Digital Diaspora in Conflict and Disaster

Posted: May 31, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Cross posted from Haiti Rewired:

Diaspora communities have traditionally taken on many international development roles in their countries of origin: through remittances, forming charitable organizations & aid agencies, advocacy & activism, economic investment, humanitarian support in the aftermath of crisis and good-governance building. Nowhere more is there evidence of this level of commitment to development as from within the diaspora. Diaspora remittances alone account for $300 billion in annual aid (2006), 60% more than is provided in international governmental aid from OECD countries. On average a member of the diaspora commits $2000 of their annual income to homeland causes.

Through the advent of global internet access (albeit limited within many developing countries themselves), viral social media and omnipresent mobile telephony the diasporan development goals and their impact have been significantly amplified. Never before have the diaspora been so empowered to lend support to kith & kin at ‘home’.

The internet itself serves a multitude of functions for diaspora causes: Through the use of online forums experts within the diaspora can advise on and offer support to a variety of issues for homeland policy makers and governmental officials, as well as helping to widen that discussion to civil society generally, and that dialogue is having more reach than ever before through the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in this new rapid and infectious spread of information globally; semantic web tools are being used to manage multi-layered information about development and humanitarian problems; employment sites have been developed to match diaspora members to jobs at home, as well as people volunteering support through crowd- sourced efforts: and increasingly popular mobile money systems like M-Pesa are enabling secure and easy remittances via mobile phone to the developing world.

The Haitian Diaspora make up a population of around 2 million people, and was once referred to affectionately by many. Haitians as the ’10th Department of Haiti’ when Haiti was comprised of only 9 administrative regions or departments. Haiti itself has only a population of 9 million. In the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake there in 2010, many in the Disapora community felt compelled to offer support in anyway they could, and their role has been vital not only to crisis response efforts, but to rebuilding Haiti in the post-crisis recovery period.

As I mentioned in a previous article, during the 4636 project, where local Haitians were informed via radio about the 4636 text number through which they could report events and pleas for help, thousands of text messages were sent to the US where members of the Haitian diaspora worked alongside the Standby Task Force of volunteer emergency responders to translate these messages from Creole to English in order for the messages to by mapped enabling the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and others to respond immediately to calls for help. This is an amazing example of the positive impact that the diaspora can have in crisis response efforts.

The Haitian Diaspora also had needs of their own during the crisis – information needs: People in the diaspora wanted to know about their loved ones; they wanted to know about their investments and property; and they wanted to know about the future of Haiti. Social media and the internet generally has greatly enhanced communication through crisis enabling the rapid spread of reporting and information sharing. Leaders of the diasporan communities were able to rapidly share information through the use of Facebook to community members and access via the internet to local Haitian radio stations, such as Radio Soleil, provided real time local situation reports.

During the more recent crisis in Libya the Libyan Diaspora mobilised to harness social media for one of the most profoundly effective social media campaigns ever. The ramifications from this campaign were widespread and can be considered a significant contribution to the ultimate outcome of liberation in Libya.

Whilst the internet and mobile phone services were entirely shut-down by the Gaddafi regime, young rebel diasporans were coordinating their efforts between Europe and the US to get information in and out of Libya about what was going on there. One of the major diasporan efforts, the Libyan Youth Movement, had over 15,000 followers on twitter at the end of the war and their tweets were covered by major news providers across the world such as the BBC and Al Jazeera.

The Independent media outlet Libya Alhurra was also incredibly important for providing visual coverage from within Libya, they worked closely with those outside to help formulate a clearer picture of the crisis as it unfolded. The coordination efforts of the diaspora helped to provide vital information for decision making as high up as the UN Security Council.

In times of conflict and disaster the diasporan commitment to homeland issues is paramount. And, this commitment coupled with technological advances is transforming the way we ‘do’ crisis response & recovery.

For further reading on this topic:

USAID Diaspora-Development Nexus – The role of ICT

UNOCHA Haiti Calling, Calling Haiti

African Argument: Defining the Diaspora’s Role & Potential with Africa

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