Heart of Arts

The diaspora diplomacy and soft power agency of the African diaspora in the US and Australia

Christopher Isike


African Centre for the Study of the United States

University of Pretoria



Contrary to the brain drain argument about the African Diaspora as a loss to the continent, they are connectors between Africa and the world given the third space they occupy between both geographical spaces. They also add value through several brain-sharing and brain circulation initiatives they engage in which benefit Africa in ways that make a case for brain gain. Immediate good examples of this brain gain for Africa are Prof Toyin Falola, Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Austin and Extraordinary Professor at the African Centre for the Study of the United States University of Pretoria (ACSUS-UP), and Prof Farooq Kperogi, Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University’s School of Communication and Media, in the US. Through their multiple affiliations, they give back to Africa, beyond their home countries, like other African diasporans do. This makes the African diasporas to be both development and foreign policy agents for their home and host countries. To contextualize this claim, the goal of this piece is to use the examples of the Nigerian diaspora in the US and the South African diaspora in Australia to highlight how African diasporas are foreign policy actors for both their home and host countries. Before then, who is the African Diaspora and what foreign policy and soft power agency do they have for Africa?


The African Diaspora

The African diaspora refers to the dispersion of people of African descent throughout the world starting with the transatlantic slave trade which forced the movement of millions of Africans to the Americas, Europe, and other parts of the world. It also encompasses the voluntary migration and the more recent movement of people of African descent within and between different regions induced by conflict and economic hardship in the continent. Although disparate, the African diaspora has grown to become a significant global force, with people of African descent living in nearly every corner of the world. Overall, they have had a profound impact on the cultural and social history of the world, as well as on the economic and political development of their host countries. African diaspora communities have also formed distinctive cultural identities and traditions in music, art, literature, food, dress and other forms of cultural expression which attract  admiration and goodwill from their host countries in ways that make them diaspora diplomats for their home countries.


Their Diaspora diplomacy

In simple terms, Diaspora Diplomacy (DD) is the use of diaspora communities to promote a country’s interests in the international arena. This involves engaging with members of a country’s diaspora in a host country or country of residence to leverage their networks, skills, and resources to achieve political, economic, and social objectives to pursue the advancement of the home country or country of origin. According to Jennifer Brinkerhoof, DD encompasses diasporas as: agents in their own right; instruments of  other’s  diplomatic  agendas;  and/or  intentional  or  accidental  partners  with  other  actors  pursuing  shared  interests.  Therefore Diaspora  diplomacy  is  not  territorially  bound,  and  agendas are fluid as they criss-cross several cross-cutting interests between the home and host countries.

Concisely, diasporas  straddle 5 diplomacy objectives that have soft power implications for both their home and host countries:

  • improve the  image  of  their  home countries;
  • secure the  support  of  their  host countries for  policies  or  interventions  targeted  to  their  home countries;
  • influence perceptions  of  their  host countries  within  the  home countries;
  • facilitate material  exchanges  between  the  home  and  the  host countries;
  • support the settlement and integration of their compatriots in the home countries.


For Brinkerhoof, through the many cultural associations they form, diasporas proactively improve the image of their home countries in their host countries or internationally given the presence of other diasporas in the country of residence. State and private-sector officials in the home country may also target them for this purpose. Diasporas may also seek support for a policy or intervention from and by their host country targeted to the home country. Other scholars such as Thomas Ambrosio have argued this  is  an  enduring  feature  of  US  foreign policy  as it has historically leveraged diaspora communities in the US to get insights for its foreign policy engagements with their home countries. For example, the Presidential Advisory Council on African Diaspora established in December 2022 at the US-Africa Leaders’’ Summit is an indicator of the Biden administration’s efforts to engage and embrace America’s African Diaspora. Also, the African Union (AU’s) declaration of the African Diaspora as the 6th region of the continent is also part of efforts to engage African diaspora communities and promote diaspora diplomacy. Clearly then, diaspora communities serve as ambassadors for their home countries, promoting cultural exchange, trade, investment, and tourism. They can also provide valuable insights and expertise to their home countries on global issues and help to bridge cultural divides and investment gaps between their home countries and countries of residence. These make diasporans soft power resources for both countries.


Soft power

Soft power generally refers to a state’s ability to influence others through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or force, to ‘shape the preferences of other states through ‘intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values and institutions and policies that are seen as legitimate or having moral authority’ as Joseph Nye puts it. It is often achieved through cultural, economic, and diplomatic means, such as popular culture, foreign aid, or international collaboration Soft power is considered an important tool in international relations because it can help build relationships and foster cooperation between countries without resorting to military action or other forms of aggression. In a changing global system increasingly defined by human security challenges that cut across geographies, what betrend Badie calls “weakness politics”, soft power is an important foreign policy tool to have. Diaspora communities, especially of marginal states such as in Africa, are soft power resources and foreign policy tools that can help achieve national development and foreign policy objectives.


The foreign policy agency of African diasporas in the US and Australia

Indeed, the African diaspora has become an increasingly important diplomatic and soft power tool for Africa. Many African countries have recognized the importance of engaging with their diaspora communities abroad to promote their interests and increase their influence. This includes using the diaspora to attract investment, promote tourism, and advocate for policy changes in host countries. Therefore as diaspora diplomats, the foreign policy agency of the African diaspora is in their accumulation of soft power points for Africa. This realization drove me to ask whether the African diaspora can be categorized as a soft power resource for the continent and that is how I started the project of mapping their soft power attributes starting with Nigerian Americans in the US in 2021 and then South African-Australians in Australia in 2022.

I spent 8 weeks in the US collecting data from Nigerian-Americans in the top 4 states (Texas, New York, Maryland, Georgia) where they are largely resident and 4 weeks in Australia collecting preliminary data from South African Australians in Western Australia. Of note, both the Nigerian and South African diasporas are the largest African diaspora communities in the US and Australia respectively. Snippets of the findings on the soft power attributes and dual foreign policy agency of both these African diaspora communities in these countries follow below.


The United States

Broadly speaking, Nigeria’s soft power come from attributes such as its cultural exports (film—Nollywood, music, dress, food and other indigenous products), its political and iconic personalities (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Fela Kuti, Chimamanda Adichie, among others), sporting accomplishments, international peace keeping and mediation role, delivery of public goods through agencies such as the Technical Aid Corps Scheme (TACS), its Afrocentric foreign policy and policy of good neighbourliness. These soft power resources fall well within the three elemental scales of cultural attraction, political values and foreign policy espoused by Nye. The question I sought to answer was can the Nigerian Diaspora be added to this list of soft power resources?

In the US, the Nigerian diaspora has been a particularly active and engaged community. They have formed vibrant communities across the country, with significant populations in Texas, Maryland, New York, Georgia. These communities have been active in promoting Nigerian culture and heritage, advocating for social and political change, and supporting development efforts in Nigeria. They have also been instrumental in building bridges between the United States and Nigeria, fostering greater understanding and cooperation between the two countries. In so doing, they help to shape perceptions of Nigeria and promote its interests on the global stage.

The targeted population of my study were Nigerian-Americans who are high achievers in the science, medicine and engineering, music and film, literature and sports sectors of the American society. These are individuals contributing to American progress and development, but ipso facto inadvertently contributing to Nigeria’s soft power credentials in ways that can also help to counter the unfortunate global notoriety of Nigerians as ‘criminally-minded people’. According to the American Community Survey of 2019, Nigeria is the largest source of African immigration to the United States with approximately 376,000 Nigerian immigrants and their children (the first and second generations) living in the United States The results of a Rockefeller Foundation-Aspen Institute Diaspora Program (RAD) study of 15 immigrant communities in the US show the Nigerian diaspora are the most educated immigrant group in the United States, and are also substantially more likely than the general U.S. population to be in the labour force and to work in professional or managerial occupations.

Nigerian-Americans are diaspora diplomacy and soft power agents in their own right given their admirable accomplishments (education, health, music, sports sectors including emerging presence in IT and politics). Most highly educated of all migrant groups in the US because 61%  hold at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 31% of the total foreign-born population and 32% of the US-born population. Had prominent professors in the highest ranked universities in every one of the cities I visited, including top doctors and nurses in the health sector, their presence is also visible in sports, media and communication. The

There is potential of Nigerian-Americans becoming foreign policy agents for both Nigeria and the US: However, it is an under-utilized potential as they have not yet  organized themselves enough to enter the US diplomatic agenda. However, the potential exist even though Nigerian-Americans have not used their in-between advantage for diaspora diplomacy like you will see close-knit and homogenous diaspora groups in the US such as the Jewish, Indian, Chinese and Irish diaspora communities do in the US.


Although Africa has been at the margins of Australian foreign policy thinking and practice, the African diaspora in Australia (people of SA descent who are citizens and residents in Australia) has been instrumental in promoting African culture, heritage, and identity through various diplomatic and soft power initiatives. These initiatives have played a crucial role in enhancing the visibility and influence of African communities in Australia. As I mentioned earlier, South Africans are biggest African migrant communities in Australia at about 42%. Although this is mostly white South Africans, more non-white South Africans have increasingly migrated to Australia in the last 10 years between 2012 and 2022. The preliminary results of a feasibility study of a broad spectrum of South Africans in Australia (across colours) which I undertook with my research partner, David Mickler of Curtin University, during my time there in 2022, show that the South African diaspora in Australia have diaspora diplomacy and soft power agency given their admirable accomplishments. They are making significant contributions to Australia’s development across critical sectors of mining, agriculture, medicine, IT and higher education. Many of them are captains of big business, vice chancellors  and professors in Australian universities which means beyond the economic contributions they make, they also add ideational value to Australia through the education system. These evoke admiration and goodwill from Australians not only towards south Africans as people but also towards the South African state. All 23 South Africans I interviewed across the country told me Australians see South Africans as very hardworking, goal-oriented and focused people. The South African  diaspora in Australia have also established a strong sense of community and identity, which though is fractured along racial lines, has enabled it broadly to promote South African culture, values, and traditions to the wider Australian society.

Another related way in which the South African diaspora has exerted its soft power agency in Australia is through the establishment of community organizations and networks which provide a platform for South Africans to connect with each other and promote their culture and values to the wider Australian society through various channels, including cultural events, social media, and community organizations. These organizations have potential to evolve into ideational and political blocks that can influence Australian politics and foreign policy towards Africa the same way the Chinese Diaspora community does in Australia. A good example of the South African diaspora’s soft power agency in Australia is the annual South African Film Festival, which showcases the best of South African cinema to Australian audiences. The festival has grown in popularity over the years, attracting a diverse range of people from different backgrounds and cultures.

The conclusion I want to make is to answer the question that led me into this research in the first place: Can the African diaspora using the cases of Nigeria and South Africa, be added to the long list of their soft power resources? Although the study is still ongoing in the Australian case, I say yes to the question. The Nigerian diaspora in the US and the South African diaspora in Australia have in similar and varying ways been instrumental in promoting African culture, heritage, and identity through various diplomatic and soft power initiatives. These initiatives have not only enhanced the visibility and influence of African communities in both countries but have also contributed to the diversification of the cultural and economic landscape of the US and Australia. Given the in-roads Nigerians in the US have made into national politics in America since 2020, I can also add the diversification of the US political landscape to the list. Finally, both diasporas can also evolve into foreign policy lobby groups for their home countries and resident countries as we see the Jewish and Chinese diasporas do in the US and Australia respectively.

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