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Newcomers with credibility, expertise and the right values can be invaluable resources

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As Canada's focus on Libya shifts from the drama of regime change to the challenges of peace building and reconstruction, could the expertise of Libyan-Canadians be useful to the design and execution of Canada's efforts in that country? And could diaspora communities contribute to addressing other challenges currently facing Canada's foreign policy-makers, such as the famine in East Africa, impediments to nation-building in Afghanistan or the armed conflicts along the border between the two Sudans? If so, are federal departments and NGOs well prepared to solicit and use such expertise?

As arguably the most diverse and pluralistic country on Earth, Canada is better equipped than most of its Western allies to engage its citizens in helping determine the direction and content of its foreign policy. Yet this country's record of drawing on the expertise of its diaspora groups to the benefit of its foreign-policy decision-making is not as impressive as it could or should be. In comparison to some other Western countries (such as Britain and the Netherlands) whose governments and NGOs have long-standing programs to draw on diaspora expertise and assets when developing responses to international development and peace-building challenges, Canada's approach has been both sporadic and piecemeal. This is decidedly to our collective loss.

Many immigrants to Canada maintain deep connections to political and economic developments in their countries of origin – connections that make them no less Canadian or committed to Canada's well-being. They send remittances on a scale that dwarfs Canada's foreign-aid budget, pay for family members' education, fund community-improvement projects and contribute to political parties or movements. Not every effect of these activities coheres with the aims of Canada's foreign policy, but a great many do.

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Much could be achieved if Canada's diaspora groups – including those originating from the world's most strategically important regions – were called upon more systematically to help strengthen the content and reach of Canada's official foreign policy. They could become huge assets to Canada's efforts at helping their homeland countries thrive, and, by extension, to realizing our global security and economic interests more broadly.

For these reasons, the Mosaic Institute and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation are launching this month a jointly sponsored research report, Tapping Our Potential: Diaspora Communities and Canadian Foreign Policy. By surveying current thought and practice in Canada and abroad, and by presenting five case studies of Canadian diaspora communities' homeland-focused activities, the report seeks to help both policy-makers and those from the NGO sector who influence public policy to make better use of the expertise and assets diaspora communities have to offer.

We are not naive about the potential difficulties policy-makers face in working with diaspora communities, who can be as internally diverse and disorganized as any other civil society group, and whose views about their "homelands" are not always accurate or pacific. But as our report discusses, it is possible to identify members and representatives of diaspora groups who have the credibility, expertise and alignment with Canadian values that render them invaluable resources from which our makers of foreign policy may draw.

Among our report's recommendations, we suggest that the federal government articulate a comprehensive set of principles, goals and policies for diaspora engagement; that government departments work together to gather and analyze information about the composition, interests and foreign-policy capacities of Canada's diaspora groups; and that diaspora groups be funded to help them develop the organizational capacities needed to participate effectively in policy-making.

We are, with good reason, accustomed to calls to see Canada's increasing diversity and its immigrant communities as assets in the economic and social spheres. The next step is to also perceive members of Canada's diaspora communities as valuable assets for this nation's policy-making. They – like all Canadians – should be encouraged to reach their full potential in helping to define our collective relationship to the rest of the world.

Thomas Axworthy is president and CEO of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. John Monahan is the executive director of the Mosaic Institute. Natalie Brender is lead researcher of the Tapping Our Potential report.

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