The Role of the Diaspora in Supporting the Transition in Tunisia and the Arab World

What propelled India to be the World’s IT hub? What shaped the Asian tigers’ incredible growth? What made China the World’s manufacturer? Engaging their respective skilled Diasporas! Tunisia’s diaspora knowledge, experience and network should be leveraged at this critical juncture of the country’s history. Arab professional diasporas throughout the World can play a historical role in enabling smoother transitions in their countries of origins.

Prior to the January 2011 revolution, the majority of Tunisians living abroad did not engage in Tunisian political, economic, or social activities in order to avoid being associated with the former regime. After the revolution, a shift occurred as Tunisians living abroad were relieved and proud to see the notoriety of Tunisia increase worldwide. Eager to help in any way possible, they became involved in all aspects of Tunisian political, economic, and social development. The genuine energy and engagement that began post the revolution needed a proper channel in order to harness the support and create a sustainable model. Organizations that were successful in doing this were focused, and had long-term, sustainable goals. Among these organizations, professional diaspora associations can be especially effective in driving greater economic and political support to their country of origin. These associations can play an important role as individual investors and promoters of foreign direct investment, while also striving to increase the depth and breadth of economic ties, cooperation and exchanges between their country of residence and Tunisia. This “bottoms-up” approach has proven successful Tunisia and continues to be a way for Tunisians living abroad to support the transition.

A “top-down” approach should also be employed in diaspora engagement, as Arab governments should better leverage their diasporas to increase investment (not only remittances) in their countries. By focusing on this base of people that are already predisposed to support the country, governments have the opportunity to create an incentive and investment structure that could be expandable beyond just the diaspora.

In the case of Tunisia, the country needs an economic revolution after the political revolution, democracy has to pay off, and despite the distance and the many challenges diasporans can contribute substantially to a successful transition. This article suggests employing both the “bottoms up” mentality and the “top down” approach to engage and leverage the potential of the diaspora. In section 1, simple actions are suggested that individuals and groups within the diaspora can undertake to support transitions in their countries of origin. This is supported through a case study of a successful export program in which a Tunisian diaspora association in the United States worked with both the Tunisian and US governments, and the respective private sectors, to enable handicraft exports from Tunisia to the US. This resulted in the creation of hundreds of jobs and, most importantly, hope for women and youth of several interior regions in Tunisia. Section 2 lays out how governments can increase foreign direct invest by focusing on engaging people in their diaspora. It examines a few actions that the Tunisian government ought to enable to leverage the untapped potential of diaspora investment and savings.