Summer 2009

GW Faculty Study Immigrant Communities in Diaspora Research Program

Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff, professor of public administration and international affairs, is one of the founders of GW’s Diaspora Research Program.

By Julia Parmley

When populations leave their homelands to settle in other parts of the world, not only do they bring their native
social, cultural and political customs
and practices with them, but they also
remain connected to their homelands.
How these new communities, or diasporas, contribute to the
socioeconomic development of their
home countries is a relatively new field
of study, but it is an area the GW
Diaspora Research Program (GW-DRP) believes is essential to examine.

“There are institutions that research
migration but none that focus just on
diasporas,” says Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff, professor of public administration and international affairs. “GW-DRP looks at migrants who maintain affiliations with their homeland and, in turn, become agents of change.”

GW-DRP was founded in 2004 by Dr. Brinkerhoff, Liesl A. Riddle, associate professor of international business and international affairs, and Stephen C. Lubkemann, associate professor of anthropology and international affairs. The program seeks to build knowledge about the dynamics of diasporas within the United States; educate policymakers and practitioners in areas related to diasporas, including economic development, and post-conflict reconstruction; and support efforts within the
communities to address concerns.

More than 15 faculty members from departments across the University participate in the program, with expertise in areas ranging from tourism and Middle East history to Latin America and geography. Their research is disseminated through publications,
training and conferences, and projects and studies. “We are multidisciplinary, and that’s what makes GW so unique in the field,” says Dr. Brinkerhoff. “We learn from each other and incorporate those lessons into what we do.”

A University seminar titled “Diasporas, Policy and Development” focuses on the topic. Brinkerhoff says the seminar promotes research on migration and development, features research initiatives underway at GW, and brings GW faculty into dialogue
with local and international researchers and policymakers.

Dr. Brinkerhoff, whose research focuses on international development, governance, NGOs and post-conflict reconstruction, became interested in diasporas in 2001 after reading a Washington Post article about Afghan-Americans who wanted to assist in the
reconstruction of Afghanistan after 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban. With the help of a colleague, she began researching how these kinds of groups organize on the Internet and began publishing papers and journal articles on the subject.

“My whole approach to the field is to encourage research on underutilized resources that could improve quality of life in developing countries,” says Dr. Brinkerhoff. “Through my research, I get to interact with the most interesting people who often fund their own
initiatives and organizations because they are so deeply invested in the concerns
of their homelands.”

Dr. Brinkerhoff is especially inspired by stories of immigrants who are able to utilize the resources in their new country to better the lives of those in their homeland. She cites a group of Ethiopians who migrated to the Netherlands but remained concerned about the number of women engaged in the sex trade back home. To provide these women with another source of income, the group opened a coffee business in Ethiopia and hired local women to process the coffee beans and help export the coffee to Holland.

Dr. Brinkerhoff and her colleagues have been invited to speak about diasporas
around the world, including Belgium, Greece and the Philippines, and Dr. Brinkerhoff recently participated in a UN training seminar on diasporas and peace building. In March, Drs. Brinkerhoff, Lubkemann and Riddle co-organized and spoke at a policy
seminar and research workshop titled“Migration, Diasporas and Development: Trans-Atlantic Perspectives” in Stockholm, Sweden. Sponsored by GW and the Nordic Africa Institute, the event stimulated discussion about the needs of analysts, researchers, policymakers and practitioners in order to better inform policy and practice regarding diasporas.

As the prevalence and influence of diasporas increases around the world, Dr. Brinkerhoff believes the importance of these communities, both for their homelands and their new countries, needs to be recognized and supported in order to enhance their integration and quality of life. “We have the potential to improve the lives of people
in diaspora,” she says. “The energy is there and the enthusiasm is there. We need to capitalize on it.”

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