Photography Credit: Osman Siddiqi
In late 2010, the region of East Africa experienced one of its worst natural disasters, drought. The most affected countries were Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. The drought, dubbed as 'the worst in over 60 years', plunged the region into the worst food security crises Africa had faced in decades. Somalia was pigeonholed as a 'famine zone' and was the hardest hit. Fatalities in Somalia were estimated between 50 000-100 000 people. Pundits and scholars alike have all opined that low levels of rains, high food prices, and regional conflict all contributed to the disaster that led to the fatalities in Somalia.
Ethiopia and Kenya, both also subjected to the same conditions as Somalia, experienced lower aggregates of fatalities. Largely, this is due to the presence of the first-line responders to the droughts and the impending famine at the time; the diasporic communities and their networks. Vast networks of diasporic communities with strong ties to their local families provided aid in the form of nutrition, medicines, and monetary values. These networks extended beyond the autonomous individual sending remittances for relief to their homeland, but they were also proactive, getting involved by working with some of the traditional organizations that acted as secondary responders to the drought relief efforts. In 2013 the World Health Organization (WHO) drafted a strategic plan that emphasized the need to highlight the role of the diasporic community in providing aid relief in places such as Somalia and Djibouti.
The story of Lucia Musembi, from Kenya, illustrates how these networks from the diaspora act as first-line respondents in moments of crises, despite the scope of crisis, for their families especially when the state fails to respond quickly or adequately. These remittances become a saving grace. Lucia Musembi from Nairobi, Kenya, has also had her life greatly impacted by the safety net that is provided by remittances. A businesswoman by trade with a small shop in Kibera, Lucia had her son's life unexpectedly usurped when he got into a car accident in 2011. Living in a country where systems of governance in the health sector are weak and at times unresponsive, she faced the all-too-familiar crises of having to pay out of pocket for her son's care. 'The bill was too high' she exclaims, further adding that she 'could not afford to pay the bill nor raise the funds' needed. This is where the importance of the safety net that is provided by the remittances from families living in the diaspora became important as her sister became her first-line of response to her son's crises and the ever-rising costs of the medical aid needed. Lucia goes on to further elaborate that being able to use micro-financing institutions such as Western Union, who 'sent the money very quickly', was critical for her son to get the care he needed.
According to a report published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 2013, remittances sent to the world's poorest countries including 33 African countries have increased to US $27 billion in 2011 from US $3.5 billion in 1990. The UNCTAD report and studies by the African Development Bank Group (Afdb) further point out that migrant remittances in Africa constitute about 3% of Africa's total GDP. Across the continent, and especially in countries like Nigeria, remittances act as a key tool for social transformation.
In the conflict-affected area Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, migrant remittances have proven to be crucial as first-respondents to the loss of healthcare facilities. According to the WHO, '743 health facilities in Borno State, of which 35% have been completely destroyed, and another 29% partially damaged and only 34% intact. About 100 temporary health facilities have been set up to support the response, of which 49 are emergency clinics for displaced people living in camps.' The establishment of temporary facilities by the WHO was preceded by the establishment of 'safety nets' that were only made possible by the migrant remittances through micro-finance institutions such as Western Union.
In the face of weak state institutions and an ever-growing informal market, the role of micro-financing institutions such as Western Union are crucial in acting as an intermediary for migrants in the diaspora in Nigeria. Once again, as is being witnessed in the crises of the conflict in the Borno-state, migrant remittances are playing a crucial role in enabling locals to be the first-respondents of relief in the face of potential disaster. Moreover, micro-financing institutions such as Western Union play a vital role in the everyday lives of ordinary citizens in Nigeria, such as Lucky Imomotimi. Lucky is a mother of five and she is also a full-time housewife. Her husband is currently living in the U.S and works as a producer of materials in the fashion industry; remittances from him are a crucial mechanism of support for Lucky and her five children. Money transfers are made via the services offered by Western Union. Through these remittances Lucky is able to afford school fees for her children, pay rent, and meet the daily household and living needs. Most importantly, in this way migrant remittances enable social reproduction, which in turn ensures that labor supply for the diaspora is possible. This is evident in the historical analyses of migrant labor, especially within the mining sector.
In Southern Africa for instance, migrant remittances have historically occupied an important place in society. With the largest employer being the gold and mining sectors in South Africa, and today, the platinum sector, labor is drawn from migrant mine workers that come from Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The nature of mine work is displacing. It relocates workers and resides them on-site. Migrant mine workers thus historically used micro-financing institutions such as Western Union to support their households back home. In the face of the 2000-01 floods in Mozambique, the droughts in Zimbabwe, the Nyiragongo Volcano Eruption 2002 in the DRC, etc. it was the mine workers remittances that ploughed back to the locals empowering them to be the first-line respondents to these disasters.
In these and many other ways, the African diasporic community and its vast network has played and continues to play a crucial role in not only mitigating potential aftershocks of disasters, or absorbing living costs for family members; it also manages to facilitate the growth of local economies. This is something worth of note especially when better understanding the role diaspora communities play in Africa's social and economic development.