Considered the continent’s sixth region, the diaspora has significant influence on US foreign policy—and sustainable development in Africa.
The meaning of diaspora isn't universal. I learned this firsthand in the early 2000s during a three-day US/Africa relations conference in Washington, DC. After saying my goodbyes to several conferees, I entered a sparsely populated hotel bar looking for one presenter, Moeletsi Mbeki, a political economist and brother of the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. I hoped for one more meaningful conversation about pressing issues affecting global Africa; his commentary on the African diaspora made my heart sink.
"The African diaspora had an original homeland in Africa before being dispersed. Because African Americans are unaware of their land and ethnic group from which they descend, I do not consider them diasporans," Mbeki asserted.
As an African American who considers the African continent to be the birthplace of my ancestors, I was disappointed. I am an Africanist who has researched various regions of the continent and deeply understands the complexities surrounding race, ethnicity, and identity in the African world.
Long divided into five regions: North, South, East, West, and Central, the African Union now considers the African diaspora to be the sixth region of the African continent because of its political, economic, and cultural importance.
These complexities came to life during my first trip to Africa in the summer of 1998 when I interned with the US State Department in Malawi. People questioned my African American identity, constantly asking me where I was from. When I answered "America" they were shocked because I did not fit the typical image of an American—they had only seen white Americans. Constant inquiries about my racial and ethnic identity helped me to understand that race and ethnicity are essentially social constructs, primarily determined by the society in which you live, self-perception, how others perceive you, and the lived experiences of the people with whom you interact.
The same questions, complexities, and lived experiences of groups of people influence how they define the meaning of the word "diaspora." Decades later, I saw how differing narratives embraced by US and African governmental leadership, continental Africans, and diasporans led to conflicting definitions of the word at the 2022 US-Africa Leaders Summit.
What it Means to be Part of the Diaspora
Understanding the meaning of diaspora is important because the US government and African institutions, such as The African Union, increasingly recognize the diaspora's rising economic, political, and social power. People of African descent span the globe, allowing them to influence countries and regions far beyond Africa and the United States.
Population estimates concerning the African diaspora vary, but its mere size makes it significantly influential. According to the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh, “over 200 million people of African descent live outside the continent of Africa.” The United Nations reports that 200 million live in the Americas, but millions more live across the globe. If they lived in one country, the diaspora would be the third most populated nation in the world after China and India.
The African continent from which these diasporic populations descend is three times the size of the United States. It has 54 countries, with various races and ethnicities, languages, and dialects. Long divided into five regions: North, South, East, West, and Central, the African Union now considers the African diaspora to be the sixth region of the African continent because of its political, economic, and cultural importance.
The African Union defines the African diaspora as “consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent irrespective of their citizenship and nationality, and who are willing to contribute to the continent's development and the building of the African Union.” This includes myself and other descendants of Africans enslaved during the transatlantic and Arab slave trades, and people who voluntarily migrated to regions in the West because of war, climate change, and better educational and employment opportunities.
The African diaspora has long promoted social, political, and economic growth for the well-being of families, individuals, and societies throughout its global community. During my doctoral studies, I read many articles on how the African diaspora greatly affected US-Africa relations through pan-Africanist initiatives that supported human rights by opposing the slave trade, colonization, and apartheid.
One Family's Story: the power of remittances
In 2021, during my professorship at the Ahfad University for Women in Sudan, I learned about the Sudanese diaspora's transformation of their home country through international engagement for human rights and financial and social remittances—the flow of cash and other goods that immigrants send to their countries of origin, and the social and political attitudes, behaviors, and social norms affected by migration. Rasha Ahmed and Zahda Idrees Ali, two students who became close friends of mine, explained how the Sudanese diaspora was crucial in inspiring the 2019 Sudanese revolution.
It was the Sudanese living in the UK, Canada, Australia, and other parts of the world who made a major difference, they both told me. "It was their international outcries against human rights abuses and their financial and philosophical support that pushed the pro-democracy movement forward, ending the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir," Ahmed said.
Over the course of several academic discussions and shared meals, I got a better understanding of how vital the diaspora was in shaping Sudan's political trajectory. Financial remittances from diasporic communities have caused some middle-income African countries to become less dependent on foreign aid. It is often argued that remittances are far more beneficial than foreign aid because families and communities directly receive the much-needed income rather than being expropriated by governmental and non-governmental representatives. Ahmed, now a refugee living in Cairo, relies on remittances from family and friends abroad.
Diaspora diplomacy is becoming a key pillar of US strategy and engagement on the African continent. The US uses diaspora diplomacy to compete with China and Russia for African resources. Both nations see Africa as the perfect playground to interrupt the status quo and tip the balance of power away from the US and its allies.
In December 2022, the Biden administration established the President's Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement. The Council's role is twofold: to encourage “collaboration, partnership, and community-building among the US, Africa, and other nations globally,” and to “strengthen cultural, social, political, and economic ties between African communities, the global African diaspora, and the United States.”
Using the terms "old" and "new," the "old” diaspora refers to descendants of enslaved Africans while the "new" diasporans have voluntarily migrated to the United States and the West due to political instability and the search for better opportunities. The Biden administration prioritizes a mutually beneficial partnership with Africa and its diaspora, reflected in key positions held by individuals from both "old" and "new" diasporic communities.
America's new diasporic diplomacy strategy faces challenges due to tensions between "old" and "new" communities within the African diaspora who have differing perspectives on racism. The generational trauma of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and pan-Africanism, a global movement that focuses on African unity and eliminating white supremacy, primarily shapes the identity of many descendants of enslaved Africans. In contrast, members of the "new" African diaspora are less influenced by these factors due to being of immigrant status, first-generation American or naturalized citizenry.
Living among the Igbo people was a heartwarming experience that inspired spiritual and emotional healing. This connection deepened my understanding of myself, the African collective, and being a diasporan.
Those in the "new" diaspora keep abreast of US foreign policies that affect ongoing problems in their home countries, which can impact their voting patterns. They focus less on America's racial divide, an issue of great importance for "old" diasporans who see racism as a global problem that affects US foreign relations with other countries—particularly in Africa and Asia.
In 2015, I was a member of a group of delegates involved with the nonprofit sector who privately met with several members of Congress to discuss the genocide in Sudan and to promote social justice. My testimony detailed the astounding number of rapes, killings, enslavement, and the burning of villages and their inhabitants in Sudan's Darfur and Nuba Mountains regions.
Some Congress members stared blankly at me, making remarks of shock and worry. Others frequently checked their watches. We speculated that what we saw as a lack of concern could have been due to racial biases, which have historically influenced critical foreign policy issues related to human rights, such as asylum and immigration policies.
The unrest afflicting the country of Ethiopia illustrates how concerns for the home country affect the voting patterns of "new" diasporans in the US, which can affect racial issues in America and globally. Minalachew Simachew, an Ethiopian-American journalist, political analyst, and founder of the independent media outlet Ethio 360 shares the sentiments of many Ethiopian Americans who have grown frustrated with the US government's stance on the civil unrest in their home country. He and many other Ethiopian Americans are considering throwing their political support behind the Republican Party with leaders who have openly expressed disenchantment with the Abiy Ahmed government.
The African diaspora has continued to shape US foreign policies. In 2017, celebrations accompanied the nexus between the 400 Years of African American History Commission Act and the Ghanaian government's formal launching of the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019.” They both sparked efforts to unite continental Africans with those in the diaspora. US congressional leaders, diplomats, and many prominent African Americans joined Ghana's president Nana Akufo-Addo in developing programs to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded enslaved Africans who arrived in America. Other initiatives encouraged people of African descent to visit, settle, or resettle in Africa.
"The Year of Return" reverberated beyond Ghana's borders on a personal and intimate level. In 2019, I was a visiting professor at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, which allowed me to connect with my African ancestry by researching the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria. Living among the Igbo people was a heartwarming experience that inspired spiritual and emotional healing: When I looked at people's faces while visiting the local markets, drinking tea, eating Nigerian swallow foods such as spicy fish soup with friends, and strolling along the university campus roadways, I felt connected to my ancestors. This connection deepened my understanding of myself, the African collective, and being a diasporan.
Finding My Power
The new US strategy for engaging the African diaspora brings greater benefits than challenges. Recognizing the diaspora's role in fostering inclusive and economically robust societies in Africa and the US will improve lives globally. The US can outshine China, Russia, and other rivaling powers by leveraging talents and the viability of both "old" and "new" diasporic communities.
As an Africanist with more than 15 years of experience, I am excited to support US African diaspora engagement policies by continuing to discover and use my power among the African diaspora as a peace activist, scholar, author, and practitioner. Like other members of the diaspora, I hope to unlock opportunities for growth and development and be part of a growing diaspora ripple effect in the US, Africa, and other regions worldwide.
Dr. Sherri Lynn McFarland has a PhD in Africa-US relations. She is a co-founding member of the Howard University Africa Policy Institute, a newly established interdisciplinary, university-wide think tank. The institute engages faculty and students in Africa-focused research, knowledge creation, consultancy, advocacy, and implementation. Her experience includes a professorship at the National Intelligence University and involvement in the non-profit sector. She was a cofounding member of World Peace & Reconciliation, a nongovernmental organization that aimed to promote positive transformation in war-torn regions in Africa through peace education. Throughout her academic and professional careers, McFarland has been passionate about contributing to the economic, social, and political advancement of Africa and its diasporic communities.
Cover photo: Students at Ahfad University for Women. Photo courtesy Dr. Sherri McFarland, PhD.