How Can We Harness the Power of Diaspora Communities for People with Disabilities?

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How Can We Harness the Power of Diaspora Communities for People with Disabilities?

FROM: MITKO PISTOLOV AND NADIRE SELIMI – 13 AUGUST 2020

Organizations working on behalf of people with disabilities tend to stand alone in their efforts to advance the causes of people with disabilities. Most of their efforts revolve around promoting the basic rights of people with disabilities. How can such organizations play more roles in vocational skills development and employment? Are diaspora communities the answer to this question?

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Going beyond remittances and occasional donations

By diaspora communities, we mean migrants or descendants of migrants, whose identity and sense of belonging have been shaped by their migration experience and background. There is interest within diaspora communities to support the development of their ‘country of origin’ beyond the transfer of remittances to their (extended) families. Globally, the number of people living outside their country of origin has almost tripled over the past 45 years — from 76 million to 250 million.

The Macedonian diaspora in Switzerland and beyond has proven itself as a generous and a substantial contributor to the wellbeing of the people back in North Macedonia. Usually, this contribution happens in the form of remittances for their families, and sometimes in the form of donations for greater goods, such as helping someone build a house, supporting students, or sending different supplies to institutions.

But such interventions are occasional and tend to address an immediate need for someone specific rather than an entire social group. Members of the diaspora community have been strongly supporting and maintaining connections with their home country, but always with someone specific in mind. And that alone deserves an admiration.

In this blog post, we ask ourselves: what if the diaspora community is given a new objective and a new ‘someone’? What if the diaspora community is facilitated to focus on people with disabilities and their need for vocational skills and employment?

Facilitating and engaging the Macedonian diaspora

The Education for Employment in North Macedonia (E4E@mk) project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has been supporting people with disabilities to develop their vocational skills and prepare them to join the North Macedonian labor market. Implemented by Helvetas, the Macedonian Civic Education Center and the Economic Chamber of Macedonia, the project facilitates investment rather than one-time support to people with disabilities. Investment is not just in ‘monetary terms’ but it also includes improving their overall life— in their self-sustainability, self-confidence, and social wellbeing.

For this, the project has turned its attention to the Macedonian diaspora in Switzerland, which has been part of the Swiss vocational skills development sector and can offer not only financial/material input but also knowledge transfer.  E4E@mk started to look for partners in North Macedonia specialized in supporting people with disabilities. After a rigorous assessment procedure, two organizations were selected as the most suitable partners – Handimak from Tetovo and Polioplus from Skopje.

The project, as the main facilitator of this initiative, has engaged Ragmi Jusufi, a philanthropist and representative from the Macedonian Diaspora in Switzerland as the contact person for the diaspora; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Embassy of North Macedonia in Switzerland; and the Swiss Embassy in Skopje. The first meeting happened in Zurich at Helvetas’ Head Office which also included the diaspora representatives and the two organizations working on behalf of people with disabilities.

As expected, members of the Macedonian diaspora proved their readiness and willingness to get involved in supporting people with disabilities in their home country. Members of the diaspora community wanted to see a clear proposal for their meaningful engagement rather than simply participating in the design of the proposal.

With the support of E4E@mk, both organizations are well close to getting promotional websites and a digital mechanism for receiving support from the diaspora community and domestic audience. The organizations are also investigating and identifying vocational skills development providers for people with disabilities as well as companies to employ them after the training.

The promotion of the concept seeks to enable bigger and better public outreach for the two organizations. Once the concept is up and ready, it is expected that the diaspora and domestic support would lead to 270 disabled people with developed/strengthened vocational skills, 140 mentors in companies trained, 30 self-employment and 40 full-time job placements. The ultimate goal is to establish sustainable cooperation between the diaspora community and the two organizations and also inspire other organizations that support the employment path of vulnerable groups to look for and utilize alternative resource channels rather than the government per se.

Yet, it is not a walk in the park…

The uncertainty that someone many miles away will support an entire social group without knowing them personally has been one of the initial fears of the two organizations that work on behalf of people with disabilities. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic which has been disruptive in two ways. First, the pandemic has affected (both in health and economic terms) countries in Western Europe like Switzerland. Second, the pandemic has also been a triple crisis for people with disabilities.

‘Now more than ever, people with disabilities need more support as their fears from the COVID-19 and the society, in general, have grown twofold. Enabling them to acquire a vocational skill for a decent job means the world to them,’ says Sofija Georgievska, Ass. Prof. in Psychology who also manages another initiative with E4E@mk for people with disabilities.

To make the idea work, first, it’s crucial to engage the diaspora community in interventions that are aligned with the already existing initiatives or ideas. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel but learn from and improve existing ones. Second, there is also a need to build trust – to ensure that the diaspora community’s support is managed by trustworthy people/organizations and that it is used for nothing else but the purpose it is allocated for. Third, any initiative should also be backed up with systems to know what works and what doesn’t (e.g. right-sized and functional monitoring and results measurement system). The diaspora community – for that matter anyone allocating scare resources – wants to see that what is being invested is contributing to sustainable and scalable results.

“Our diaspora has supported vulnerable groups in North Macedonia even before the start of this intervention,’ says Ragmi Jusufi during his TV appearance on presenting this intervention in North Macedonia. ‘We have also imams that are hugely engaged in collecting resources but only for specific cases or concrete families. The difference now is that we are creating a whole sustainable system’.

E4E@mk has created a solid foundation for the organizations working on behalf of people with disabilities to continue on their own. These foundations range from establishing connections with the diaspora community to having a digital web platform and resource mobilization mechanism as well as good public outreach to showcase their intentions.

From here to where?

This story is far from finished and developments are yet to happen. To spread the word about the concept, one of the authors of this article has approached a member of the Macedonian Diaspora in Switzerland, and briefly conversed to present the concept and get initial feedback. Jovanka Stojkovski, a resident of Muralto-Locarno in the Ticino canton, was pleased as well as intrigued by the idea that the diaspora community could fundraise for people with disabilities and their advancement in vocational skills development.

Jovanka’s all previous donation efforts made by her family were aimed at collecting funds or supplies for institutions in their hometowns in North Macedonia. The conversation showed that the diaspora community, when given the right platform, can go also further and beyond, as in many cases before.

Organizations working on behalf of people with disabilities will also have to make the most important step forward: getting out of their comfort zone and be strongly proactive in communicating their concept to the diaspora and the domestic audience, which is rather quite different from their usual work.

On the other hand, the diaspora, without any obligations, should try to diversify their much-appreciated support for the socially vulnerable group such as people with disabilities. Members of the diaspora community often visit North Macedonia. Maybe the cooperation with Organizations working on behalf of people with disabilities can be advanced in a form of visiting & mentoring the vocational skills training, given that many members of the diaspora have acquired strong vocational skills and can provide knowledge transfer to people with disabilities. Many diaspora members are successful entrepreneurs in the vocational skills sectors; they can be the champions through mentorship.

E4E@mk facilitates, connects, and matches both sides. Whether this intervention will go beyond the expected results or not, it really depends on the willingness of both sides and their engagement to improve the prospects of an entire social group.

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