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21st Century Diasporas

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, a diaspora is “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland.” We’ve got plenty of those worldwide, and it’s not a new phenomenon by any means. What is different is the size of the various diaspora, and the way people are able to remain connected to their homelands by technology. A recent article in the Economist, “Weaving the world together,” examines how the spread of people around the globe, and 21st century communications technology, are revolutionizing business.

Consider this factoid: there are more Chinese people outside of China than there are French people in France. There is a Chinese presence in virtually every nation on earth. The same goes for Indian nationals, who are found in large numbers in various parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, as well as Europe and North America.

One thing is radically different about migration now compared to past centuries: staying in touch is a lot easier. One hundred years ago, an immigrant would leave his home country and likely travel by boat for several weeks before reaching his destination. Once established there, it might take two months for correspondence from home to reach him. Imagine getting a letter telling you that a parent died six weeks ago. That is the distant past, but just 30 years ago, e-mail did not exist and long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, reserved for emergencies or special occasions only. No more, now a Mumbai-native living in Chicago can get up to the minute news and weather from home on his phone, not to mention calls and texts from family, friends and business associates.

From the standpoint of individuals and families, these developments are remarkable, but they also are having an important impact on business. Traditionally, when an immigrant group established itself in a new place, like the Chinese community in San Francisco or São Paolo, there was little or no commercial connection with the homeland. In the case of China, the economy was effectively closed anyway, but such contact would have been too expensive and unwieldy regardless. Now, getting on the phone with the home country to find a supplier or negotiate a contract is all in a day’s work, and it’s easy enough to get on a plane to close the deal if necessary. Moreover, the diasporas aren’t always in the places you might imagine. The Economist article recounts the story of a Nigerian factory owner who calls a member of the Nigerian Igbo diaspora in China to inspect a machine he is thinking of importing on his behalf.

The growth of diasporas and advanced communications technology means that borders are more fluid and information is exchanged more rapidly, speeding up the flow of knowledge. A Chinese scientist who has studied or worked in the U.S. and returned home has a wealth of contacts on both sides of the Pacific, and will make use of them. Equally, the Indian or Chinese software engineer who has established a business in Silicon Valley is by no means lost to India or China, and is typically in frequent contact with fellow professionals in the homeland. This was confirmed by a recent study by Britain’s Royal Society that showed cross-border scientific collaborations and inventions are increasing, and that such ties often result from connections borne out of diasporas. A case in point: an inexpensive refrigerator designed for India’s rural poor came out of a partnership between a leading Indian company and three scientists in the U.S. Indian diaspora; the connection was not just ethnicity, but also a common tie to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

We live in a truly cosmopolitan age in which international borders are dissolving. The growth of diasporas in the U.S. that maintain close ties to their homelands is improving the fund of human knowledge, and providing real economic benefits, both to the U.S. and a number of foreign countries. Technology and business, however, are waiting for immigration law to catch up.

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