On the 29th of November, the Centre for Pan-African Studies (CPAS) at SOAS University of London, in partnership with Shabaka, hosted a webinar on the role played by generation 1.5 and second-generation African diaspora in humanitarian action. Our panellists on the evening were Dr Bashair Ahmed, CEO of Shabaka, a values-driven consulting and research organisation focused on diaspora and migrant’s humanitarian action, and Sahra Ahmed Koshin, director of the Somali Gender Hub and a PhD Candidate at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Nairobi, specializing in the Horn of Africa Diaspora.
The webinar was prompted by the recognition of the necessity for public discussion on both the potential and active involvement in humanitarian efforts by second and 1.5 generation African diasporans. Second-generation African diasporans, those who were born and/or raised outside the country of origin, represent a significant and rapidly growing demographic in the UK. There is also a substantial number of ‘generation 1.5’, those who migrated from their country of heritage during their teenage years. Both groups serve as essential links, connecting their country of residence to various African countries and identities, contributing to the cultural, economic, and political enrichment of communities across borders. They are vocal advocates for global justice and humanitarian values. Yet, the role of second-generation diasporans in the UK and Africa, especially in humanitarian response, is often overlooked in academic discussions, the development sector, and media coverage. The webinar aimed to shed light on this oversight and explore the multifaceted contributions of second and 1.5 generation diasporans to African humanitarian efforts.
Below are some of the key takeaways that emerged from the discussion.
The role of identity/ies and how those shape the engagement of generation 1.5 and second generations
One of the primary insights originating from the webinar was the importance of understanding the motivations behind the engagement of second and 1.5 generation diasporans in humanitarian action. Panellists stressed the significance of understanding how they construct their sense of identity and belonging, and how those may shift over time. Dr Bashair noted that most individuals in the diaspora hold multiple and broader identities, typically including their countries of heritage, but not limited by it. While ties to their country of heritage are maintained to some extent, there are also broader connections that can emerge in relations to their country of residence, their religious identity, their racial consciousness, or other aspects of their identities, particularly vis-à-vis experiences of discrimination faced in the context of residence. Such connections can lead to participation in humanitarian action.
Similarly, Sahra, highlighted that it was important to acknowledge the multiple ways in which distinct lived experiences play a role in shaping the ‘humanitarianism’ that second generations engage with, and how they may differ from the older generations. For instance, drawing on her research among Somali second generations in Zambia, Sahra noted that language barriers initially acted as a hindrance to their participation in debates and focus groups around humanitarianism. The elders would often take the lead in those debates as they occurred in their mother tongue. Second generations, she found, are often managing multiple identities requiring them to constantly manage this complexity. Her 14-year experience working in Somalia revealed that younger generations often have valuable contributions to make and are tech-savvy in ways that their elders aren't. This enables them to engage in particular and distinct forms of humanitarianism.
Misconceptions and gaps on the role of the diaspora in humanitarian action
A further point raised by Dr Bashair during the discussion, was the importance of conducting research and partnership work alongside diaspora communities to inform policies within the context of settlement. Dr Bashair noted that currently, there is a significant gap in data and research on the existing humanitarian engagement of the diaspora, and without this evidence, it is challenging to develop and implement effective policies. That is a crucial point that needs to be addressed. She emphasised that researchers, policymakers, and humanitarian actors need to fill that gap and create an ecosystem that includes diasporic communities as equal actors. With decades of experience in the humanitarian sector, she observed that typically policy debates focused only on the country of origin and through the lens of development. However, she said, there was very little attention given to the diaspora engagement in humanitarian action in settlement countries. This is a significant oversight in recognizing key players in the humanitarian response. Diaspora community organisations hold networks, social and cultural capital that can be leveraged to shape policies, and they need to be approached as equal partners, who can contribute in meaningful ways and shape policies.
In relation to that, Sahra also noted that opportunities to contribute to their country of heritage through funded schemes, are not equally accessible across all diasporas. Most of those schemes and even job opportunities within international organisations based in Africa, are tailored for individuals who are based in the West, with very limited opportunities available to those based in Africa, irrespective of their credentials. This raises the question that Sahra referred to as ‘inter-Africa humanitarianism’, particularly as diaspora communities across Africa are also actively involved in humanitarian action, but their contributions are completely ignored. There is very little knowledge about the African diaspora on the continent. The African Union’s (AU) definition of diaspora does not encompass these experiences, and these communities are often studied through the lens of migration and the experiences of asylum seekers, rather than as vibrant communities that possess various degrees of capital and networks.
Power hierarchies between local actors and Global humanitarian structures
Another key takeaway that emerged from the discussions was the theme of power hierarchies between diaspora and local actors and the ‘international humanitarian’ actors. Citing her extensive experience working in the humanitarian sector, Dr Bashair gave examples of the pervasive inequity that exists in the sector regarding differences in pay for local and international staff and how the vital contributions of diaspora populations during humanitarian situations are often ignored by international humanitarian organisations. Dr Bashair also underscored how international humanitarian organisations view diasporas either as cash cows or beneficiaries, when they should be viewed as equal partners in humanitarian action. According to Sahra, examples of the work diaspora communities engage in include mutual aid networks for care and social protection, emphasizing why diaspora communities should be taken as partners in the aid localisation agenda. Both Dr Bashair and Sahra stressed that diaspora populations are the missing link in discussions on localization. They are often first responders to humanitarian situations in their countries of origin, and have transnational networks in place that enable efficient and accurate resource mobilization. They can also access places larger humanitarian organisations cannot due to their knowledge of their countries of origin.
The role of technology
The role of technology is also critical for 1.5 and second generation African diasporans in their participation in humanitarian action. Sahra provided examples from her research that highlighted how 1.5 and second generation diasporans are using technology for humanitarian purposes. This included Somali diasporans using GoFundMe to raise funds for people impacted by flash floods in Somalia and young Somali diasporans in Sweden creating a crisis mapping tool. This tool was used by diaspora organisations, the Government of Somalia, and international humanitarian organisations to track resource needs and the overall humanitarian response to different areas during the 2017 drought. Sahra also noted that 1.5- and second-generation diaspora use social media, especially X Spaces, to discuss issues that are important to Somalia, such as anti-tribalism, corruption, and decolonisation and that they are driving innovation in Somalia through the creation of tech hubs.
Overall, the webinar highlighted that although 1.5 and second-generation diasporans are important humanitarian actors, their contributions are not widely recognized, remain little known, and are not integrated into mainstream discussions. Both speakers stressed that more research is needed to understand the full extent of diaspora engagement in humanitarian response.
Watch the full discussion -