Eritrea – Social Remittances and Development
By Simon Weldemichael
In Eritrea, from May to August, we regularly see different and unique activities that attract human attention. The main activities of the season include Independence Day and Martyrs’ Day, various graduation ceremonies, intensive agricultural activities, summer work programs involving students, youth coming from and going to Sawa, the Sawa youth festival, and Expo national festival. In addition, we see the arrival of thousands of Eritreans from the diaspora. The annual arrival of the Eritrean diaspora raises questions about how the country can benefit and what it can expect from them, as well in what ways cooperation and support can be enhanced.
Human beings have been in perpetual motion since the dawn of history. Vast waves of humanity crossed the boundary of their original home to settle in other host countries. The word diaspora is meant to signify the dispersal of people from their original homeland. Simply, a diaspora is a community of people living outside their country of origin.
Eritreans in the diaspora have developed a sense of “belongingness” to their country and regard their ancestral homeland as their true home, to which they will eventually return. The Eritrean diaspora has long been known for its commitment to the reconstruction and protection of their homeland. Eritrea has a large diaspora who began migrating decades ago. To this day, Eritrea continues to lose many of its citizens because the lights in the developed world shine brighter and because many hope to attain a better future. People migrate for a variety of reasons including the search for better economic opportunities, education, and family reunions.
Migration imposes a high cost for developing countries like Eritrea, often depriving the country of the human capital necessary to achieve long term economic growth. This human capital flight may impose a significant economic burden for the country as migrants take with them the value of their training and education, which is often subsidized by governments with limited resources. This has caused brain drain, where the brightest minds that were educated with limited resources leave for other countries. This type of migration affects the development of the country. Therefore, we have to ponder ways and means to convert the brain drain to brain gain.
However, migration is a two-way occurrence, with many migrants returning home with specialized knowledge and skills which can help improve development programs in the country. These migrants may include, among others, those who obtain additional education abroad and return home to serve in public health, education, engineering, policy making, investment and other areas that demand expertise. Eritrean diaspora professionals, who can deliver such expertise to Eritrea, are large and live in many foreign countries. Therefore, strategies should be envisaged so that the expertise and experience acquired by the Eritrean diaspora can be made available for the promotion of development. Toward this end, many Eritrean diaspora have made frequent visits to contribute their expertise to the ongoing process of development.
Another issue is remittance, which is a broad topic. Migrants are expected to send back home not just money. In addition, they transfer ideas, technology, norms of behavior and values. These non monetary transfers have been described by scholars as “social remittances.” Social capital as a resource to development is of vital importance. In this regard there are many social remittances that the Eritrean diaspora have and can transfer in order to promote ongoing development. Eritrea has sought to strengthen ties with its diaspora, recognizing it as a potential resource of human and social capital that can make a major contribution to the development of the country.
Social remittances are defined as ideas, practices, mind-sets, world views, values and attitudes, norms of behavior and social capital (knowledge, experience and expertise) that the migrants and the diaspora mediate and consciously or unconsciously transfer from host to home countries (Gakunzi 2006: 12). Today the thinking over migration has changed and is considered as an important force in development for both developing and developed countries. The social remittances that the Eritrean diaspora possess and can transfer to Eritrea include innovative ideas, valuable transnational networks, knowledge, valuable habits and attitudes, new technological skills and work ethics.
No one can say that migration is wholly positive or wholly negative. It is much more complex. It deprives countries of highly educated and skilled workers, separate families and increase inequalities. To get the desirable out of the undesirable, migration is increasingly seen as a contributor to development. Migrants make important contributions to host countries, and the flow of financial, technological, social and human capital back to their countries of origin helps to reduce poverty and stimulate economic development. Eritrea is hankering more for the value of skills and knowledge transfer than the value of money remittances.
It has been repeatedly said that Eritrea’s best and reliable resource is human capital. In order to empower its human capacity educational and health institutions have spread throughout the country. Recognizing the effect of skilled and knowledgeable work force, a rapid increase in technical and vocational schools and tertiary education has been registered. Eritrea faces challenges and has sought to invest in its youth and human capital. The aim of this investment in young people is to create hope and opportunity among them which in turn is essential to foster development. Taking the popular notion of “Eritrea is for all Eritreans and all Eritreans are for Eritrea” into account, we must endeavor together for the fruit of development that we expect to ripen in the near future. The diaspora is imperative to help along the way.
Although the social remittances of the Eritrean diaspora is recognized as an important source of development, it is still untapped. It is evident that the remittances to relatives or friends that supplement domestic incomes of many families and the 2% tax of reconstruction are a large source of income and foreign exchange. Here we need to identify the kind of social capital we need. There is a growing desire among the educated diaspora to impart knowledge, professional skills and networks and thereby contribute positively to the development of Eritrea. The country is now in need of the individual and collective contribution of the diaspora’s expertise to assist and introduce the locals with new ideas and innovation. Our colleges, hospitals, administrative offices and ministries need diaspora initiatives to supplement the effort and determination of the locals.
There are many Eritreans from the diaspora working in different parts and institutions of the country. For example, the diaspora contribute in the areas of education and health. The benefits of their valuable knowledge, experience, and innovative practices are felt within the community and country. These individuals illustrate and prove that the Eritrean diaspora is important to channel innovative ideas, intellectual capacity, skills, and creative thinking.
Eritreans are known for their hospitality and reception of guests. The people treat the diaspora with respect. Although the majority of the diaspora respect, appreciate and live in harmony with the society, a few may be misguided. To mention some of the contemptible manifestations, consider unattractive and socially undesirable movements, extravagance and conspicuous consumption, misconduct, disrespect to the culture, and a tendency to look down upon people. But the vast majority seen and appreciated are the many young diaspora who completed their education and training in Sawa, the doctors who served in hospitals, lecturers in colleges, and consultants in many key positions. The actions of the very few must not misconstrue the image of the whole diaspora.
To conclude, Eritrea has long been known for its commendable policy of self-reliance; it turns to no one and nowhere to beg to its development except to its sons and daughters. The unparalleled unity of Eritreans of all ages and both genders, from inside and outside the country is now enormously needed in the reconstruction and development endeavors of the country.
Adi Keih College of Arts and social Sciences