Unlocking the potential of diaspora communities in revitalising UK foreign policy

On 31st October, the BFPG hosted a private roundtable event to examine the potential for greater strategic engagement with diaspora communities on UK foreign policy issues. This discussion is part of a series of events that the BFPG is holding to facilitate a more diverse range of perspectives on foreign policy matters. The discussion provided a space for members of the Nigerian, South Asian and American diaspora communities to share their professional and personal experiences of living and working in the UK. It also looked at how the Nigerian, South Asian and American diaspora communities enable the UK to enjoy strong international links across the world. Panellists brought with them a range of experience and expertise from across the digital, political and healthcare sectors to broaden the scope of the discussion.

Our speakers for this session were:

Cllr Hashim Bhatti

Clewer North & Windsor

Elizabeth Linder

Executive Director, Beautiful Destinations

Dr Titilola Banjoko Osiyemi

Senior Healthcare Professional

This roundtable event was held under the Chatham House Rule, but provided a wide range of insights as to how policy makers might choose to engage with the rich array of diaspora communities across the UK to deepen bilateral and multilateral ties across the world.

Diversity within diversity communities 

Throughout the session, participants emphasised that diaspora communities should not be viewed as a homogenous group. They also expressed that how we engage with diaspora communities matters if we are to bridge the gap in our knowledge about regions across the world. An approach which takes into account the challenges around intergenerational engagement and recognises the complexities and tensions inherent in any community engagement is essential.

Policy makers should express their motivations for choosing to engage with particular diaspora communities. They should also be clear about what they seek to gain from these communities at an early stage to manage expectations of the community members as well as policy makers. By being clear about their motivations policy makers could have better relationships with diaspora communities based on trust and transparency. This might allow for better access points for policy makers to establish stronger bilateral ties with Nigeria, America and South Asia. This way, there may be a greater chance of tapping into the diversity of talent that exists within the British Nigerian, South Asian and American diaspora communities to enhance the UK’s international outreach capacity. It should be noted that the diversity within diaspora communities presents both risks and opportunities for the UK on how policy makers may choose to engage with British diaspora groups.

Firstly, opinions around political matters relevant to particular countries and regions across the world are significantly varied within diaspora communities. Because of this variation, conflicts of interests can emerge within these groups on political, cultural and economic matters. The risk of overstating the value of one group over another is therefore high. How policy makers navigate conflicting opinions and perspectives on sensitive issues remains a challenge.

Also it would be over simplistic to assume that a single representative from a given diaspora community can be wholly representative of the views of an entire community. Because of this it is worth exploring new methods of engagement with diaspora communities, to avoid relying on biased view points of contentious cultural issues. An approach based on this principle could help to balance the expectations of policy makers and diaspora communities.

The other issue is that of reliability. British South Asians, Nigerians and Americans who have been part of British society for decades, generally can have a far greater awareness of and attachment to British political matters rather than South Asian, Nigerian and American issues. Therefore, relying on expertise and opinions on Nigerian, South Asian and American affairs from second or third generation members of diaspora communities assumes a great deal of responsibility on them to provide valuable insights into matters they may have limited knowledge of. Members of diaspora communities, interested in offering their views on UK foreign policy may also want to consider how well they currently engaged with regions across the world.

It would be naïve to assume that engagement with diaspora communities at any level is the solution to resolving the lack of diversity on UK foreign policy matters.  None the less, dialogue within and between diaspora groups should not be overlooked if policy makers are to effectively engage with these communities to advance the UK’s international position post Brexit.

The role of diaspora communities in shaping these long-lasting ties could be critical if the government is to deliver on its Global Britain agenda. In this context, dialogue with diaspora communities could play a key role in helping policy makers to deliver objectives relevant to the UK’s international engagement strategy. However, for this dialogue to be constructive, policy makers must be better at laying out what the UK’s international strategy is, and how it is relevant to the Nigerian, South Asian and American diaspora communities. Only then can they be expected to make meaningful contributions.

International development

A key issue that was raised during the discussion was how the UK’s international development objectives could be maximised through diaspora communities sharing their expertise with development agencies and NGOs – particularly those working across Africa and South Asia. The point of making diaspora communities in the UK more aware of how aid is spent and where it is spent across the world was also raised. Attendees stressed that diaspora communities in the UK could play a key role in helping development agencies and NGOs recognise cultural sensitivities involved in international development.

Cross-cultural dialogue

If the UK is to succeed as an outward looking international state post Brexit, we also need to be mindful of the way in which diaspora communities are presented in mainstream British media. Attendees stressed that by having more opportunities to offer their perspectives on international issues relevant to diaspora communities, they could enhance quality of the UK’s global links.

Developing better ties with India and Africa post-Brexit requires policy makers to have a nuanced understanding of the cultural, economic and political sensitives within these regions. Here, perspectives and insights from British Indian and the many African diaspora communities would be invaluable to have as the UK finds its place in the world. In order for diaspora communities to effectively offer reliable and constructive analysis of how bilateral links with the UK can be strengthened, a workable method to capture such perspectives is yet to be developed.

Panellists reflected upon the scope of influence that British values and culture have on parts of Nigeria, South Asia, and America. Attendees and panellists acknowledged the importance of young people participating in interfaith projects to build greater community cohesion across the UK and the world. Youth work on peace and reconciliation will prove to be increasingly important over the coming years amongst wider efforts to emphasise the UK’s role as a champion of the rules based international system. The challenge is how such discussions will be framed and this is something that the BFPG is keen to explore.

Soft Power

It was clear from the discussion that the UK could do more to utilise its soft power capability at an international level by engaging sensitively with diaspora communities. Across South Asia, Nigeria and America aspects of British culture are valued. Diasporas engage with critical issues for UK foreign policy such as modern slavery, international development, climate change, human rights, religious tolerance and other issues. They also provide insights and connections into how other parts of the world truly see the UK.

Looking ahead, there is clearly scope for further conversations around how diaspora communities in the UK could help to enhance the UK’s soft power, but these discussions need to be framed sensitively and within a wider publicly understood narrative of what the UK wants to achieve in the world that is currently lacking. Building this wider UK foreign policy narrative is a critical step in providing a framework within which diasporas can willingly choose to engage.

At a time where narratives around the UK’s place in the world and the role of minority communities in the UK are increasingly risk being shaped by pessimistic views; this event served as a timely opportunity to consider positive and constructive ideas on foreign policy engagement. It was clear that there is an appetite and opportunity for more sophisticated and impactful engagements with diaspora communities in support of UK soft power. However, a more accessible and coherent vision of what the UK wants to achieve internationally, may be a prerequisite for the kind of deep discussion required to unlock the full soft power potential of diaspora communities in the UK.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
BFPG Admin