The diaspora experience has long been “America’s Story.” As Russell Shorto’s remarkable book, The Island at the Center of the World, details, at the time the Dutch ceded Manhattan to the British, in 1664, there were only 400 inhabitants on the island. Yet, they were a very diverse group indeed; they spoke 18 different languages—a microcosm of the much larger diaspora that was to follow.
Seventeenth-century Manhattan—enriched by inhabitants from many parts of the world—was truly multi-ethnic. Its citizens were creative and entrepreneurial. They valued free trade, individual rights, and religious freedom. And they valued opportunity.
Centuries later, this description of Dutch Manhattan not only fits New York, but also the United States as a whole. Today, almost one quarter of Americans are first- or second-generation diasporans.
In New York, 41 percent of students in the city’s schools speak a language other than English at home. Los Angeles has identified 109 different languages its students use at home. Many other American cities, and many smaller towns as well, are enriched by immigrant communities that speak many languages.
People who have migrated here from all over the world call America home, and cherish their American citizenship. They also significantly enrich our society and our country. The creativity and success of America have been strengthened by new waves of people from distant lands who bring their talents, hard work, innovativeness, and varied backgrounds together to add dynamism to our economy and our country.
My grandparents came from Eastern and Central Europe. Getting here wasn’t easy. Neither was life when they first arrived. But America welcomed them and gave them opportunity. And they sought throughout their lives to give back to America. I like to feel that in some small way, I am following in their footsteps of trying to give back in gratitude for the welcome America gave them and the opportunity it has given all of us. There are millions like me with similar stories.
The Importance of the Global Diaspora Forum
Let me now share a few thoughts on why I think this Forum is so important.
The goal of this forum is to underscore that in many ways America’s story is the world’s story. The incredibly important role of diaspora communities in America’s success is well known. And I’ll shortly describe a few examples. But I also want to underscore that this is not a one-way street.
Diasporans are our grass-roots ambassadors. They offer unique expertise, insight, and personal commitment. They bring language and cultural familiarity with other parts of the world. They understand business opportunities and risks in their home countries. They are often members of large personal and professional networks with people of similar backgrounds. And they often return to their countries of origin to tell people there about America. When they do, they are widely seen as credible and enthusiastic ambassadors.
Just as importantly, they are uniquely motivated. For diaspora communities, diplomacy and development in their countries of origin are intrinsic and personal, not simply policy issues. Supporting higher living standards, economic growth, and political stability in their countries of origin or heritage is about helping their friends and families.
Remittances are one basic connection, and provide an important lifeline for millions of households around the globe. According to the Hudson Institute, in 2010, remittances from the United States to other countries totaled $95.8 billion. Diaspora communities also provide critical business linkages to global markets for countries that may be struggling to capture the benefits of globalization.
Diasporans are also important sources of innovation for America. In the United States, immigrant-owned companies generate an estimated $67 billion in business each year. Strikingly, immigrants are 30 percent more likely to form new businesses than U.S.-born citizens.
In 2011, we in the State Department launched the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance, a unique multi-stakeholder platform for partnership-building with diaspora communities. This platform harnesses the investment power of more than 1,500 diaspora groups to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy in their countries of heritage. It also seeks to strengthen our linkages in areas such as the sciences and medical research.
Diaspora Communities in the Sciences
U.S. universities have long attracted the best scientific, medical, and engineering talent from around the world and, through them, built partnerships to share and promote innovative ideas, medical cures, and cutting edge technology with their counterparts around the world. Albert Einstein, Andy Grove, and Sergey Brin are only three famous examples.
In the United States, a quarter of foreign-born workers with college degrees are employed in scientific and engineering professions. The medical profession benefits from similar numbers. From 1990 to 2004, almost half of U.S. Nobel laureates in science fields were immigrants. Many remain in close touch with their countries of origin, and are powerful multipliers for diplomacy, development, medicine, and science.
Nowhere is the role of diasporans more prominent than in Silicon Valley—the innovation capital of the world: 52 percent of all startups there have been founded by immigrants. Among U.S. technology companies founded between 1995 and 2005, 25 percent had a chief executive or lead technologist who was foreign-born. These companies generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers in 2005. So when anyone argues that immigration costs jobs for others, the facts demonstrate quite the opposite. Immigration, across many decades and generations, creates jobs for hundreds of thousands of people.
Let me cite a couple of examples to demonstrate the power of diaspora networks. First, I’d like to mention Dr. Wole Soboyejo, a Nigerian-American professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton. He splits his time between research in the United States and his role as President of the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja. Investments like this in Nigeria’s engineering talent are facilitating cutting edge innovation that will benefit both Africa and the world. I am delighted that Dr. Soboyejo is with us today to share his story.
Another diaspora innovator is Aishwarya Ratan, who has worked on optimizing data entries for local microcredit co-ops in India and who presented on behavioral insights to financial inclusion at the Google “Solve for X” session yesterday. Her system holds tremendous promise in India and other developing countries. Indeed, microfinance co-ops serve 86 million households in India. Improving record keeping could help expand borrowing from banks. Ratan’s day job is Director of the Microsavings and Payments Innovation Initiative at Yale University.
Programs for Enhancing the Impact of Diaspora Networks
The cases of Dr. Soboyejo and Aishwarya Ratan show how, on a personal level, members of diaspora communities can make a difference.
There is also a lot of work underway at the State Department and USAID to facilitate connections between diaspora groups and increase their impact on development.
Last year at this forum, we announced a new initiative called Networks of Diasporas for Engineers and Scientists, or NODES—a partnership between the Department of State, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences. The basic idea is simple—to connect diaspora scientists across boundaries by fostering knowledge networks; the sharing of best practices; the identification of capacity-building tools; and the creation of links between professional societies, universities, NGOs, and government agencies at home and abroad.
In the past year, NODES convened scientists and diaspora groups from more than 30 countries at the nation’s largest scientific meeting and built a set of knowledge resources that we are sharing with this actively expanding network.
Many diaspora communities are also ramping up their programs to create positive change. In the past year, a number of diaspora communities have hosted conferences and diaspora forums. Among others, Jamaicans, Albanians, Haitians, and Guineans have recently held forums aimed at engaging and reorganizing their diaspora communities.
Governments are also getting into the act. Last July, under the leadership of my very good friend Dino Djalal, Indonesia’s outstanding Ambassador to the United States—who is present here today—the Indonesian Embassy organized the first-ever world Congress of Indonesian Diasporas in Los Angeles.
Diaspora Communities from the Middle East
The State Department has worked hard over the past couple of years to strengthen the links between the American diaspora communities from the Middle East countries in transition and their home countries. The numbers are large—there are, for example, nearly 200,000 Egyptians living in the U.S.
The potential of these diaspora communities is vast, and goes far beyond serving as a source for remittance flows, as important as they are. They offer critical sources of investment capital and business skills that the Middle East countries in transition need to tap in order to place themselves on a sustainable path to development.
Diaspora communities are also contributing by way of volunteerism. These communities volunteer their time and expertise. And we are currently thinking through ways to partner with various organizations to amplify volunteer efforts by diaspora communities from the Middle East in order to scale up and strengthen capacity-building in the region and across a number of key areas, including economic development and civil society.
There is a critical confidence aspect as well. We have encouraged the governments in the region to reach out to their diaspora communities to encourage them to do business and invest in their countries of origin. If they succeed, the impact on confidence could be large, as markets see the overseas investors most knowledgeable about these countries investing their funds.
In addition, scientific diasporas in the United States can be especially helpful in maintaining contacts with scientific communities in their countries of origin. For example, there are 470,000 Iranians living in the U.S. The Iranian diaspora have contributed significantly to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ workshops that have taken place over the past decade in conjunction with the Iranian scientific community.
These workshops have covered topics of benefit to both countries, including food-borne diseases, water conservation reuse and recycling, ecology of the Caspian Sea, drought forecasting and management, and improving earthquake mitigation. Moreover, the premier scientific and technological university in Iran has more alumni in California than in any other part of the world. This is one of the most meaningful ways of maintaining links between the United States and Iran today.
In addition, our Global Innovation through Science and Technology initiative leverages diaspora members to serve as mentors and experts. Individuals such as Faysal Sohail, a venture capitalist with ties to Saudi Arabia, provide advice and guidance to aspiring young entrepreneurs from the Middle East, as well as Africa and Asia.
Deepening and expanding diaspora networks can do much to make America a more responsive and effective leader around the world. We can develop stronger bonds with other nations—through their civil societies, business leaders, religious communities, women, and minorities.
This Forum is a celebration of America’s diaspora communities. It is our hope that by bringing you together, we will create new opportunities for partnerships with the private sector, civil society, and public institutions in order to make your engagements with your countries of origin or heritage effective, scalable, and sustainable.
When I walk down the streets in my other home city—New York City—as I love to do, and did last Sunday with a very good friend of mine, I am always proud to see so many people from different countries, cultures, and ethnicities living together and working together. It makes me proud that America attracts and welcomes so many people from other parts of the world. We should celebrate our diversity, because that is what in many ways makes us Americans.
It also makes me proud when I see the contributions that wave after wave of immigrants have made.
And, for America to remain the world’s beacon, as well as its most dynamic economy and society, we need to keep our doors open and be a land of opportunity for all. We need to invite, welcome, and honor those from around the world who want to come here for a new life; who want to build new businesses, engage in the creation of new technologies, and contribute to our medical science; and who want to work hard and to make our nation a better place for themselves and their children. So many before them have done this, and it is in our nation’s interest that more people have the opportunity as well.
On behalf of State Department, I welcome your ideas and your support in this growing partnership, and warmly welcome you to this Forum. I thank you for coming and for your leadership, energy, commitment, and contributions to America.