Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


The African diaspora is increasingly viewed as a key to realizing the development potential of international migration. At the same time, there remains considerable confusion about who exactly constitutes the diaspora and which groups should be targeted for “diaspora engagement.” For some, the diaspora consists of all migrants of African birth living outside Africa. The African Union’s definition of the African diaspora, for example, “comprises people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality.” The World Bank goes a step further to distinguish between an involuntary and a voluntary, a historical and a contemporary, component of the diaspora: “Over four million voluntary immigrants of African origin reside in the West. This ‘voluntary’ Diaspora is distinct from the vastly larger ‘involuntary’ Diaspora that populates North America, Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil. On matters of African development, however, the interests of both groups often intersect.”

Despite differences of emphasis, most definitions of the African diaspora in the migration and development literature agree on two things. First, the African diaspora is located outside the continent, usually in several different countries or regions but primarily in the North. Second, membership of the African diaspora is predicated on an interest or involvement in African development. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, for example, conveyed both messages when he argued at the 2007 African Ministerial Diaspora Conference that “there is an urgent need for knowledge sharing and economic cooperation between Africa and the Diaspora.” The African Union similarly notes that members of the Diaspora must be “willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.”

Clearly, the African Union and African governments have little interest in engaging with those who have turned their backs on Africa for a new life elsewhere. From that standpoint, a definition of the diaspora that demands actual or potential engagement in African development makes perfect sense. What does not make sense is the idea that diaspora individuals and groups are located exclusively outside Africa. Perhaps, as Bakewell notes, this is not surprising for “these tend to be wealthier, better-educated and more organized groups” with easier access to donor and African government officials and business groups across the globe. This may well be true, but it is also elitist, ignoring the much larger number of ordinary migrants whose “hidden” contributions to development go largely uncelebrated and unrecorded (except perhaps in aggregate remittance statistics). There is no reason why the African diaspora should not include all migrants who maintain links with Africa, and the many migrants from Africa who live and work in other African countries.

This paper argues for a spatially inclusive definition of the African diaspora that encompasses all migrants of African origin wherever they live so long as they are outside their country of origin. This would include people of African origin (not just first-generation migrants) resident in the North, in the South and, crucially, in Africa itself. There are, in other words, African diasporas outside Africa and African diasporas within Africa, and the two are often closely connected. Accordingly, this paper:

  • (a) Discusses the development rationale for a revised definition of the African diaspora, which encompasses African migrants living in other countries within the continent
  • (b) Discusses the case of South Africa, which is a major African migrant country of origin and destination
  • (c) Compares the African diaspora in South Africa and the South African diaspora outside South Africa
  • (d) Reflects on the general relevance of the South African case study for our understanding of the role of the diaspora in African development.