“Oh, but you don’t exactly look Armenian,” an Armenian lady (who turned out to be a fellow New Yorker), exclaimed with surprise midway into conversation with me while on a packed Paris to Yerevan flight.
I took no offense. I knew exactly what she meant. The stereotypes that continue to dominate Armenian diaspora communities can be quite powerful.
I am part of the Eastern Armenian “new” and post-early 1990s migration wave. She, on the other hand, born and raised in the U.S., comes from what we might call the Western Armenian “old” diaspora formed by migrations from the historic homeland before or immediately after the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
At that moment, perhaps, dressed in the usual New York style (you know the rule—at least one item of dark clothing at all times), busy on my laptop while the flight was still boarding, and despite what I thought was my distinctly Armenian appearance, for her I did not look or sound like a typical “new” implant to the traditional diasporic community of the West. I did not pursue an in-depth questioning on that topic. It was not the first time such an assumption was made about me.
But that interaction made me rethink, within the context of my research on economic development and diaspora, some of the key trends transpiring through the broader global Armenian communities. My reflections also connected with a recent article that appeared in the Armenian Weekly, authored by another New Yorker and a good friend, Kevork Khrimian.
In his piece, Khrimian attempts to produce an answer to what he posits as a practical question: “What can the Diaspora do to improve the economy of Armenia?” He proposes a state-run investment fund that would allow diaspora investors to directly purchase securities in Armenia-based enterprises. Khrimian’s solution is practical and relevant to Armenia’s aspiring level of economic development, although there may be some challenges in implementing it now.
Driven by similar motivations, earlier this year I completed a report for the International Organization for Migration–Armenia (IOM) entitled “Enhancing Development through Diaspora Engagement in Armenia.” My report, distributed to key stakeholders in Armenia and international development organizations active in the country, advances a range of conceptual and policy-centered recommendations as well as a group of applied solutions, focusing on agriculture, tourism, and the science and education sectors, with overall macroeconomic improvements in mind. Leveraging my research of the diaspora phenomenon and post-socialist economies development, the IOM report also benefited immensely from firsthand interviews with a diverse group of investors, entrepreneurs, educators, policymakers and other professionals in the diaspora and in Armenia engaged with the country in some way.
From Ireland to Moldova, New Zealand to Scotland, Mexico to Ghana, Philippines to Greece, India to China and more, there is an almost infinite list of successful case studies with diaspora participation contributing to the home country’s improvement. Each comes with its unique framework and modalities of engagement, many of which I reviewed in the aforementioned IOM report. Yet I also think that before we can talk about any quick policy solutions, we need to tackle the more complex problem of definitions and motivation.
That laborious New York-Yerevan flight, with a stopover somewhere in Europe or Middle East to the remodeled history of the Zvartnots Airport, that some of us take a few times a year, comes with a mind-dumbing jetlag and much sacrifice in terms of time, energy, finances and even health. Still, Armenians from across the world seem to find their way to Armenia each year. Many in the diaspora may not even speak the language or appear Armenian. An outsider might wonder if there are some millennia-old unwritten laws requiring the diaspora’s pilgrimage to the ancestral land, or they may ask if the Armenian diaspora is a monolith thinking and operating in the same breath.
What motivates the Armenian diaspora to involve itself with the modern-day Republic of Armenia and, until recently (words that cannot be uttered without tears), Artsakh? Why should we expect a diaspora-based investor, or a less entrepreneurially minded individual, to part with their hard-earned cash and invest in a development fund in a tucked away Armenia? Why is there an expectation that the Armenian diaspora should be loyal to the modern-day Republic of Armenia?
There are no simple answers to those questions for two reasons. First, each decision by a person or community in the diaspora to engage with Armenia is individual and determined by a personal set of circumstances, experiences, perceptions and existing or newly-formed connections with the country. Yet the problem is much more nuanced than this, requiring more discussion. I believe that nuance can be explained by three key factors: identity, trust and engagement infrastructure (introduced and developed in this academic chapter on the role of diasporas in economic development).
The Armenian diaspora is a far cry from being an intellectual or spiritual monolith. There are no uniform laws governing the diaspora, and there is a wide scattering of ideas in the diaspora. Even at times of crises there are plenty of dissenting voices to all extremes. In fact, in over two decades of my academic research on diaspora, I have yet to come across evidence of a single, unique and uniform determinant as an objective internal factor explaining the diaspora’s sustained connection with its ancestral home. It might be comforting to know that these observations are as true for the Armenians as they are for any other national, ethnic, religious or cultural diaspora. Indeed, a diaspora is a dispersion (as is the original Greek meaning) of people, ideas, social institutions and motivations, and that usually complicates finding a one-size-fits-all policy solution on diaspora engagement across the world.
A survey of the Armenian diaspora that I conducted some time ago (the results of which have since been published in academic publications and in more accessible language elsewhere) brought up the role of socio-economic and cultural identity in the determination of an individual’s immediate social circle within a diasporic community and engagement with Armenia. One of the classical (along with the Jewish and the Greek) diasporas, the Armenian dispersion sees the identity category in a multilayered mosaic of determinants (as explained by the founder of diaspora studies Dr. Khachig Tololyan).
The “old” (pre-1990s) diaspora communities are often built around shared geographic origins and religious, political and cultural views, with roots covering one or more generations. The post-1990s “new” diaspora, with stronger attachment to the Republic of Armenia, has reignited the established “old” communities, while at the same time created its own sub-groups, in turn shaped by the identity factors specific to them (e.g., the Russian-speaking Armenian communities).
Why does this matter? As studies of the modalities of diaspora communities suggest, common identity and shared cultural or historic commonness play a determinant role in the foundation of diaspora’s initial social networks. The initial bond serves as a necessary condition for community’s cohesion and engagement with the ancestral land for some period. However, even if united by common experiences and ideals or religious uniformity, those fragile social associations rarely survive beyond several years, unless supported by a steady guidance and communication (including migration) from the center node or by deeply embedded common ideology, as Sebouh Aslanian’s work on the New Julfa Armenian networks suggests.
The established diaspora networks, strong or weak, in turn, operate and function based on the second factor: trust. The category of trust implies some degree of reliability in any relationship. However, reliability is a product of time and experiential trials in almost any situation. If the identity category helps us discover our connection to our cultural group or ancestral homeland, it is the dialectics of trust that would bear out of this either a one-off engagement or a sustainable (while perhaps rocky) relationship.
Recent research into the mutual recognition and acceptance between the Chinese diaspora and home country nationals helps illustrate the point. Despite the common ethnic and cultural heritage of the subgroup that was the subject of this research, and despite the expatriate team members’ enthusiastic approach, the home country nationals treated their colleagues as outsiders to their social network. Part of a greater whole, internally, within the same ethno-cultural group, divisions based on one’s background and identity translated into reservations on mutual trust, hurting the morale, team coordination and productivity. This example is one of many suggesting that acceptance into a network is not guaranteed simply based on common or shared identity. Nor does earlier migration (leading to the dichotomy between the “old” and the “new”) suggest formation of a culturally involved and economically active diaspora. This contrasts with a simpler view, adopted these days, according to which a diasporan is an in-group member of the larger national network.
An Armenian reading the above, whether in the “old” diaspora, a new transplant into the community or residing in Armenia, should be able to read between the lines. Despite seemingly common heritage and aspirations, our community groups often remain divided based on either confessional or generations-old and political backgrounds, eroding the fragmentary foundations of trust. The conversation opening this essay captures the essence of the challenge.
What can help us overcome these complications within the diaspora and across a wide spectrum of diaspora-Armenia relations? First, let’s realize we are not the only ones going through this continuous cycle of self-discovery. There is a lot for us to learn from the experience of others, just as others are learning from the Armenian diaspora’s successes and failures (as was stated to me once by a policymaker in a newly-established diaspora office of one of the post-socialist economies). In preparing the IOM report, one of my aims was to gather some of the most relevant examples for both sides, the diaspora and the country, to cooperate around. In fact, if we are looking for precise step-by-step recipes to diaspora’s contribution to Armenia’s development, there is no lack of proposals and ready to implement models.
Consider, for example, the Ireland Funds network (and connected financial investment mechanisms) operating since 1976 and dedicated to bolstering Ireland’s economic, cultural, political, educational and community development through engaging the global Irish diaspora and friends of Ireland. Similarly, Ireland runs an Emigrant Support Program funding cultural projects across the diaspora and maintaining strong cultural connection with its communities. Alternatively, there is a more recent example of the Republic of Moldova with several state-led programs that help channel funds and capacity from the dispersed home-town associations abroad back to targeted assistance and development projects.
Through the 1990s, India’s ability to make a complete turnaround in its attitude towards Indians abroad (including towards individuals of Indian background living outside of the homeland for generations) and to proactively engage with the diaspora-led entrepreneurs and cultural groups has resulted in one of the most significant advancements in the country’s economic development. Founded in 1992, The IndUS Entrepreneur (TiE), partnering with the country’s government, spearheaded development of entrepreneurial potential, growing its operations and reach over the past couple of decades. Scotland attempts to connect with its diaspora by way of the uniform business networks of GlobalScot to channel investments into its economy, which is similar to Estonia’s Global Estonian platform offering access to the European Union markets. And the Philippines has one of the most sophisticated labor migration mechanisms and recent initiatives to re-engage its expatriate communities.
Recognizing a wide variety of successful diaspora arrangements across the world, we must also deduce something that is uniform across all of them, and that is what we might call an engagement infrastructure. Each of the above cases offers a clear framework for an individual or a community group to engage with the ancestral homeland and the other way around. The role of a proactive homeland state is pivotal in contributing to creation of the engagement mechanisms, their maintenance, to transparent feedback and adaptation to the diasporan needs and circumstances. As I have written previously, “Countries do not get to choose their diasporas.” Though structurally, some initiatives may first come from the diaspora groups themselves (e.g., cases of India or Mexico), the main burden of adaptability and provision of an operational environment for the diaspora is on the homeland state.
The transactional relationships within diaspora groups and those with Armenia advance periodically as large ocean waves especially in times of crisis. Yet, those waves recede just as fast as the administrative routine and adherence to groups’ boundaries on either side squash the romantic enthusiasm of any individual diasporan.
The responsibility is shared. Here, it is the adaptability of the diaspora groups and proactive participation of the recipient country’s state that determine the outcomes. A pragmatic interaction between the two may help overcome any hesitations caused by the uncertainties of the identity and trust categories. A step in this direction may be an online digital portal connecting groups and individuals between the diaspora and Armenia on topics greater than just private financial investment but also on educational, cultural and social issues, as suggested from the aforementioned survey.
Yet as any established diaspora goes, the challenge for the Armenian community, of course, is that each successive generation of diaspora leaders is either driven by the established modalities of their narrowly defined group or often lack the objective motivation (and maybe resources and time) to inform their work with lessons from the past or from elsewhere. The transactional relationships within diaspora groups and those with Armenia advance periodically as large ocean waves especially in times of crisis. Yet, those waves recede just as fast as the administrative routine and adherence to groups’ boundaries on either side squash the romantic enthusiasm of any individual diasporan.
Indeed, transactionally, there may be a great many scenarios for attracting diaspora capital to Armenia or generating ideas for joint ventures and startups. Some of that may even materialize on a short-term basis. Some, like the fund proposed by Khrimian, may do well attracting large investors seeking to diversify their portfolio and, perhaps for altruistic reasons, considering Armenia. Elsewhere, select niche-sector business-startups and venture funds co-founded with the diaspora might operate to some extent. Individual diaspora investor funded infrastructure and sector-specific may also be launched with varying extents. Examples perhaps are widely known. More speculative ideas, like the infamous diaspora bond, lack the needed robustness and carry significant risks, given the low trust environment, for the country’s ability to continue to finance out of international capital markets.
However, from the point of view of the diaspora’s contribution to Armenia’s economic development on a national scale, which would be inclusive enough to result in improvement in living standards, higher productivity, higher wages, with sustained and quality job growth, a more long-term sustainable solution that is not focused on narrowly defined private gains is needed. Such a solution appeals to the far wider Armenian diaspora population overcoming the obstacles of familiar community identity and trust. That solution comes as a comprehensive rethinking process of the triangular conceptual complexity of identity, trust and engagement infrastructure, as discussed above. It is only with full understanding of the differences, challenges and opportunities involved while defining a common global Armenian nation goal can any concrete measures be worked out.
In all this, the ideal outcome would be for the homeland to take the initiative to provide a meaningful engagement infrastructure fostering greater trust and transparency. At the same time, for the diasporan groups, forged in shared identity and leading their communities, the task is to overcome ambition and to rediscover their founding mission of service and the common good.