Research on Diaspora Knowledge Transfer within a Temporary Return Program

Knowledge is regarded as an important driver of productivity or economic growth and an important tool for development. At the same time, a lack of specialized knowledge and skills constitutes a major limitation in developing country contexts.1 Diasporas and migrant populations have been increasingly recognized as sources of knowledge and skills that could be used as a tool for development in countries of origin.2 Depending on their contributions, migrants can foster entrepreneurship, innovation, and capacity building. Different forms of a return of migrants to their country of origin (whether permanent, temporary, or virtual return) may be used for knowledge transfer and thereby impact development. Such a knowledge transfer may be the explicit purpose of the return or a side effect. Diaspora knowledge transfer may take place on a personal, more informal level in the form of social remittances, that is, the exchange of ideas between a migrant and an individual or a group of individuals in the country of origin. With regard to capacity building, however, diaspora knowledge networks, diaspora engagement policies, and international organizations play crucial roles.3

International organizations have established short-term diaspora return programs and temporary return programs as a way to formalize and promote diaspora knowledge transfer for development. In 1977, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) established the first temporary return scheme, Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN). Other programs for diaspora contributions to development have emerged since, most notably the Migration for Development in Africa Programme (MIDA), Temporary Return of Qualified Nationals (TRQN), and more recently, Connecting Diaspora for Development (CD4D). While the geographic focus of these programs is Africa, not all programs are limited to there. Some include developing countries in other regions, such as Afghanistan.

Temporary return programs are based on two main premises. The first is that highly skilled individuals are more likely to leave their country of origin, causing a so-called brain drain, meaning that the country loses already scarce human capital. Temporary return programs aim to help reverse the effects of such losses and to enable migrants to address knowledge gaps in their country of origin.4 The second premise is that diaspora members are able to make “diaspora-specific contributions.”5 Diaspora members are not only expected to be familiar with the language and culture of the country of origin; they are also expected to merge values and cultural knowledge from two contexts and easily adapt, interact, and communicate in both. The possession of these abilities constitute an operational—or in-between—advantage over foreign experts.6

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), founded in 1951, has operated several return programs, such as MIDA and TRQN. A smaller program, CD4D has been administered by IOM The Netherlands since 2016. As a continuation of TRQN, the program links diaspora members with Dutch residency to institutions in their countries of origin. It has been active in seven countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Iraq, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. CD4D enables Dutch diaspora members to return to their country of origin for approximately three months with the objective of contributing to knowledge transfer and capacity building. At the start of the project, our research team at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance (MGSoG) was contracted to conduct an evaluation of the program. Despite increasing evidence of the contributions diasporas can make for development in their countries of origin, little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of temporary return programs and the specific modalities that enable a diaspora to create successful knowledge transfer that is sustainable over time. Our research therefore aims to provide unique insights into the modalities of knowledge transfer within a temporary return program.

Within CD4D, diaspora experts conduct an assignment at a host institution. Assignment lengths range from two weeks to three months, in some cases followed by one or two extensions of up to another three months. The host institutions are selected by IOM and are mostly ministries, hospitals, and higher education institutions. During their assignments, diaspora experts engage in a range of activities. On the one hand, there are activities that aim to transfer knowledge directly. These include particularly explicit knowledge transfer methods, such as formal trainings, seminars, and lectures. For instance, a diaspora expert on a shorter assignment in Ethiopia gave a formal training on the use of a statistical software for quantitative analysis. Some diaspora experts on assignment at higher education institutions in Sierra Leone gave short seminars.

On the other hand, diaspora experts also engage in activities where knowledge transfer takes place more indirectly. In these cases, the main activity diaspora experts engage in is not a knowledge transfer method in itself. Instead, activities include carrying out research or assessments for the host institutions, drafting a new policy or development plan, curriculum reviews, or improving the organizational structure or strategic plan of the host institution. Nonetheless, these activities can also contribute to knowledge transfer. This happens when diaspora experts, in parallel to conducting one or a few of above-mentioned activities, engage in co-teaching, on-the-job training, or the informal teaching of local staff. For instance, during assignments in the de facto state of Somaliland (internationally considered an autonomous region of Somalia), diaspora experts assigned to the human resources (HR) departments of various ministries worked closely with staff while drafting documents and policies. They had daily discussions with staff members of the host institution, teaching them how to draft and use the documents in question.

Through these direct and indirect knowledge transfer activities, diaspora experts transfer explicit as well as tacit knowledge. The research on CD4D shows that this knowledge transfer leads to different kind of contributions at the host institutions; however, examples of capacity building mostly seem to occur on the individual level. CD4D contributes to the capacity building of individual staff members who gain explicit and tacit knowledge closely related to their work and tasks. In particular, working closely with a diaspora expert over several weeks may increase the local colleague’s understanding of behaviors related to his or her job. There is also evidence that some diaspora experts did not merely share formal, explicit knowledge, for instance about HR procedures, with colleagues at the host institution. Instead, they implemented some procedures together with their local colleagues, which led to procedural changes at the departmental or institutional level. Diaspora experts, in some cases, have also contributed to the transfer of more general behaviors that may increase an individual’s productivity at work, such as the use of a to-do list.

The research on CD4D demonstrates that diaspora experts can contribute to knowledge transfer and capacity building in their country of origin. Yet it is also becoming clear that under certain circumstances only a little or even no knowledge transfer may take place. Evidence of how knowledge transfer occurs within a temporary return program, including the factors that facilitate or inhibit knowledge transfer, is therefore important for assessing current interventions and for informing the design of future projects.

As mentioned above, when designing temporary return programs, it is assumed that diaspora experts are familiar with the culture and language of country of origin. Although this holds for many diaspora experts within CD4D, our research also shows that the host institutions in which a diaspora experts are placed often constitute substantially new environments for the temporary returnees and thus require adjustment time. At the same time, although CD4D diaspora experts may possess language and cultural knowledge that makes knowledge transfer possible, we cannot assume that all diaspora members participating in CD4D have the requisite knowledge transfer experience. Mandatory pre-assignment trainings in knowledge transfer could increase the effectiveness of the temporary return program.

An important issue of temporary return programs is the extent to which the activities they promote lead to changes that are sustainable over time. In the case of CD4D, program participants and beneficiaries alike regard the time frame of the assignments as a major limitation. One of the recommendations resulting from our evaluation of CD4D is to focus on longer-term engagement, making sure that there is coordination between assignments and that assignments build on each other to achieve a common goal for the host institution. Additionally, the next diaspora expert could benefit from the perspective and gains of the previous one. Finally, sustainability could further be ensured beyond the CD4D assignment by requiring experts in all assignments to establish an exit strategy, such as agreeing to hold follow-up Skype meetings.

Charlotte Mueller is a PhD-Candidate in the Migration and Development research group at UNU-MERIT/Maastricht University. Her Twitter handle is @ChJMueller.

  1. Linda Argote and Paul Ingram, “Knowledge Transfer: A Basis for Competitive Advantage in Firms,” Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 82, no. 1 (2000): 150–69; Jan Fagerberg, Martin Srholec, and Bart Verspagen, “The Role of Innovation in Development,” Review of Economics and Institutions 1, no. 2, article 2 (2010),; United Nations, Economic Development in Africa Report 2018: Migration for Structural Transformation (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 2018), ↩︎
  2. Following Steven Vertovec, the concept of “diaspora” may be defined as a population “which has originated in a land other than it currently resides, and whose social, economic and political networks cross the borders of nation-states or, indeed, span the globe”; Vertovec, “Three Meanings of ‘Diaspora,’ Exemplified among South Asian Religions,” Diaspora 6 (1999): 277–300, quote 277. I use the term in a broad sense here, referring more to migrants in the wider sense. I assume that diaspora characteristics such as dispersion, homeland orientation, and boundary maintenance do not necessarily apply here and that whether a diaspora expert identifies as a diaspora member depends on the individual. ↩︎
  3. Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff, Institutional Reform and Diaspora Entrepreneurs: The In-Between Advantage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Britta Klagge and Katrin Klein-Hitpaß, “High-Skilled Return Migration and Knowledge-Based Development in Poland,” European Planning Studies 18, no. 10 (2010): 1631–51; Katie Kuschminder, “Knowledge Transfer and Capacity Building through the Temporary Return of Qualified Nationals to Afghanistan,” International Migration 52, no. 2 (2014): 191–207; Peggy Levitt, “Social Remittances: Migration Driven Local-Level Forms of Cultural Diffusion,” International Migration Review 32, no. 4 (1998): 926–48; Peggy Levitt and Deepak Lamba-Nieves, “Social Remittances Revisited,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37, no.1 (2011): 1–22; Sheila Siar, “The Diaspora as Knowledge Carrier: Exploring Knowledge Transfer through the Highly Skilled Filipino Migrants in New Zealand and Australia” (University of Auckland: 2012); Sheila Siar, “Diaspora Knowledge Transfer as a Development Strategy for Capturing the Gains of Skilled Migration,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 23, no. 3 (2014): 299–323. ↩︎
  4. Stephen Castles, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (New York: The Guildford Press, 2014); Kuschminder, “Knowledge Transfer and Capacity Building.” ↩︎
  5. Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff, “Diaspora Mobilization Factors and Policy Options”, in Converting Migration Drains into Gains: Harnessing the Potential of Overseas Professionals, ed. Clay Wescott and Jennifer Brinkerhoff (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2006), 127–53, quote 127. ↩︎
  6. Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff, “Diasporas, Skills Transfer, and Remittances: Evolving Perceptions and Potential,” in Converting Migration Drains into Gains: Harnessing the Potential of Overseas Professionals, ed. Clay Wescott and Jennifer Brinkerhoff (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2006), 1–33; Katie Kuschminder, Georgina Sturge, and Nora Ragab, “Contributions and Barriers to Knowledge Transfer: The Experience of Returning Experts,” CIM Paper Series, no.7 (November 2014), archived at Semantic Scholar. ↩︎
Suggested citation: Charlotte Mueller, “Research on Diaspora Knowledge Transfer within a Temporary Return Program,” Migrant Knowledge, October 16, 2019,