Mobilising the Senegalese diaspora (Part 1): What are the Origins and Reasons behind?

Samuel Lietaer– ULB (IGEAT-CEDD), MIGRADAPT, Brussels, 29th of October 2018


Why would development actors target the Senegalese abroad, particularly in Europe? This article summarizes the major reasons within a historical perspective behind the further deployment of ‘diaspora policies’, particularly focusing on Northern Senegal, where the author conducts his transnational field study.


Who contributes… to what?


Who are the ‘Senegalese abroad’?


Senegal has a long tradition of migration to the EU and other African countries, and today 5 % of its population live abroad. Yet, the number expanses to a quarter of its population if one would include the non-nationals with Senegalese roots. The term “diasporas” refers to these expatriate groups which, in contrast to “migrants”, applies to expatriate populations abroad and generations born abroad to foreign parents who are or may be citizens of their countries of residence (Ionesco, 2006).

 Yet, in Senegal it is useful to consider the broader category of ‘Senegalese abroad’, as coined by the Senegalese policymakers and illustrated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Senegalese Abroad.  Indeed, also other categories such as transnationals, returnees, temporary and circular migrants contribute to the overall living conditions through their “development potential”.


Many and various impacts of the internationally mobile Senegalese


Their remittances – not only money – are an important resource at both macro and micro level. Accounting for 12,8 % to the country’s GDP in 2017, they play a role of counter-cyclical offsets and help cushion the effects of economic crises. Indeed, they contribute more than 75% to fund the basic needs of populations living on the edge of the poverty line (African Development Bank, 2008), with effects for all actors revolving around: banks, post formal and informal transfer structures, tax services etc. (Wade et al, 2017; see also World Bank, 2018).

At individual and collective level, their impact can reach significant levels in terms of material (money, cars, fridges, …) and immaterial remittances, such as skills circulation, exchange of experiences and even impacts on social and cultural roles of men and women in the home society. With a critical mass having relatively strong political influence, the internationally mobile Senegalese also create political momentum. Moreover, they also involve such areas as business creation, trade links, and investments.

At collective level, the village associations are active mainly in the development of villages of origin (water boreholes, schools, rural development, electrification, mosques, health posts, etc.), as well as in the destination country through mutual assistance and by welcoming newcomers.

My field research in the rural Matam region, Northern Senegal, also found that, while less evident, the Senegalese abroad – particularly from France for historical reasons – significantly contribute to resilience and adaptation efforts in the face of environmental and climate change, both at household and community-level.  While the international migrant’s influences might be positive, they may also be negative for the home community. This arguably depends on whether the initiatives are “sustainable” or not. In other words: adapted to the socio-environmental context or not (Cf. Lietaer, forthcoming).


How and when did the ‘diaspora engagement’ start?


‘Membership’ to a common village and shared experience in Foyers (‘homes’ for Senegalese guest workers) in the early 1960s generated village associations, which are formalized as soon as the French Law allowed migrant associations in 1981. These organizations generally existed previously in the form of mutual aid funds (‘Caisses Villageoises d’Entraide’) (Cf. Dia, 2009).

Totally autonomous at the financial level thanks to membership fees, they gradually open in the 1980s to a dynamic of co-development, and therefore to external subsidies. This could happen thanks to the arrival of more trained and younger members, as well as via NGOs support such as the GRDR, particularly in the field of agricultural development (Fall, 2005; Maggi et al., 2013).


Recognition by a wide range of development actors


Recognition by States and NGOs of the role of Senegalese associations in development happened thus mainly through village associations. It is also expressed via transferring skills and knowledge through highly educated diaspora members and the creation of enterprises. Though these aspects seem less directly invested for collective purposes by the diaspora than the village projects.

The French co-development policy, which was formalized in the 1990s, is based on the first experiences in the 1980s between NGOs and village associations in the Valley of the River (Senegal, Mali and Mauritania). It aimed as much at encouraging the return of migrants in a regular or irregular situation (with financial support and the support of an NGO, namely the PAISD) as to co-finance community development projects. This dual purpose, management of migration flows and support for associative projects of migrants, still characterizes the French co-development policy. Also, other European countries followed suite and subjected their co-development policies to agreements for concerted management of migration flows with countries of origin (readmission, prevention of irregular migration). (Lacroix, 2009; Tardis, 2018).

This approach, notably integrated in the EU Emergency Trust Fund (2015) along with other important Senegalese destination and partner countries (Italy, Spain, Belgium, …), is strongly contested by civil society (cf. Global Health Advocates Report, 2017).




Which major trends explain the amplification of the policy interest in diasporas?


1.       Global reflections and civil society as a development player


Since the global reflections within the international fora of the beginning of the 2000s, the Senegalese government got even more aware of its own “diaspora” and its potential for poverty reduction, development and economic growth. This has prompted initiatives to collect data, to reach out to diaspora groups, to advocate dual citizenship and to positively influence the images and perceptions of expatriates in home and host countries. The multiplication of organized diaspora initiatives corresponded to the civil society’s affirmation as a major development player and the increase in grass-root initiatives (cf. e.g. Ionesco, 2006).



2.       Technological and mobility options


While modern international transport possibilities are underused because of legal – and thus political – reasons, the increased telecom options are instrumental in the expansion. By facilitating material and immaterial exchanges, the prospects seem skyrocketing with the development of 3G -internet now covering major parts of Senegal.  Intensive use of social media (e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger) in combination with the progress in telecommunication means open visions, dreams and ideas for the Senegalese people. Smartphones are now widely used, not only to discuss personal matters with relatives, but also to discuss local and national policies. Hence, imaginaries are triggered as never before, but many hurdles are still in the way to let them materialize (Lietaer, forthcoming).


3.       Recent trend: mobilising towards productive investments


Finally, the acknowledgement of the limits of many traditional development policies favoured the exploration of new and complementary development avenues.

The objective of the Senegalese decision-makers seems: mobilizing and channelling the funds of international migrants towards productive investments”. Through “migrant investment support mechanisms”, they aim to shift some amounts from basic consumption towards more structural investments in key sectors, including the agricultural sector. This would contribute to meeting the objectives of the president’s master plan, the “Plan Sénégal Emergent” (2014-2035), which aims for growth rates of 7-8 % in the medium-term and strives to let Senegal become self-sufficient in terms of food production. The agricultural sector is strongly promoted as a ‘growth sector’ by at least five different ministries.

The reasoning is as follows: ‘productive’ investments by the diaspora create jobs for people who have remained in Senegal. For example, ‘entrepreneurs from the diaspora’ could stimulate entrepreneurship in their country of origin, either by directly involving them (i.e. by setting up a business themselves), or by using their transfers to indirectly finance business investment. Policymakers and the development community are considering ways to harness this potential by creating a business environment conducive to business start-ups and investment by diaspora members (see AfDB, OECD & UNDP, 2017).


What Risks of a ‘productive’ focus?  Unproductive longer-term results…


Political interest seems thus to concentrate on material remittances and the – broad and undefined- ‘productive’ investments. Yet, social, cultural and political remittances are also considerable. These latter are sometimes considered by political actors as a plague rather than a boon, especially because of the potential political opposition. Therefore, risks of an alleged ‘politicization of funds’ and political manoeuvrings to remove migrants with possible competing political ambitions may undermine the necessary trust between the diaspora and the Senegalese government.

While environmental issues are transversally present in a significant number of those development areas, it seems to attract little attention. Some bi-and multilateral development programs approach potential development contributions by the diaspora in terms of resilience in general, and less in terms of specifying environmental resilience or ‘adaptation” strategies (Lietaer, forthcoming).


Conclusion: Mobilising while avoiding unsustainable development and ‘maladaptation’


Therefore, mobilizing and integrating the internationally mobile Senegalese requests to further connecting the dots, namely the different mechanisms and systems for policies. Yet, for what purpose?


Researchers should further decrypt the conditions to achieve transnationally better sustainable living conditions in both the communities of origin as in the destination countries for the migrants themselves. Migrants might ‘disconnect’ with the local social and environmental reality.


Equally, non-migrant/stayers with relatives abroad might have unsustainable wishes and expectations, that might conflict with the ecological limits and longer-term livelihood and infrastructural needs of the community. Consequently, to prevent short-term development and maladaptation risks, policies should intervene.  As for now, however, some of these policies do not push diaspora action in a sustainable direction.  Just think about the illustrative case of the actual publicly promoted extensive agrobusiness model versus an agroecological approach in this fragile Sahelian context.






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