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DIASPORA: Local Elites Hold Negative Views of Diaspora as Peacebuilders in Bosnia and Herzegovina

DIASPORA: Local Elites Hold Negative Views of Diaspora as Peacebuilders in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Photo credit: Roy Thaniago

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Hasic, J. (2018). Post-conflict cooperation in multi-ethnic local communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina: A qualitative comparative analysis of diaspora’s roles. Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 13(2), 31-46.

Talking Points

 In the context of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina:  

  • While a multi-ethnic diaspora has engaged in peacebuilding, how local elites perceive the diaspora informs the ways in which its members are involved at the municipal level.  
  • In most cases, local elites hold a negative view of the role of the diaspora in peacebuilding and, at best, view diaspora engagement as limited to economic development.  
  • In most cases, local elites believe that diaspora involvement constrains their ability to cooperate with other local elites, highlighting the critical importance of political parties to decision-making on peacebuilding.  

Summary

In the roughly 25 years since the end of the Bosnian war, a multi-ethnic diaspora has actively engaged in local peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). This paper focuses on how local elites perceive the role of the diaspora in peacebuilding and, importantly, how it influences cooperation among local elites as well as local peacebuilding dynamics. Analyzing across multi-ethnic municipalities in BiH, the author finds that local elites have a largely negative view of the diaspora’s role in peacebuilding, perceiving them as part of a foreigner-led peacebuilding process and as having a mostly negative effect on cooperation between local elites.      

Diasporas, specifically those dispelled from their original homelands due to armed conflict, are increasingly viewed by both academic and practitioner communities as transnational peacebuilders. They are uniquely situated to support peacebuilding activities in their countries of origin. Theoretically, “it can be argued that [their] proactive engagement in local peacebuilding can have reconciliatory effects on local democratization and institution building.” Yet, members of the diaspora must engage with local elites (including middletier peacebuilders like mayors or city councilors or those in bureaucratic or administrative positions at the municipal level) whose views of the role of the diaspora in peacebuilding are shaped by partisan politics and power dynamics.  

The author develops this case study by looking at nine municipalities in BiH while conducting fieldwork over six months between 2015 and 2016. In particular, he analyzes similarities and differences across the nine municipalities along three variables: how local elites perceive the difference between themselves and the diaspora, how local elites seize opportunities to engage with the diaspora, and how local elites communicate about the role of the diaspora in peacebuilding (either formally or informally). Evidence is sourced from 35 interviews with local elites from the nine municipalities included in the case study. 

The nine municipalities in this case study include: BrčkoBosanski PetrovacFojnicaDoboj, Stolac, Bugojno, Jajce, Mostar, and VitezThe author is able to classify the municipalities into four groupings that generally describe the distinct ways in which local elites perceive the diaspora’s role in peacebuilding.  

First, the author identified a distinct approach in Brčko where local elites believe that the diaspora can be a peacebuilding agent but think that the peace process requires administrative reform to take place before serious diaspora engagement with local institutions can begin. Specifically, local elites believe that, prior to diaspora involvement, they “need first to work on establishing pathways of constructive cooperation on less contentious political topics” among themselves, as they—not the diaspora—are the ones directly responsible for building strong, local institutions. Because members of the diaspora are located away from their community of origin, local elites do not seek their input except through a limited role in economic development.  

Secondin Bosanski Petrovac and Fojnica, the author found that local elites assert the diaspora’s importance in economic development but display an approach towards the diaspora that is “spontaneous, rarely proactive, and reserved or even resentful at times.” There are no formal lines of communication with the diaspora, but informal, and often sporadic, communication takes place to solicit economic remittances. Some of the interviewees from these municipalities expressed concern that these solicitations for remittances could be counterproductive, “as they could further polarise local parties and affect mutual cooperation.”  

Third, the author found that ethnic political partisanship among local elites in Doboj and Stolac has led to a perception that the diaspora’s role is “imposed” by a foreigner-led peacebuilding processrather than of benefit to them.” Further, diaspora engagement with local institutions has created contentious politics in Stolac where the mayor (member of the Croatian Democratic Union political party) has not formally reached out to a multi-ethnic Stolac diaspora but instead has informally reached out solely to Croat members of the diaspora for economic development, fueling tensions between Croat and Bosniak political parties.   

Finally, in the municipalities of Bugojno, Jajce, Mostar, and Vitez, local elites do not believe that partnership with the diaspora is beneficial because they believe the diaspora are “critical of the local context. While local elites expect diaspora members to take the initiative to support economic development, they also argue that these members of the “diaspora only negatively affect the [peacebuilding] process” by potentially unsettling the “fragile” balance established among local actors who have begun to work together and build mutual trust.  

Cooperation among local elites is essential to peacebuilding. In most municipalities, the author finds the local elites view diaspora involvement as a constraint on their ability to cooperate with other local elites. Particularly, this finding shows how important local political parties are to peacebuilding. In a worst-case scenario, diaspora involvement may be exploited to deepen existing political or social divisions within a municipality. 

Informing Practice

An important contribution of this research is to highlight interactions among different types of peacebuilders and how their perceptions of each other influence the types of roles they can play in peacebuilding. What actually happens at the local level when different communities with varying interests merge to build a sustainable peace after war? While this research may be limited to the examination of interactions between only two types of peacebuilding actors—local elites and the diaspora—it still draws out a number of important reflections.  

Members of the diaspora are in a difficult position. They may often feel unwelcomed in both their country of origin and their country of residence, straddling multiple, overlaying identities and struggling with the trauma associated with forced migration (see Sharing family photos elicits inter-group dialogue among Arabs and Israelis in Continued Reading), while acting with the best intentions to support local peacebuilding and institutionbuilding in their homeland. For example, research featured previously in the Peace Science Digest (see Refugee resettlement as a form of transnational peacebuilding in Continued Reading) found that Liberian refugees in Canada supported peacebuilding in Liberia “through remittances, the transfer of social capital, and political engagement in their host country.” These are common activities in which diasporas are engaged.  

However, when members of the diaspora seek to engage with their country of origin, they likely do so in unfamiliar territory. It is essential to note the totally disruptive nature of warhow it reshapes power dynamics and alters the previous political landscape so much so that this landscape may be completely unfamiliar, even to those who used to live in the country. For example, in analyzing some of the cases in this research, the author found that “the multi-ethnic character of different diaspora communities abroad is not a positive indicator of their constructive involvement locally, [as they] might unwittingly trigger further divisions in the distribution of resources, or alter delicate institutional set-ups and employment policies.” Unintended consequences abound even in interactions between local elites and the diaspora, despite the many shared characteristics like language, culture, or intention.   

This finding reinforces the utter importance of local elites and other middle-tier actors in peacebuilding (see Building peace from the middle: The critical work of National Brain Trusts in this issue’s Research to Action section). The research examined here highlights the consequential role local political parties play in determining local peacebuilding activities and outcomes, as “peace does not necessarily trickle down to the sub-national level in a uniform fashion.” How peacebuilding is accomplished locally depends on the decision-making powers of local elites—those who, in comparison to the diaspora, remained during and after war. They may feel justified in building and reshaping local institutions as more authentic representatives of the current population. This serves as a note of caution for well-intentioned members of the diaspora who wish to involve themselves in peacebuilding efforts in their countries of originhighlighting the need for them to carefully examine the role they play in local politics and the possibly unintended effects of their involvement  

Continued Reading

Peace Science Digest. (2019, August). Special Issue on Refugees & Migrants. Retrieved January 31, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/special-issue-refugees-migrants/  

Peace Science Digest. (2019, August). Refugee resettlement as a form of transnational peacebuilding. Retrieved January 31, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/refugee-resettlement-as-a-form-of-transnational-peacebuilding/  

Peace Science Digest. (2019, November). Diaspora support for militant groups contributes to a shift towards nonviolence. Retrieved January 31, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/diaspora-support-for-militant-groups-contributes-to-a-shift-towards-nonviolence/  

Peace Science Digest. (2019, November). Sharing family photos elicits inter-group dialogue among Arabs and Israelis. Retrieved January 31, 2020, from https://peacesciencedigest.org/sharing-family-photos-elicits-inter-group-dialogue-among-arabs-and-israelis/  

Brezar, A. (August 14, 2019). Bosnian war hotspot becomes focal point for peace-building. Balkan Transitional Justice. Retrieved, February 19, 2010, from https://balkaninsight.com/2019/08/14/bosnian-war-hotspot-becomes-focal-point-for-peace-building/  

Keywords: Bosnia-Herzegovina, peacebuilding, economic development, diaspora, ethnicity, post-war

The following analysis appears in the Special Issue on Peacebuilders in Volume 4 of the Peace Science Digest. 

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