Ashoka’s Global Diaspora Initiative 46

Social entrepreneurs are not ones to get burned at the stake. These unique individuals can sense problems approaching from a mile away, so they observe and adapt to their countries’ situations to make change happen anyway. In our increasingly globalized world, it is the diasporans straddling two worlds that are best advantaged to forecast the future.

Ashoka believes an entrepreneurial spirit is inherent to all immigrants, and this energy can be channeled towards development. We are using this framework to engage diaspora leaders to co-create changemaking solutions for their fast growing societies.

Throughout history, we have been cemented in a world of repetition: the same rules have persisted as we organized ourselves for the assembly line. The faster the world moves, however, the less these rules of repetition will matter. We are nearing the tipping point when steadfast patterns will no longer mean acceptance into the system. We are at a point when the system changes daily: the rate of change is going up and making this old world obsolete.

When rules can no longer dictate the status quo, the world’s citizens must rely on their sense of empathy to realize that change is required. As this world globalizes and becomes increasingly interconnected, change will happen everywhere, and constantly.

To respond to such change, citizens will have to understand each other and respond collaboratively. Open exchange and adaptation are critical. Everyone must master empathy to live in a world that is comprised of fluid, open “Teams of Teams”: cross-cutting collaborations across groups, sectors, borders, professions.  Ashoka knows that diaspora groups have been the first to engage in this process.

With the goal of jumpstarting the economies of their countries of origin, diasporans have been crucial in creating the support necessary to re-channel global investments. Countries entering the global market are often censured because of the size of their domestic market or inadequate infrastructure (Gillespie et al 1999: 623).

Despite these risks, diasporans maintain both a desire to give back and networks that provide them information about the market and operational conditions in their countries of origin. These diaspora groups take the lead in instilling confidence in their countries’ ability to deliver by being some of the first to invest. “Migrant communities can help facilitate cross-national portfolio investment by reducing barriers to entry—through knowledge of language, institutional rules, and/ or regulatory hurdles—that may otherwise prevent a foreign investor,” writes David LeBlang in Familiarity Breeds Investment: Diaspora Networks and International Investment. If familiarity does indeed breed investment, in the coming years, to get more actors involved, we must continue to break barriers to change and get historically divided individuals to speak. Diasporans have already begun to answer the question, “How?”

A world of institutions is categorized by walls. When you have fluid Teams of Teams, these walls function as obstacles. In the coming years, we must find ways to get those historically divided individuals to finally speak to each other. Diasporans have already figured this out. Silicon Valley and Bangalore are joined at the hip: the Indian diaspora has jumped over walls to live in multiple communities simultaneously.

AnnaLee Saxenian explored the idea of Asian-American entrepreneurs as agents of globalization in her 2003 paper, “Local and Global Networks of Immigrant Professionals in Silicon Valley.” Aiming to understand the extent of transnational business activities by Silicon Valley immigrants, Saxenian drew her sample from seventeen leading immigrant professional associations in the Bay Area. Half of Silicon Valley’s foreign-born entrepreneurs in the survey had established subsidiaries, joint ventures, subcontracting, or other business operations in their countries of heritage. Eighty-two percent of the region’s foreign-born respondents reported sharing information about technology with colleagues in their countries of origin. She found that forty percent of foreign-born respondents reported arranging business contracts in their native country, including forty-six percent of Indians, forty-two percent of Taiwanese, and thirty-four percent of Mainland Chinese.

These immigrant communities have clearly discovered the value of linking their two worlds. But what is the best method for social support? Though we could persist with the historical framework of direct service—remittances, for example, are at an all time high with $351 billion transferred to developing countries in 2011—these communities need to move to create higher-level change.

Bhagat Singh Thind, one of the first Indian-American diaspora members, wrote his father in Punjab from his new home in Oregon about money that he had sent, saying,

“I wait for your letter daily, and get worried if it is delayed. Hopefully in future you will be kind enough (to reply immediately). On June 26, I sent to you a check of Rupees 1,250. On receipt, please inform immediately. And I shall send more on hearing from you.”

Seventy-two years later, Indian diaspora members sent $58 billion in remittances in a single year, over twice what Bill Gates has given to charity since 2007.

Almost a century later, the Indian diaspora can have the biggest impact by supporting innovation. We must build a new framework that brings together the framework of direct service giving and business investing so diasporas find and develop ways to empower community members back home to be their own agents of long-term change. By coupling remittances with increasing investments in social entrepreneurship, the diaspora can create more systemic change in their countries of origin. We must transform our methods of support to create an enabling framework to ensure that everyone, not just the immigrant, is a changemaker.

To learn more about Ashoka’s new diaspora initiative, please visit us at or send us an email at


About the Author: Dr. Iman Bibars is Ashoka’s Vice President and the Regional Director for Ashoka Arab World (AAW), which she launched in 2003. She is the co-founder and chair of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), a nonprofit organization providing credit and legal aid for impoverished women. With more than thirty years of experience in strategic planning, policy formulation, community development, and project design, Iman has dedicated her life to working with marginalized and voiceless groups -female heads of households in Egypt’s poorest areas. Iman has also worked with UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, CARE-Egypt, GTZ, and KFW. Iman holds a PhD in Development Studies from Sussex University and a BA and MA in Political Science from American University in Cairo.

The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA), the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.

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