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Transnational Activities by Migrant Organizations: What Difference Do They Make?

With the increasing prominence of the migration and development framework, assessments of the transnational activities of migrant organizations seem to be narrowing to a somewhat output-oriented and normative interpretation of “development”, expressed in quantitative terms (e.g., the amount of money remitted, the number of schools built, or the number of laptops shipped). In this framework, migrant organizations are reduced to a tool for development—one that policymakers are increasingly encouraged to use. The overall picture, according to this view on development, is that the transnational activities of migrant organizations remain relatively small in scale and focused mainly on infrastructural projects in the social sectors (e.g., construction of a health post or school or the improvement of a village square) (Sinatti and Horst 2014; Portes et al. 2007; Nijenhuis and Zoomers 2015). Much of the academic literature takes a broader perspective, analysing the role of migrant organizations while also paying attention to other dimensions of development (e.g., political and social).

It is evident that the transnational activities of migrant organizations do affect the local context in the country of origin. They change this local context and also affect the relationship between the state and civil society. First, when implementing infrastructural projects, migrant organizations seek the consent of local authorities, which are not always willing or able to provide such support. Second, migrant organizations may initiate a discussion about the relationship between the state and civil society. Some organizations are rather critical about the role of the state, as shown by Fox and Bada (2008), who studied Mexican hometown associations in the USA. These associations blamed local governments in villages of origin for failing to provide necessary basic services to the local population. These migrant associations claimed a voice in municipal investments, as their collective investments had freed up part of the municipal budget, which could then be allocated to other investments.

Studies on the impact of the transnational activities of migrant organizations in destination countries are scarce. A few observations can be made, though, in particular on the relationship between transnational activities and integration. First, implementing transnational activities in the country of origin provides migrants who are not fully integrated in the host society a “refuge”, that is, access to a social environment linked to their own culture and identity (Marini 2014). Second, through transnational activities, members of the organization get to know one another and exchange information and knowledge, which supports integration among those recently arrived. Third, the transnational activities of migrant organizations often depend on the support of other stakeholders, such as private organizations, public sector entities, and other migrant organizations. This collaboration could have leveraging effects, for example, increasing access to information and networks. This might foster social cohesion (JMDI 2010) and increase opportunities for collaboration in other policy fields (Marini 2014; Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2011).

The direction in which migrants' collective transnational activities will develop further is rather uncertain. It is likely that not only the orientation of transnational activities of migrant organization will change, but so too will the intensity of these activities, due to the emergence of a second and even third generation and increased integration. Second and third generations might no longer be supportive of transnational initiatives in the country of origin, an issue mentioned by various authors (Nijenhuis and Zoomers 2015; Lacroix 2010a, b). Young people who were not born in their parents' country of origin may not share their parents' feelings of belonging to that specific locality. As a result, they might be disinclined to engage in transnational activities oriented towards their parents' birthplace. Another hypothesis is that they will retain a feeling of connection to their country of origin, but not to the specific locality their parents originated from. In that case, we could expect to see a decrease in specific translocal activities in favour of transnational activities in the country of origin, or in other developing countries. Moreover, younger generations may not feel connected to or represented by organizations established by their parents' generation (Open Society Foundations 2014). The extent to which migrants are embedded in the country of destination is important too. If migrants over the course of time integrate and spread geographically within the destination country, the rationale to be a member of a hometown association decreases, as Henry and Mohan (2003, 618) found in their study on Ghanaian migrant organizations in Milton Keynes (UK).

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