It's Not (only) About Money


By Charmaine Caparas

More than 215 million people across the globe live outside of the countries they call home, most of them originating in the developing world. This is what the diaspora looks like. It explains, in part, why IOM was able to galvanize so much international attention for its ministerial-level Diaspora Conference.  

When Bangkok recently hosted The Global Forum on Remittances it started a worldwide discussion on the impact of remittances on the economy of developing countries attracting hundreds of participants with different regional, professional and cultural backgrounds from all over the world.  

From an economic point of view, migrant remittances have been a main driving force in market growth in countries including India, China, Mexico and the Philippines, – amounting to roughly $534 bn in 2012. 

The UN says these remittances could generate up to $30 billion annually for investment in rural areas if initiatives were scaled up.

"Remittances 'can empower rural people to blaze a trail out of poverty and exclusion,'" said Kanayo F Nwanze, President of the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). 

But in addition to major economic contributions, sociologist Peggy Levitt says that migrants also bring in social remittances. 

In her 2001 book, The Transnational Villagers, Levitt coined the term social remittances to call attention to the fact that migrants send home more than money. 

They also bring in ideas, know-how, practices, and skills — that shape their encounters with and integration into their host societies. They also send back social remittances that promote and impede development in their countries of origin.

Social remittances happen in variety of ways.  It could be when migrants return to live in or visit their communities of origin; when nonmigrants visit their friends and family in a receiving country; or through letters, videos, e-mails, blogs, and phone calls. Social remittances about gender, politics, and religion, among other topics, are distinct from but reinforce and are reinforced by other forms of global cultural circulation.

So if money remittances change the economy, then social remittances have the power to change culture and society.

The recently passed U.S. Immigration Reform Bill that grants a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. had a big push from social remittance. To see how take a look at the work of journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

Vargas wrote a controversial article in the New York Times about being an undocumented migrant from the Philippines, which shed light on an oft-ignored reality in the U.S. His piece became viral on social media.

And so, just like money transfers, social remittances can also have a tremendous impact on the diasporas and their ability to influence their communities. That is why more research and dialogue must be done to determine the interplay between social remittances and communication technologies, particularly new and social media.

Researcher Pedro J. Oiarzabal conducted research on Basque diaspora groups on Facebook. One of his goals was to discover the potential effects of social media on identities, community formation, communication exchange, and knowledge transfers. He found out that that for many of the diaspora groups, Facebook strengthened their communication strategies and facilitated their ability to disseminate information about themselves and their activities beyond their immediate communities, which helped to achieve important goals in their home countries.

Indeed, social remittances have been frequently talked about, but who can claim to understand the phenomenon properly? Given the proliferation of social media as the preferred platform (of many) for communication, it may be a good idea to further explore its implications for migrant communities and its interplay with development.

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Charmaine Caparas is a communications specialist for IOM