Saturday, May 23, 2009

On the Upcoming Economic Summit of the World Igbo Congress

By Ebere Onwudiwe & Okey C. Iheduru

Ndigbo at home and abroad have been treated to a number of colourful ‘summits’ ostensibly organized to articulate strategies to develop that part of Nigeria. The latest is the First Igbo Economic Summit being organized by the World Igbo Congress (WIC) in the city of Atlanta, USA, 29-30 May 2009. Despite the unfortunate choice of foreign venue for the summit, this is a welcome change for an organization whose mere mention in the USA where it is headquartered elicits negative reactions due to its recent lack-luster leadership. Generally, WIC events are dismissed as ‘useless and sterile jamboree’; while its leadership marked by perennial squabbles and juvenile internet hecklings have earned the organization the sobriquet ‘World Igbo Confusion.’

But WIC means well. It was a brilliant idea at its founding as the pivotal platform for the Igbo Diaspora to partner with the homeland to incubate and disseminate practical solutions to development problems there. While contemporary indignation and frustration with it is unassailable, there is something in the forthcoming Atlanta Economic Summit that warrants a serious reconsideration of the tendency to dismiss the organization as amateurish.

The founders of WIC are part of the unsung Igbo heroes who shouldered the onerous task of poverty reduction in the defunct Republic of Biafra. Today, Igbo Diaspora remittances constitute the most visible form of insurance to many beneficiaries (individual, household and local community) to withstand the economic crisis and shocks that reduced income. In the social economy, the Diaspora has financed social services and infrastructure including transfer of medical equipments, health centers, books and computers, sponsorship of scholarships, apprenticeship, start-up funds for business, and many other forms of resource transfer to practically every community in Igboland.

The challenge that faced WIC at its founding was to articulate concrete strategies to turn this financial manna from the Igbo Diaspora into sustainable development in the homeland. This still remains ‘the road not traveled’ by WIC, one which hopefully, the new Joe Eto administration, given the priority of economic empowerment in his platform, is set to explore.

WIC can shed its current reputation of an internet name-calling and irrelevant club of amateurs by returning to its central mission as a change and development agent in Igboland. In truth, WIC does not deserve this image. Whatever the case, the organization needs some “re-branding of sorts and the Atlanta Economic Summit is a necessary first step, one that must be supported by the political and economic leaders from the Igbo zone. That support will be a wise and complementary development policy for the region if only because WIC can be a powerful vehicle to trigger and promote change in the homeland.

From what we have observed so far, the new Eto administration is keen on cultivating and harnessing the Igbo Diaspora’s social energy, their passion for ‘giving back’, to move from poverty alleviation to development. This is good news for Igboland and the country as a whole.

Although there are many wealthy Igbos all over the world, previous Dispora development efforts have failed. We hope that the new WIC administration will learn from those failures. That it will go beyond economic summits and grandiose conventions to build a sustainable and respected organization able to back its bark with a bite.

Frequently initial enthusiasm to support WIC’s development efforts dissipated because people got tired of the all ‘heat and no action’ of its immediate past leadership. To sustain enthusiasm for its projects, the new WIC must bring in the thousands of Diaspora Igbo professionals presently too disgusted to be part of its current cacophonous umbrella. It can do this simply by becoming a more focused, more refined and serious organization befitting of the time and effort of these very busy professionals. If the Eto administration focuses on this, a more harmonious and capable WIC will emerge.

In addition, WIC must try to promote the interests of Igbo migrants abroad, not just those of political leaders at home. It must craft social events and conferences as forums to build social capital and networks of abundant Diaspora Igbo talents and moneymen that can generate feasible projects and the funds to implement them at home. More importantly, the new WIC leadership needs to focus on more humble objectives. Our review of WIC’s annual convention agendas shows that the organization suffers from certain grandiosity despite palpable skimpy resources which its past leadership did pretty little to boost.

Also, it will not hurt to learn a few things from a number of successful models of Diaspora mobilization for homeland development. For example, a WIC program can organize Diaspora Igbo executives in major companies to borrow a leaf from their Indian counterparts. It was the Indian executives in major multinational corporations that influenced their companies to outsource knowledge-intensive operations to India through the creation of Technology and R&D outsourcing networks.
South Africa, South Korea and Israel benefited from the Mentoring/Venture Capital Model whereby managers and owners of European start-up firms of South African origin, for instance, worked with South African start-up firms to develop and finance commercially viable projects through their venture capital networks.
There is also the example of Chinese Diaspora. Diaspora as Investors Model, or ‘Bamboo network’ was instrumental in the rise of Greater China. Here, Diaspora members who know the reality of home country well and had access to risk-mitigation strategies were able to build personal trust between members of cross-border investor networks that enabled them to reduce transaction costs.

The new WIC should learn from these examples by kick-starting its new focus on economic development via the creation of a network of Igbo executives at home and abroad with a mission to develop programs to manage its homeland development projects.

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