Virtual Diasporas and International Conflict
workshop addressed an urgent question:
how does contemporary globalization, especially the Internet,
affect how diasporas are constituted and in turn, their impact on peace
and security? How have so many diasporians made the transition from
border-crossing refugees to cosmopolitan citizens (hereafter referred to
as cosmos)? Are transnational diasporic networks the leading edge
of a globally networked and post-national community in social, economic
and political dimensions? And,
how do virtual diasporas in such conditions affect nation-states,
themselves reeling under the impact of globalization?
In less than two decades, globalization and the information revolution
have created conditions that lead to border-crossings in ways that differ
fundamentally from those experienced by immigrants a century ago. Today,
information communication technologies (including but not limited to the
Internet) bind global diasporic communities with their real or imagined
homelands, facilitate new and efficient economic networks in both the host
and countries-of-origin, and enable globally dispersed transnational
communities to solidify and assert their diasporic identities. In the conventional wisdom—especially in security
circles—these transmission belts for people, ideas, money, and goods are
viewed as the source of security threats to be controlled, especially
since September 11th.
Others suggest that cosmos, due to their global
orientations, socialization and experience, represent an emerging and
largely untapped resource for global problem-solving, especially when
facilitated by virtual diasporic networks.
Cosmos happen to staff many of the world’s leading global
problem-solving organizations. In leading global non-governmental
organizations, the World Bank, UN agencies as well as in the globally
dispersed civil society organizations that address burning issues from
bottom-up, invisible networks of diasporians are tied by a shared history,
language, and identity that cut across geography and organizational
hierarchies. Some suggest that these networks operate (or should operate)
primarily with respect to the country-of-origin—a “corruption” of
Weberian organizational rationality that some international agencies
attempt to avoid by never posting a diasporian in their “home”
suggest that cosmos accumulate substantial experience in
negotiation, multi-cultural perspectives, circumventing barriers and
borders of all kinds, and knowledge that transcends that of parochials—or
people who have never had to confront and overcome the multiple barriers
to mobility that are now maintained by nation-states.
In this view, cosmos draw on their diasporic experience and even
their specific networks-of-origin to solve problems, but they are
extro-spective rather than than intro-spective with respect to issues of
concern to their specific country-of-origin.
Networks of cosmos cosmopolitans arguably represent a
growing form of social capital that is an essential ingredient of
successful global problem-solving, but also is largely unrecognized and
even neglected by their institutional hosts.
Nautilus Institute has begun to investigate these processes that are
integral to global problem-solving through the Virtual Diasporas and
Global Problem-Solving Project.
In this first workshop, the project assessed the interrelationships
of virtual diasporic
communities, the information revolution, and international conflict and
cooperation. By drawing on
the knowledge of leading authorities on diasporas, the project charted
ways that diasporas may evolve in terms of contribution to global problems
and to global problem-solving. Finally,
the project compiled, edited, and distributed the findings on the
At time of reporting, opeds from the writers are also being
distributed over the Internet and to major newspapers.
outset, papers were commissioned from leading academics and practitioners
in the field of diasporas. We
sought analysis that would throw light on three key issues:
emerging relationships between virtual
diasporic communities and global problem-solving;
b) driving forces behind the apparent increase
in importance of virtual diasporas in global problem-solving;
of future research.
September 11, the project paused to account for this eruption of violence
linked to global networks of diasporic players.
In response, we re-focused the commissioned work on South Asia
while keeping the global approach intact.
We also initiated specific outreach to the local Afghan, Indian,
and Pakistani diasporic communities in the Bay Area, holding seminars,
ensuring that Afghan experts were represented in post-September 11 policy
meetings (raising these issues at two Global Philanthropy Forum meetings)
and were published in the local media (two opeds by Faruq Achikzad in San
A list of
authors, affiliation and paper titles is provided below.
25-26 2002 the project convened an international assembly of key academic,
government, diasporic organizations, and NGO representatives to initiate a
focused dialogue integrating the results of this research.
workshop had four objectives:
the growing impact of global diasporas and their use of information
technologies on international conflict and cooperation;
a network of key academic, government, Bay Area Diaspora organization, and
NGO representatives to begin examining this challenging issue;
global problem-solving groups on the importance of this issue to their
and develop 3-5 “applications” in which to learn more about the work
workshop began with an introductory public event, held in partnership with
the World Affairs Council. The public session, held April 25, 2002 from
6:00-9:00pm at the World Affairs Council’s San Francisco venue,
consisted of two panels moderated by journalist and UC Berkeley visiting
professor Gregg Zachary, and Andrew Lam, Pacific News Service and Knight
Scholar at Stanford University. The event was designed to introduce the
general public to the issue of diasporas and global problem-solving, share
findings of the project with the foreign policymaking community in the bay
26, 2002, an all-day workshop was held at the Nautilus Institute with
Rockefeller Foundation’s Ram Manikkalingam participating via
VideoTeleconference from New York.
The goal was to give participants a chance to learn more about one
another’s’ work; to complement the academic/research participants with
members of local diasporic communities, to build upon these perspectives
in a facilitated brainstorming discussion; and to develop a research
full-day workshop was organized around two sessions focused on case
studies. The first session, Diasporas
Today, explored various case studies prepared by our commissioned
session, Diasporas in the
Information Age, focused on the emerging relationship between
trans-national ethnic communities and their current (and future) impact on
global problems and global solutions.
Session One: Diasporas Today
began with a sweeping overview of virtual diasporas by Nautilus Institute
Executive Director, Peter Hayes. In his comments Hayes noted how the
international global problem-solving organizations (governmental and
nongovernmental) make no mention of the importance of diasporas, yet their
staff are largely made up of diasporians often of the most cosmopolitan
variety. He tasked the group to think about the following questions
throughout the day:
diasporic spaces overlap and are intertwined with so many other forms of
transnational networks, why is there such a disconnect?
Is there an
invisible lever of influence that these cosmopolitan activists or their
host organizations are underutilizing?
How can we
interconnect cosmos equipped with diasporic networks with the vast
networks of NGOs who are often both interested in the same issues, but do
not cooperate with diasporic communities who are motivated by the same
actually draw on their diasporic skills and/or networks to solve
global-problems; and do they exhibit common skills of border-crossing,
post-ethnic identity, negotiation, and cross-cultural knowledge that might
be codified, improved, communicated and by virtue of being explicit,
become available to the organization as a core competence?
discussion began with a short presentation by Robert Smith (Barnard
College) on the North American Mexican Diaspora and the emerging North
American political sphere. Smith argued that the migration has both local
and transnational dimensions which require that we think both
transnationally and locally about solutions to the problems and
opportunities related to it. Specifically, in the case of the Mexican
Diaspora, Smith outlined how both the Mexican and US governments are
beginning to think beyond borders, but there is much more that needs to be
done in relation to remittances, accuracy in the media, and political
involvement in both countries. Lastly, he noted that although the Internet
was increasingly a tool of the transnational Mexican population, radio was
Guobin Yang (University of Hawaii at Manoa) analyzed the Chinese
transnational virtual community by describing websites, bulletin boards,
and online magazines. He
argued that the online Chinese community is a highly heterogeneous and
dynamic community that plays an increasingly important role in shaping
state and inter-state behavior. This analysis led to an inspired
discussion around the anemic official attempts to curtail the processes of
problem identification, open debate, and online activism through filters,
moderation, and other technical means. In conclusion, Yang argued, that it
is up to citizens and citizen groups to keep these “virtual policy
spaces” democratic, free from domination by any one group, and to help
channel the issues articulated online to the broader public.
interesting was Yang’s suggestion that the Internet allows very concrete
learning about policy alternatives and civility to be transmitted from
“outside” to “inside.” He
cited the example of a Chinese student in the United States suggesting
that a Chinese campus have security guards—a common American
practice—in a context of intense debates over a covered-up campus
murder. The slow, osmotic
transmission of outside knowledge to China’s vast civil society via the
Internet rather than the oft-noted lightning speed and disjuncture
associated with the Internet elsewhere in the world was an important
difference emphasized in Yang’s paper.
paper turned to South Asia, with a presentation by Shyam Tekwani (Nanyang
University) on the Tamil Tigers and their use of the Internet as an
integral tool in their cause. Tekwani, a former photojournalist in Sri
Lanka and one of the few journalists to have consistent access to the
Tiger leadership, illustrated how the Tigers used the Internet a
networking, fundraising, information dissemination, and propaganda tool
within the global Tamil community—to the point where they sold
recordings of Tamil forces in battles via their web sites!
However, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States
and the global “war on terror,” Tekwani points out, have forced the
Tamil Tigers to change their online strategy as well as pushed them to a
ceasefire with the Sri Lankan government.
ended with a presentation and discussion by Hala Nassar on how the
displaced Palestinian community remembers, narrates, and articulates their
yearning for the right to return home through films and photography.
Nassar specifically explored the role of women filmmakers and artists in
preserving the Palestinian sense of home within the Palestinian Diaspora. Her analytic construct of “gendered yearning” for
the homeland and its representation on the Internet is an important
contribution that deserves follow-up.
Session Two: Diasporas in the Information Age
2 opened with Karim H. Karim’s (Carleton University) sweeping overview
of the technological, social, and historical context in which diasporic
communities communicate with members and the outside world, and how in
turn this relationship shapes that between diasporas and nation states.
discussion then turned to how diasporic groups use information
communication technologies (from satellite television to the Internet) to
circumvent the traditional, often state-controlled communication channels
to appeal directly to citizens within and outside of their diaspora. Karim,
concluded the discussion with an overview of how the forces of
globalization empower and impel “deterritorialized diasporians” to
become a cosmopolitan global citizenry.
Karim suggested that the Aga Khan Foundation is an excellent global
study of this phenomenon begging for empirical examination and reflection.
He suggested that the Foundation has struck a delicate balance
between engagement and cooptation with powerful elites and states in all
countries where members reside in significant numbers, thereby maintaining
autonomy but also exercising countervailing power to protect members when
Pascal Zachary, presented his work on “diasporian capitalism.”
Zachary, argued that diasporic
communities offer an untapped engine for development in their home
countries. Unfortunately, Zachary suggests, there are a number of national
and transnationally derived impediments to “diasporian development from
below.” He suggests that to foster such development dramatic reforms
from creating new modes of foreign assistance and investment, new
approaches to “brain drain,” and the creation of multilateral
investment funds for diasporians.
suggested that “cosmos” in inter-governmental and international
non-governmental organizations are an under-used resource in solving
problems in their countries-of-origin, or in countries in which their
diaspora-of-origin is a significant social force, citing the case of Niger
and the Lebanese diaspora. (This thesis is not exclusive to the earlier suggestion that
“cosmos” accumulate skills derived from and refined by the diasporic
experience for global problem-solving in general and not in relation to
their own diaspora. Arguably,
the latter is a global under-utilization of their social capital while the
former is a narrower foregone benefit that may flow from a given
“cosmo” given resources and mandate).
Baxandall led a discussion on how separatist and terrorist groups such as
the Tamil Tigers, The Real IRA, al Qaeda and others rely on foreign
remittances to fund international terrorist operations, and how these
largely unregulated financial inflows represent a potent source of
political instability. Baxandall argued that although these flows of
unregulated capital appear to be difficult to control, analysts have
over-emphasized the freewheeling nature of global finance. He suggests
that we have made a natural, yet mistaken, assumption that speech and
financial flows are the same “untamable” entities being driven by the
spread of the Internet. In fact, he suggested that the global financial
system is embedded in a formal banking infrastructure that is technically
amenable to far greater transparency and control.
closed with Vinay Lal’s fascinating overview of Hindu nationalists’
use of the Internet to organize, fundraise, recruit, and distribute
propaganda across the Indian diaspora. Lal argues that Hindu nationalists,
much like the al-Qaeda network, are an unanticipated yet direct
manifestation of globalization.
Ironically, according to Lal, the most virulent Hindu nationalism
on the web is orchestrated by diasporians outside the “homeland” (in
the United States in fact). This
thesis is parallel to a point made in the discussion that the web and
email tends to polarize positions both in terms of the iconically stark or
highly condensed communication employed on the Internet; and because both
“producers” and users tend to be highly motivated to overcome
technical and cost barriers to Internet participation in the first place.
Lal suggested (tongue-in-cheek?) that the Indian urban middle class
which dreams and tries to live like it is physically in an American city
is already part of the Indian diaspora (or part of the American global
diaspora by virtue of its cultural membership of commodity consumption on
a large scale?).
workshop ended by identifying outstanding questions about Virtual
Diasporas and Global Problem-Solving.
1) How do
countries with a large diasporic populations catalyze their diasporic
populations to take an active interest in promoting the development of
their country-of-origin; or in related conflict avoidance or conflict
resolution involving their country-of-origin.
2) How do
we legitimate and expand the meanings of the right of not multiple
citizenships and identities?
lessons are available for codification with regard to maintenance of
deterritorialized and far-flung cultures that maintain strong cultural
ties and relations with the “homeland” but also are compatible with
and supportive of political stability in the country-of-residence?
In particular, what does the Chinese diaspora suggest in this
regard, and are these lessons transposable to other diasporas?
group identified as on-going research priorities.
(digital architecture) and sociological mapping of virtual diaspora
networks and organizations as they relate to global public policy
Collaborative research on
leading “deterritorialized transnational diasporians” or cosmos.
studies of 1, 2, 3.
issue of internal diasporas/displacement in very large countries such as