From a world away diasporas make all politics local

The mantra 'all politics is local' continues to ring true, but with globalisation those same politics may be determined by processes playing out thousands of miles from the local setting.

Terrence Lyons and Peter Mandaville

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a US citizen employed by New York's Department of Transportation, was appointed prime minister of Somalia last month. In the aftermath of Ethiopia's post-election crisis, both the ruling party and the opposition sent high-level representatives to address diasporas in Europe and North America. Those running for the Liberian presidency in 2005 launched their campaigns in front of audiences in the US. And until its defeat last year, the strategies of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, or LTTE, in Sri Lanka were largely determined by figures in London and Toronto.

Economists have long recognised the role of diasporas in sending remittances. National security analysts point to links between some diasporas and extremist movements. Less understood is the question of how diasporas shape everyday political outcomes and how transnational politics are increasingly the norm.

The mantra "all politics is local" continues to ring true, but with globalisation those same politics may be determined by processes playing out thousands of miles from the local setting. Whether trying to assess the impact of diasporas in terms of exacerbating civil wars or promoting peace, contributing to democratisation efforts, or transforming the meaning and practice of citizenship, the need to understand how diasporas shape political outcomes is paramount.

New forms of media, from blogs to satellite television to SMS messaging, have expanded the geography of agenda-setting. Many transnational movements strategically use segments of their constituencies in different parts of the world to advance a common agenda. For example, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated networks might focus on fundraising in North America, where private philanthropy is more highly developed than in Europe, but they use the United Kingdom as a base for coordination due to its relative proximity to the Middle East. If an organisation, like LTTE, is banned in one country, the fundraising and critical operations shift to another. When authoritarian regimes stifle political discussions and organisations in one location, as in Ethiopia, leaders and processes in other locations gain stature.

Migrant remittances - reaching an estimated $338 billion in 2008 in the developing world - remain part of the story insofar as political endorsements often accompany cash sent home. Large populations in war-torn Somalia as well as earthquake-devastated Haiti depend upon remittances for their survival.

Like all financial transfers, remittances have political consequences. In some cases patron-client relationships that have long existed within small communities have become globalised. Patrons with access to resources often live abroad. If someone in rural Liberia wishes to appeal to the central government in Monrovia for support, the closest social link may be a relative in Philadelphia known to have political connections in the capital who is a cell phone call away. Physical distance matters less for patron-client relationships than social proximity.

Moving beyond the conventional "ethnic lobbying" of host country governments, today's transnational activists target a variety of pressure points. Ethiopian Americans, for example, have sought to influence Washington to change its policies toward Addis Ababa, actively pushing for the Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability Act in 2007. At the same time, they demonstrate in front of NGOs like the Carter Centre, institutions such as the World Bank, and media outlets like The Washington Post.

Diasporas linked to states and those that are stateless have distinct differences. Some of the most highly mobilised networks have been movements to liberate a homeland, as among the Tamils, Eritreans, Palestinians, Irish, Armenians and Kurds. In these cases the perceived danger to one's kin and the absence of a state to organise the nation's defence foists that responsibility onto those in the diaspora who can speak for the vulnerable. In other cases the host country has a hand in mobilising a particular diaspora when geopolitical or security interests are perceived to be at stake - hence the role of the US government in activating Iraqi and Afghan Americans in the first half of this decade.

Researchers such as Paul Collier suggest that countries with large diasporas are more likely to experience civil wars than those without. According to this logic, the ability of diasporas to raise funds for insurgents back home allows rebels to pursue violent strategies and resist compromise.

Conflict-generated diasporas often have symbolic attachments to the homeland and tend to see politics in stark black-and-white terms. The impulse to demand categorical goals may come easier to those who don't endure the costs of the violence. Symbolic politics or "long-distance nationalism" tends to strengthen confrontational leaders and undermine compromise. But this is not always the case. For years the Irish Northern Aid Committee dominated the Irish-American diaspora's links to the conflict in Northern Ireland, sustaining the most militant leaders. In the 1990s, however, a group of Irish-American leaders created Americans for a New Irish Agenda to create a constituency for peace.

In their many different roles, modern diasporas challenge contemporary notions of how political life should be organised. Some bemoan the emergence of long-distance nationalists who attempt to shape homeland politics, seeing them as irresponsible and dangerously unaccountable. But such transnational engagement is likely to grow as a part of political life in the coming decades.

Terrence Lyons and Peter Mandaville co-direct the centre for Global Studies at George Mason University in Virginia. This article is based on research funded by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation. © Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation