Until recently, it was fashionable in official circles to decry the brain drain, to criticise those who left and call for financial reparations from countries "poaching" African skills. That changed a few years ago when the African Union (AU) renamed emigrants living abroad as a "diaspora" and called on African governments to stop criticising and to start engaging with their diasporas.

The culmination of this discovery is the Global African Diaspora Summit being held in Sandton today. At the summit the emphasis will be on the positive side of people leaving the continent. Why this change and what are its implications?

Ten years ago, African governments believed that every migrant who left the continent was an absolute loss. They took with them skills, knowledge, capital, and the resources spent by the state on their education. This impression was heightened by the failure of various schemes sponsored by the International Organisation for Migration to encourage skilled professionals to return to their home countries. The uptake was minimal; most preferred to stay where they were.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank then began to collect data on "remitting" — migrants sending part of the income they earn abroad back home to their families — and came to a startling conclusion. Remittances ran into the billions of dollars globally. Global remittance flows exceeded $440bn in 2010, with developing countries receiving $325b n. This is three times as large as official aid and almost as large as foreign direct investment flows to developing countries.

Remittance flows are much more stable than private capital flows, and tend to be less volatile in changing economic cycles. Devesh Kapur of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India called remitting "the new development mantra" as governments and the private sector sought ways to tap these financial flows.

Brain drainers — now called diasporas — were clearly making a major financial contribution to their countries of origin. But they were doing many other things as well. They were visiting their home countries ( "diaspora tourism"), organising through associations to celebrate their home cultures and engage in its politics, investing in the private sector (the economic growth of China and India has been fuelled by investment from members of their diasporas), transferring technology and knowledge through exchanges, and beginning to return with new skills.

The South African Network of Skills Abroad was an attempt to tap the knowledge of the global South African diaspora. The project started with much enthusiasm at the University of Cape Town, but then languished when it moved on. Undeterred, the South African government now seeks to "engage" with diasporas, seeing them as a resource for the continent’s development.

But how willing are diasporas to engage with governments? Diasporas are generally suspicious of interest from governments in their activities. Some are hostile to domestic political actors and support opposition parties. Others are simply wary of governments’ intentions. A recent survey by the Southern African Migration Programme of the South African diaspora in Canada found, for example, that very few were interested in dealing with the government. Their development efforts were directed towards supporting nongovernmental organisations working in poor communities in SA.

The AU defines the diaspora as people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality, who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the AU. The problem with this definition is obvious. The majority of Africans living outside their own country are still living in other countries on the African continent.

This exclusion of the African diaspora within Africa from debates about diaspora engagement is a serious omission. The African diaspora within Africa is engaged in all sorts of ways. SA is a prime example. The country has become a destination for migrants from all over the continent. Their contribution to development in their home countries and in SA itself is rarely recognised. Instead, the African diaspora in SA is the target of hostility and xenophobia. The xenophobic violence in May 2008 saw more than 60 members of the diaspora murdered and 100000 driven out of their communities. Verbal and physical attacks continue to this day. Failure to own the African diaspora in Africa is a recipe for xenophobia to flourish.

Failure to own the African diaspora in Africa is a recipe for xenophobia to flourish.
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