Diaspora: How They Matter in Education and Knowledge Translation


Nepal is emerging from a decade-long armed conflict and is in the process of writing a new constitution and reaching national reconciliation. While Nepal is seeking help from the Nepalese Diaspora from around the world in the rebuilding process, it is important to see how the Diaspora can help Nepal. Research has proven that education is the largest single contributor in solving the problems of poverty, income disparity, gender inequality, ethnic inequality, and inequality in wellbeing. This article attempts to see the role of the Diaspora in the field of education and knowledge.

Nepalese Diaspora in Early Education and Now

As countries of the Indian subcontinent were being taken over by the then British Empire, some areas that were politically, linguistically and culturally connected to the present day Nepal became separated by new political boundaries. Thus people who were freely connected previously became the early Nepalese Diaspora without actually moving, as the border itself shifted. Until the first half of the 20th century, while ordinary Nepalese were forbidden by their own government from attending formal schools, the Diaspora Nepali population accessed better educational opportunities under the British Empire. As education became slowly accessible to ordinary Nepalese with the fall of the Rana regime in 1950, the value of Diaspora scholars became apparent. People built schools and brought teachers for those schools from Banaras, Hardwar, Darjeeling and other centres of learning in India, where ethnic Nepali resided. These scholars had a significant role in improving basic education, and social and political consciousness in Nepal, even in the early days. The Diaspora-Nepal relationship has changed again in recent times due to circumstances that are beyond Nepal’s control.

In the last few decades, many Nepalese have migrated all over the world in search of education, employment, or better living conditions. The new Diaspora is more educated, exercises more rights, and has more consciousness of its roots and identity. Consequently, it has more potential for making an impact on scientific, educational and technological developments in Nepal. But to Nepal, this Diaspora is a lost resource, compared to the earlier Diaspora. Decades ago, Diaspora scholars were happy to return to Nepal as the standard of living there was as good as in neighbouring countries, and they were offered more attractive positions in Nepal. The new Diaspora is now scattered all over the world in countries, most of which are more developed than Nepal. Even those who are now living in India enjoy a superior standard of living and better educational opportunities than in Nepal. In near future, it is unlikely that Diaspora Nepalese will return to Nepal permanently, except in small numbers. In this context, it has become important to know how the Diaspora population can contribute to the educational and intellectual development of the native populace.

Areas Where Diaspora Knowledge Can be Highly Effective

Tackling the Shift in Society and Economy: Today, technology and information have touched every corner of the world. As technology is used by people, it is also affecting their attitudes, work patterns, and social dynamics. Telephone, television, radio, processed-food, motorized transportation, and other products of technologies are altering tastes, habits, agricultural outputs, and ways of doing things. While the effect of consumption is altering the face of countries, much still needs to be done to convert the current import-only scenarios in many developing countries into import-export scenarios. And that requires a massive effort in knowledge exchange and collaboration with the world, in which the Diaspora can play a great role.

Closing Educational and Technological Gaps: Today people expect employable, professional, and practical skills out of education. Yet offerings made by institutions become obsolete quickly with the rapid advancement of practices, tools, technologies, and new knowledge. Consequently, today’s student must pursue lifelong learning to remain relevant in the marketplace.

People in developing countries are becoming more vulnerable to job loss as agriculture is occupying an increasingly smaller portion of the economy. Thus, advancing their education and career is a forced imperative for many. And meeting such an accelerated demand for advanced education on all fronts has become a monumental challenge. Finding the necessary resources and full spectrum of highly qualified educators in all the required fields is almost impossible without international cooperation in education.

Some decades ago, Nepal had a shortage of teachers in mathematics, English and science. Today the shortage has shifted to other emerging fields in which the country holds no domestic expertise. The new Diaspora that has gained proficiency in science, technology, and other emerging disciplines holds the key to meeting that need.

Unless the least developed countries also conquer technology, they will be conquered by countries having the technological advantage. The poor countries have little alternative than to turn to their Diaspora to acquire the knowledge and technology on which to build their own new knowledge and technologies. Thus Diaspora scholarship is more important to less developed counties than to developed ones.

Increasing the Size of Our Thoughts: Human brain is continuously presented with a huge amount of visual, sensory, auditory, and linguistic information, both as it unfolds in the environment and as it is imagined in the mind. The role information plays in our mind largely depends on the number and types of “problems” it is engaged in solving. The process of solving problems helps our mind to logically connect the pieces of information with one another and with the context of the problem, and also to remember it visually and permanently. Information stored permanently in our mind in conjunction with our problems and their solutions is perhaps the true knowledge that remains in our possession.

A person who grows in a small, confined space with a small number of simple problems to solve would possess much less knowledge compared to one exposed to wider varieties of information and presented with a larger number of problems of varying complexities. The people who are well known for their knowledge are also people of extensive travel, contemplation, and association with other people of knowledge. In that light, the larger the size and complexities of problems one attempts to solve, the greater the knowledge acquired in the process by that person.

The Diaspora population faces one set of problems and problem-contexts in its native country and another set in its adopted places. It also gets to mingle with people who are solving complex technical, scientific, societal, and philosophical problems. Diasporic populations would be exposed to a wider variety of influences than if they had stayed in their native country and these influences often augment their capacity for problem solving and affect their approach to problem solving.

Increasing Possibility for Mass Influence: The Diaspora not only travels and observes new places, people and cultures, but also builds on the foundation of knowledge built in its native land. Consequently the ability to synthesize knowledge in the native context where formative years were spent is much greater. As a result, the ability of these people to impart greater influence in their native place would be much increased.

Confucius left Lu (a place in present day Shandong, China) and travelled around many countries in China before returning to his homeland. Buddha left his birthplace long before returning to Kapilvastu (a place in present day Nepal) as a monk. Marco Polo traveled in Central Asia and China for 24 years before returning to Venice.

Marco Polo’s influence in Italy has been greater than in China. Buddhism flourished in Buddha’s native land before it spread throughout the world. Christopher Columbus made a greater impression in Spanish and other Europeans countries than to the natives of the Americas. That was long before the birth of telecommunication. Today, satellite communication systems allow a person or institution to reach an entire population of a country in a single broadcast. Thus the power to influence people has increased exponentially. Today, the Diaspora expertise in education, research, collaboration, decision making support, information and technology can be disseminated at an unprecedented speed and scale.

Proving Quality in Education: The performance of Diaspora in their new countries directly affects the perception of the education they received at home. It is imperative that the Diaspora performs well in new countries. In the future, the Diaspora may fulfil their continuing and regular education needs through the institutions of their native countries. They could then popularize home institutions to people around the world through their superior performance in professional accreditation, licensing examinations, and work performances.

In sum, the Diaspora presents indispensable tools to the fields of knowledge, science, technology and education in their native countries. And before discussing how the Diaspora potential can be harnessed for the advantages of the developing countries, it is important to discuss the changing context of knowledge acquisition and production.

Shifting Nature of Education and Knowledge Production

Moral to Economy to Emotional Equilibrium: While education at one time attempted to create an obedient and moral man, it did not allow for questioning of the values that were passed on as “inviolable truths and norms”. For example, Dalits were not allowed to study books in Nepal and India. Later education, and that of our time, focused on making us freely thinking and practical people, thereby offering lives of material plenty and intellectual freedom. Yet the material progress could not lead to moral progress and emotional equilibrium. Today humanity is eager for practical, ethical, and emotionally enlightened people. And education is the most potent tool to achieve that societal goal.

Oral to Paper to Electronics: Early education relied on the oral transmission of ideas. The birth of the printing press gave rise to mass publication of books, self-interpreted reading, preservation of intellectual gains, and the birth of the Enlightenment in Europe and elsewhere. Today many underdeveloped countries are poised to jump directly from oral traditions to electronic transfer and rendering of writings and other knowledge content. Online and interactive learning tools and techniques are altering the way teaching, learning, and knowledge production are done. Technologically assisted learning is the way of the future. In many advanced economies, the printed books might soon become obsolete.

Preservation of Tradition to Reciprocity to Collaboration: For long, education was limited to religious clergy, who worked to ensure strict adherence to traditionally established values. Later students from wealthy families gained knowledge from their teachers in return for secrecy, loyalty, fees, or other in-kind favours to the teachers. A teacher was viewed as a source of knowledge, the facilitator and manager of learning for his students. In return, he gained status, wealth, or position. Today students are increasingly becoming independent learners who collaborate with one another and with the teacher. With the increasing advancement of technology and information in the daily lives of people, this trend is sure to continue. In such a scenario, the role of the student is not only to understand the existing knowledge but also to produce knowledge in the process of learning.

Equality to Disparity to Equality: Some influential ancient scholarship advocated the equality of all humans. Hindu text Gita says: “The most educated of persons, a cow, an elephant, a dog, or a wretched person, are to be viewed in equal reverence by a learned person.[5.18]” Later we accepted the superiority of one species over another, one race over another, one gender over another, and one person over another. Likewise, we went on to think that an entrepreneur should be permitted to accumulate any amount of wealth. To ensure that it happened, patenting was introduced to protect intellectual property. Although it is a good incentive for people to invest time and money in research to find new ways of doing things, it has also raised questions on the ethics of unlimited wealth accumulation, too far exceeding the contributions made by the individual, and most importantly the ethics of hiding knowledge. Thus the open source movement was born which contributing to flattening the disparity in knowledge by offering free and open source operating systems, software applications, knowledge references, and learning materials.

Today, the debate continues between the worthiness and societal utility of proprietary and patented use of knowledge versus sharing of knowledge. New ways are needed to compensate for the purpose served by patenting, knowledge hiding, and contractual thinking so that we could achieve openness and equality in knowledge production and transmission, while ensuring that adequate incentives are in place for people to make the necessary investments in finding better ways of doing things.

Archiving to Translation to Flow of Knowledge: There was a time when we just revered knowledge that was already produced and did not care much for its further production and proliferation. In the post printing age, we were busy archiving knowledge in papers and books. Then we emphasized the concept of technology transfer and knowledge transfer, which gained much popularity within different branches of a single organization but could not give the same comfort in an inter-organizational and inter-country context.

Recently the Canadian Institutes of Health Research introduced a new term, “knowledge translation”, which means “the exchange, synthesis and ethically-sound application of knowledge – within a complex system of interactions among researchers and users” [see article]. Today we are concerned with how information can be synthesized and translated from one context to another in an ethically sound way. This approach to knowledge endeavours of international collaboration in knowledge endeavours is significant, especially in making education grounded in the context of learners on various parts of the world and various parts of the same country and the same economy.

The important issue immediately associated with knowledge translation is making public knowledge accessible to people around the world. Concern focuses on how we could let the knowledge flow freely for all humanity to enjoy while amply rewarding the knowledge producers.

Memorization to Analysis to Synthesis: There was a time when we used education as a platform for memorizing facts, figures, and instructions. More recently, the focus has been in the work of analysis. Today we are in the age of extreme data collection and analysis. We are writing papers that refer to a lot of other papers. We are producing too much data, too many papers, and too many books. When a person finds one paragraph of useful information, he or she writes a long book with hundreds of pages and hundreds of references to justify the idea and to convince us. If we were to find an idea the size of a corn kernel, we would not just make popcorn out of it but a huge volume of air. Only through ways of synthesizing these obfuscated ideas will we (1) be able to re-construct the corn kernel from the air, (2) overcome the pain of information overload, and (3) prevent information from losing its relative value. It is imperative that we enter into an age of synthesis with urgency. In developing countries where most of the population is unable to create higher knowledge, massive support is required in the field of knowledge translation and synthesis.

One-to-one Learning to Mass Learning to Online Learning: In early days, rich people hired personal tutors to satisfy their learning needs. In the east even the Gurus chose to educate only one or a few disciples who could prove their worthiness to receive education. Then came an age of mass education where the entire young population received compulsory education that was designed, funded and delivered by the state – except in some countries. With the advent of online learning and distance education, the future of education is once again being altered significantly. The learning of the future would have some significant characteristics such as (1) lifelong learning, (2) on-time learning, (3) distance learning, (4) choices in learning, (5) lateral and cooperative learning, (6) personalization in learning, and (7) technology enhanced and interactive learning.

In sum, it could be said that all counties need to acquire knowledge from around the world, but such need is far greater in poorer countries. However, the income gap in rich and poor countries is too huge for poorer countries to be able to attract their Diaspora back. Plans and policies to utilize Diaspora knowledge and potential should, therefore, be developed accordingly. The next section delves into the ways in which Diaspora knowledge, talent and skills could be harnessed.

How Can We Harness Diaspora Knowledge?

When interacting with the Diaspora population, one will invariably hear the recurring message “I am willing to give back if conditions are right”. They say they would even return to the native land if the right opportunities and environment exist. Then the question comes, how can countries that are materially, technologically, and scientifically poor create an environment acceptable to scientists, technologists, and educators who are habituated to salaries, lifestyles, and intellectual opportunities that are offered to them by advanced countries? How would we create the conditions demanded by the Diaspora knowledge producers? These questions are not easy to answer.

Nevertheless, a significant amount of knowledge, education, and skills could be gained if there is an institutional approach and thrust for harnessing Diaspora knowledge and skills. While a separate ministry or agency to look at the Diaspora matter could be justifiable, the most immediate impact could be realized through open and distance universities and institutionally promoted distance collaboration mechanisms. Successes achieved in small scale collaborations could then give rise to collaborations in more ambitious and complex endeavours. In that light, some potential avenues for harnessing Diaspora knowledge and skills are discussed in this section.

Even the Diaspora that has landed in developed countries would be in the quest for specific professional or knowledge advantages to compete for economical, professional, and educational opportunities. It is advantageous to have access to institutions that add unique value to their portfolios. Being able to take the same program as one offered at their adopted country, but at a much reduced cost in the native country, can be of significant advantage to the Diaspora. New immigrants would be in advantage to be able to pass adopted countries’ professional licensing examinations from their native countries before they make the actual move. Therefore, even the Diaspora has much to gain from educational developments in their native places. Given a proper institutional framework, the Diaspora can become teachers, students, and facilitators for such causes. In the process, the native country can also benefit from the exchange of knowledge.

Offering Access to New Opportunities: Today, we are moving from an age of exploration of the moon and Mars in the space to the exploration of DNA and other puzzles of life right here on earth. We are in search of biological answers and biological information more than in the manufacturing of larger and faster rockets. We are moving away from the technology of mass manufacturing to molecular engineering and nanotechnology, away from the mass movement of goods and into the mass movement of knowledge, from material development into moral development, and from single lab research to collaborative research. The quest is on to find knowledge treasures from all cultures, philosophies, and biological matters of the world. The search for cures for diseases, improvements of varieties and nutritional content of foods, and the discovery of new synthetic materials will be found in species of plants and animals from around the world. Being conversant in both the offering of their adopted places and native places, the Diaspora is best placed to exploit this unique opportunity in the quest for knowledge and the benefits to be derived from it. Thus countries could offer opportunities for scientific collaboration for mutual benefits.

Discovering the Self: It is often the case that increasing numbers of people are moving from less urban to more urban places and to more advanced countries, in search of opportunities. More urban places they move their importance as individuals steadily decreases although their mass identity built by collectively delivering increasing progress becomes greater. A poor Nepali may become an advanced Canadian at the expense of his personal identity. But seated deep inside each of us is a person reluctant to accept himself as an anonymous member of the human species. Therefore, the Diaspora often ponders on achievements and losses, and hopes to find his or her lost self in the land that to which they were attached throughout their formative years. A sizable number might want to compensate for their emotional isolation by becoming a willing participant in ethical knowledge endeavours that would be meaningful to the place they left, in return for visibility and feelings of importance. Often television and other media could be utilized to provide such a forum of recognition and a sense of being counted.

Understanding the Causes of Non-Return: Despite good intentions, it is not practicle for most members of the Diaspora living in advanced countries to return to their native country. That is due to a number of personal and professional reasons, including educational opportunities for children, health and medical reasons, building a pensionable retirement, opinions of family members, and fear of instability and uncertainty in one’s native land, particularly in the case of poor countries. It is rare that an established professional would give up everything and return. A daring young person at the beginning phase of a career is more likely to return for entrepreneurial pursuits than an established professional. Therefore, it is better for a country to develop institutions that can utilize what the Diaspora know from where they live and work without any need to return to their native places. Since all researchers around the world are seeking new opportunities for creative endeavours, being able to inspire collaboration in problem solving and research should outweigh the issue of physical return.

Presenting Raw Data for Analysis and Synthesis: A country can collect raw data on many aspects of its society, natural environment, resources, economy, and so on. Such data could be put in a public domain and the Diaspora and international scholars could be challenged to do the analysis on those data in the areas of their expertise and publish their findings. This would help to achieve a rapid advancement of knowledge. They could also be challenged to synthesize the knowledge from all the analysis that would be done. In the process, the contributors could make scholarly gains of their own; some may even earn higher degrees and professional advancements through such work, helping both the Diaspora and the native country.

Presenting Numerous But Small Scale Problems: It is always possible to break large or complex problems into a number of small problems. When small problems are presented to the Diaspora, much could be derived from the collection of individual contributions especially when it comes to the pursuit of building knowledge and education. For example, instead of asking the Diaspora to write about the flora and fauna of Nepal, it is possible to select one hundred most common trees, shrubs, grasses, insects, animals and so on, post pictures and videos with empty Wiki-like blank pages, with a challenge to the Diaspora and international scholars to write about them. Similarly a book can be broken into chapters. A technological problem can be broken into component parts. Curriculum for delivering technical education in health, agriculture, and other areas, based on the indigenous environment and resources, could be broken into numerous learning modules. In a short span of time, a large amount of knowledge could be built in that manner in a transparent and ethical way.

In general, many problems can be solved through scholarly collaboration, or only by Diaspora enthusiasts, if such problems are defined clearly. When applying this technique, much knowledge and understanding can be developed on the natural and artificial resources of the country. Knowing about what one has is a necessary step in discovering what can be done in the future. When possibilities are revealed, scholars from around the world would be interested in scholarly and other technological collaborations. It is equivalent to building the highly sophisticated Linux operating system by writing its code again and again to perfection by collaborating enthusiasts from around the world. An open environment in which to compete and be recognized for that contribution can accelerate the growth of contributions. In all this, an institutional approach is required to aggregate the pieces of knowledge and to construct a larger body knowledge that can positively transform the society and economy.

Hiring as Professors, Tutors, Researchers, and Program Developers: Diaspora scholars could be recruited as professors and tutors of distance learning universities and colleges in their areas of expertise to make knowledge contribution to their native place. They may, in turn, earn supplementary income during their spare time. They can fulfil the knowledge needed in emerging areas in which there may be a lack of expertise in the country. A small number of Diaspora could return and serve as full-time faculties in the institutions of learning or in various other capacities. The Diaspora community could be asked to build programs that other Diaspora need. For example, many people in trades and professions with verified skills and licensing requirements in countries around the world could be offered courses and accredited programs. These could also be useful to countries hosting the institutions, first to generate income and second to educate their own native population in those fields.

Exploring and Connecting with International Scholars: Diaspora scholars could be the best ambassadors for a country to establish connections for knowledge pursuits with professional associations, philanthropic organizations, research institutions, universities and colleges and individual scholars. Utilizing a Common Thread: Solving problems in their native countries can sometimes help inspire and unify the Diaspora. For example, the NRNA initiative for the Open University of Nepal has noticeably excited Diaspora Nepalese because it has great potential to engage them in understanding and solving the educational, research, and technological needs of Nepal, their common binding thread. Many such galvanizing and common issues could be pursued to inspire Diaspora contributions.


The importance of the Diaspora population in the endeavours of knowledge and education is extremely important for developing countries. A country should use a variety of means to tap its Diaspora knowledge and intellectual capacity, as it may be impracticable for them to return to their native country for the purpose of providing knowledge services. As the presence of technology in people’s lives has become a matter of fact, all developments in knowledge acquisition, translation, synthesis and production should not ignore the technology equation. At a time when the differences in the standard of living between countries are remarkably large, it is prudent to utilize Diaspora potential from where they live and work using distance education and distance collaboration approaches through institutions made specifically to foster such cooperation and collaboration.

About the Author: Dr Pramod Dhakal is former Faculty Member of Tribhuvan University of Nepal and current Member Secretary of the Steering Committee for the Open University of Nepal initiative. He is the International Coordination Council Member of Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) and a member of its Task Force on Skills, Knowledge and Innovation. A senior researcher in the telecommunication field, he also writes regularly on social and philosophical issues. He is the Executive Director of the Canada Foundation for Nepal. — Manuscript was prepared for Think India, a Quarterly Journal by VicharNyas devoted to areas of human intellectual and creative endeavour with a motivation to occupy a place of attention and inspiration in the global map of reflection and creativity. Special Issue on Nepal, to be published on December 2010

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