, removing obstacles that are hindering the business environment, and increasing spending in education, including non-formal education, are important for creating a critical mass of people in the innovation-driven economy. These changes lead to an increased interest and impact of diaspora entrepreneurs.

Indeed, when referring to meaningful diaspora engagement, it is always a safe bet to turn to the private sector to glean insight. The private sector is a driving force for inclusive economic development in Kosovo, and increasingly so, they carry the torch of diaspora engagement and pave the way for enabling them to attain an active role as development agents.

Milot Hoxha, CEO and founder of Evonem, has been working to develop deeper ties with the diaspora, and using the latter’s knowledge and assets in job creation and business expansion. His Kosovo-based business, Evonem, provides IT infrastructure and end-to-end software solutions on a range of platforms.

“Kosovo diaspora has shown over the years how important it is for our economy, social stability and development,” says Milot. “There are lots of opportunities to involve diaspora in the socio-economic development of our country. Perhaps one of the most important goals here would be to tap into their know-how and expertise that has the potential to bring real value in our country, especially in areas like education, work and environment.”

Together with partners, Milot has created a nearshore company that now serves the demands of the biggest customers from Germany. A crucial aspect of their success in attracting German companies was indeed their engagement with diaspora who already have networks and partners in EU countries. Through an intense exchange and incorporating the know-how of multiple partners from Kosovo’s diaspora, Milot has created a top-performing team that is able to provide solutions to complex IT problems that German companies face.

Moving away from one-off support

The SDC project, Education for Employment in North Macedonia (E4E@mk), has been supporting youth, women and vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities, in vocational skills development (VSD) and in preparing them to join the labor market in North Macedonia. Rather than facilitating one-off support in the form of informal donations, the project aims to attract investment in VSD and employment of people with disabilities to improve their overall lives. The best way to do this is to turn to the Macedonian diaspora in Switzerland, who has been part of the Swiss VSD sector and can offer knowledge transfer.

Thus, E4E@mk partnered with Handimak and Polioplus, who specialize in supporting people with disabilities. As the main facilitator of this intervention, E4E@mk organized an event at the premises of Helvetas, Zurich, which included the Macedonian diaspora representatives in Switzerland and the two organizations working on behalf of people with disabilities. As anticipated, the discussions gave promising signs that the diaspora is willing to get engaged in supporting people with disabilities in North Macedonia in their path to employment.

With the support of E4E@mk in facilitating, connecting and matching, Handimak and Polioplus are starting to design and implement interventions, which would help people with disabilities to develop their vocational skills and gain access to gainful employment through harnessing the power of diaspora.

Looking forward: policy-level opportunities

Engaging diaspora communities in the development of their countries of origin has shown great potential with remittances contributing considerably to GDP. However, remittances remain primarily for consumption purposes, as they are not channeled into productive investments to fuel inclusive economic development. Critical elements of facilitating diaspora in this regard are conducive policy and improved business environment.

Different governments approach diaspora engagement in different ways. For instance, the Ministry of State for Diaspora is a fully-fledged department of the government in Albania, responsible for dealing with the Albanian diaspora. The Ministries of Diaspora in Kosovo and North Macedonia, meanwhile, merged with the Foreign Ministries. The prevailing problem is that such ministries or departments have little political weight and resources.

Governments play a key role in cultivating a sense of connection between diaspora communities and their countries of origin. However, harnessing the potential of diaspora investment for inclusive development will require that governments facilitate a conducive business environment through regulatory and legislative reforms. Equally important is to work with civil society and the media that will help spread the message about investment opportunities. Given the spectrum of challenges faced by diaspora communities in their countries of origin, trust in public institutions remains weak despite some efforts from governments. Thus, the more voices the more credibility.

This is not the end of the story…

Helvetas is partnering with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to facilitate an inclusive economic development program in 12 countries in Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and the Western Balkans. This new partnership will create a regional value addition by leveraging good practices from different projects, including those of diaspora engagement. The program will identify and test innovative ideas from the whole region and bring the best ones to the policy level in cooperation with governments, the private sector and civil society.

The Western Balkans are yet to fully comprehend just how beneficial its diaspora communities could be for regional development. The diaspora possesses influence, networks and unique sets of skills, yet they are largely untapped. Should we seize the opportunity, the Western Balkans shall have a globally-connected future.


Sabin Selimi is Communication Manager at Reconomy, a Sida regional program implemented by Helvetas.

This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of Helvetas Mosaic. Subscribe to never miss an issue.

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