GLOBALCIT Review Symposium on Alan Gamlen, Human Geopolitics: States, Emigrants, and the Rise of Diaspora Institutions, Oxford University Press, 2019


Luicy Pedroza, GIGA

With Human Geopolitics, Alan Gamlen crowns more than a decade of work studying diaspora institutions. Human Geopolitics is clearly not a book on everything you need to know about diasporas. It cannot possibly be so and it does not aim to offer this. The study of diasporas has turned into a blossoming interdisciplinary academic field in the last 15 years, with many studies on the different rationales adopted by separate countries and clusters of countries to develop diaspora policies. Gamlen himself has brought much to this field with his, by now famous, scheme of the ‘tapping, embracing or governing’ functions of diaspora institutions. In this book, he devotes his attention to the adoption of diaspora institutions, a process that called for an explanation because, in its spread in the world and concentration in time, it clearly surpasses the discrete rationales of states. Human Geopolitics describes the impressive trend for creating diaspora institutions, provides explanations as to why that trend took hold and, most grippingly, provides a narrative of how it occurred.

The book has a remarkable geographic scope, providing short case studies of the creation of diaspora institutions in all regions of the world. Chapter by chapter, Gamlen develops a convincing story of how the evolution of a global migration regime (“a multi-layered patchwork of regulatory institutions and practices”, p. 186) carried with itself a certain component in the box of good practices: countries should engage with their emigrants through diaspora institutions. The book stands out most clearly in respect of its concatenation of levels of analysis, first demonstrating quantitatively that the tendency exists and then uncovering regional, supranational, and organisational-institutional factors through qualitative studies. Although he theorises that three distinct phases exist in the development of the trend of diaspora institution adoption, Gamlen’s argument is most convincing regarding the third of these, which shows how IOs and INGOs push the agenda of diaspora institutions as if it constituted a demonstrated general truth. The argument appears most succinctly on p. 49: “as time has passed, the drivers of diaspora institution formation have gradually shifted from strategic, nation-building and economic development, to more symbolic purposes connected with conformity to regional and global standards of migration management”.

Because of its coverage, this study seems fundamental to the development of the literature on diasporas. It is here to complement, not to substitute, the many in-depth studies on the functions that diaspora institutions fulfil. Much of the real work of those diaspora institutions remains in the dark in this book, because the spotlight is on their worldwide adoption. This is a perfectly legitimate aim for Gamlen’s imposing study. However, it comes at a cost: the rather state-centric explanation that he develops cannot accommodate well the fact that many diaspora/emigrant policies precede the creation of diaspora institutions. Gamlen demonstrates that he is aware of this in the conclusion of the book, when he states one of the few optimistic hopes for the functions that diaspora institutions fulfil (namely that they can give coherence to emigrant policies). But there is something more about diaspora institutions that is downplayed in the otherwise very detailed and eloquent argument of the global governance and agency orchestration process of construction of diaspora institutions: migrant transnational political activism. Migrants too have agency and claim diaspora institutions when they hear what other states do for their diasporas. This is the case with political rights and consular services, two important kinds of emigrant policies. This is one of the reasons why, although it is convincing in explaining how come it spreads and diffuses all over the world, especially in the last thirty years, the book cannot tell the full story of the adoption of diaspora institutions across countries. A second reason is related to the extensive character of Gamlen’s definition of diaspora institutions, which puts departments and agencies together with special electorates and advisory councils. The participation and representation that these bodies offer is not only different, but it cannot be unequivocally interpreted in the same direction. While governments often create departments and agencies devoted to their diasporas with the power of the pen (mostly the executive’s), advisory councils and special electorates are often fought for by migrants and painstakingly negotiated in exchange of electoral rights or as a subsequent step after electoral rights were won and incorporated into home districts. Advisory councils and special districts are seldom adopted by states without a fair amount of political bargaining and pressure coming from parties and migrant organisations. Moreover, special electorates are hard to interpret independently of explanations for the granting of external voting rights: only knowing the (potential) electoral weight of emigrants and how their special representation was negotiated can we tell if special districts are meant to prevent swamping elections in the homeland, or the contrary: to overrepresent.

Still, with these caveats, the book serves as a splendid appetiser for developing many enticing research projects: a study of hierarchies of diaspora institutions, a study of bureaucratic agenda changes in migration policies and of the professional practices of diplomats and agencies pushing their careers and budgets by adapting a global recipe to domestic appetites. Intriguing models pepper the book through and through, such as the innovation model that illustrates how policies mutate and evolve as they pass from state to state in exchange and benchmarking in international forums (see pp. 234-36). Two intertwined arguments in the book are particularly captivating contributions that will surpass the literature on diaspora policies and institutions. The first is about the institutionalisation of migration governance through norm entrepreneurs, epistemic communities and organisations, which he calls ‘migration optimists’ (Figure 8.1 being particularly illustrative). The second is about the orchestration by which several IOs and platforms created the model of the diaspora institution as a migration policy component in a menu that is presented to donors to gain for their support, and then to beneficiary states. Amid this governance ecosystem and the orchestration of this policy menu, there are unequal power dynamics at work whereby some countries promote in other states a certain migration policy indirectly: they fund dependent intermediaries which present themselves as authoritative, neutral and expert international agencies. Thus, Gamlen articulately shows why we see diaspora institutions appearing all around the globe in slightly different guises: because they are not imposed by a centralised migration agency, but they appear as if developed ‘sovereignly’ by states, loosely adapted to fit a pattern that has undeniably been set by coordination of a number of state and nonstate actors regionally and globally. I can see how this description, which applies so well to diaspora institutions, also applies to new paradigms of good migration governance such as ‘return’ and ‘tackling root causes of migration’. It also explains why states small and big have often opposed centralized efforts to build a clear migration regime like the Global Compact. The diffuse governance structure that has developed on migration matters over the last three decades hides power asymmetries much better, which is sometimes in the interests of both the weak and the powerful. 

To close this review, I would like to say something about Gamlen’s gloomy view (early in the book but especially in the epilogue) regarding diaspora institutions. I think that this gloominess is sensible as a cautionary warning regarding the risks behind the apparent lightness with which states are adopting diaspora institutions: this buzzword (diaspora) and fashionable instrument (diaspora institution) may be abused to battle for the control of humans for geopolitical purposes. The intended adoption of a good practice turns bad already when it only serves window dressing: indeed, many diaspora institutions around the world lack real resources to do anything meaningful for diasporas. This warning about the ethical void of diaspora institution adoption is about the point at which the cautionary words could have stayed, but Gamlen makes a larger claim about human geopolitics as strategic competition over people rather than territory. In my view, however, precisely because the rise of diaspora institutions is leading to plenty of lip service and ‘rubber stamping’ (p. 252), few governments carry strategic human geopolitics. Several, I would say, respond to real migrant demands. While the scariest of bad practices (e.g., Russia towards Crimea) certainly warrant caution, the larger – if less spectacular portion of the world – is adopting diaspora institutions that do no harm. In the best of cases, there is a legitimate demand for these institutions to act for the protection of vulnerable migrant populations that can only request their states of origin to care for them. In the absence of a clear cooperation regime for migration that sets clear co-responsibility for migrants on both origin and receiving countries, one must wonder if the absence of agencies in the countries of origin devoted to the engagement with emigrants is warranted or not.