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Diaspora faculty play major role in research for development

Ottawa symposium airs different views of the research role of Canadian university faculty from developing countries

BY MÉLANIE BÉCHARD | DEC 15 2008

Faculty members from the developing world who have emigrated to industrialized countries often play a pivotal part in international development. A recent symposium examined the role of Canadian diaspora faculty from a new angle: the specific strengths of these faculty members and their ability to leverage institutional partnerships for international research collaboration.

“The purpose of the symposium was to raise the issue on campus and for each institution to think about their internationalization,” said Karen McBride, vice-president, international affairs, at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which hosted the event. “International research collaboration can benefit from the expertise of this group of faculty members,”

The International Development Research Centre funded the day-long dialogue held in Ottawa in November. Participants included Canadian faculty members and university administrators – many who are diaspora themselves – as well as representatives from one international and two African associations of universities, Canada’s three major research granting councils, World University Service of Canada, IDRC and AUCC.

“It was a true debate. There were different points of view on every topic,” said Ms. McBride.

Some institutions have already ventured successfully into international research collaboration with the help of diaspora faculty. “Research is an ideal vehicle to jumpstart diaspora initiatives,” said Mario Pinto, vice-president, research for Simon Fraser University.

Dr. Pinto pointed to SFU’s master in global health program that trains health care professionals to work in regions of India with health care inequities. Students combine course work at SFU with a practicum in India. “It is an experiment arising in part from the efforts of diaspora faculty,” he noted. “It has strong support from the senior administration.”

Another example was a pilot project at the University of Saskatchewan, with funding from IDRC, that invites international students who have returned home to come back to USask periodically to update their skills, maintain networks and develop long-term relationships between their home university and USask.

The topic of diaspora faculty members naturally brought with it the issue of brain drain. “It is unconscionable to participate in brain-drain initiatives without investing in feedback loops,” said Dr. Pinto.

While some spoke of the moral imperative of helping one’s own people and feelings of guilt among diaspora faculty, others were hesitant to paint everyone with the same brush.

“Some have strong commitments, and some hate our countries of origin, for good reason,” one participant noted.

The very definition of diaspora was the subject of debate. Some questioned whether it refers only to first-generation immigrants or whether it also includes the second and third generations who were born in Canada..

“Today, we only know the number of ordinary immigrants from Africa, which represents only a fraction of the diaspora,” said Abdeslam Marfouk, a researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. “We understand very poorly [the diaspora’s] structure in terms of country of origin, of gender and level of qualifications. Let’s begin by making the diaspora visible.”

A member of the Moroccan diaspora, Dr. Marfouk has done extensive research on brain drain from developing countries and the potential role of the diaspora in brain gain, or the reinvestment of time and resources by diaspora into their countries or regions of origin.

Some programs attract diaspora faculty naturally, without targeting them specifically. Participants pointed to International Science and Technology Partnerships Canada, an independent agency with a government mandate to foster commercialization of new technologies through partnerships between Canadian companies and research organizations with counterparts in India, China and Brazil.

Another example is University Partnerships in Cooperation and Development, launched in 1994 with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency and managed by AUCC. The program partners Canadian universities with higher-education and training organizations in developing countries for sustainable development.

“As managers of the UPCD program, we noticed a trend of large numbers of diaspora faculty who were leading projects in their country or region or origin,” said Ms. McBride.

A recent AUCC survey showed 18 percent of Canadian UPCD project directors, past and present, are members of a diaspora. Of those, 56 percent manage or have managed projects in their country of origin and another 26 percent manage projects in their region of origin.

While diaspora faculty have a clear role to play in international research collaboration for development, there are different views on how to effectively make use of that resource.

“It’s a question of balance, of leveraging contributions being made by diaspora faculty but not creating targeted mechanisms that could prove to be counterproductive by possibly isolating such faculty,” said Nina Di Stefano, senior policy analyst with AUCC.

Some participants argued that targeted programming would single out diaspora from their colleagues. “No diaspora faculty would want to be assessed differently” from their peers, one professor said.

Some also voiced fears of an over-reliance on diaspora faculty to spearhead these initiatives, saying it could lead to burnout. Many participants said universities need to be clear about their motivations for investing in international research collaboration for development and need to consider their own role as global citizens.

For more on the contributions of diaspora faculty to international development, see the upcoming issue of UniWorld, an insert in the March 2009 issue of University Affairs.

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