Migration researcher builds platform to address development and humanitarian challenges

A new online platform aims to build and promote innovative solutions to development and humanitarian response by encouraging collaboration between African and Middle Eastern diasporas in the UK and beyond.

Shabaka is the brainchild of Bashair Ahmed, an international development specialist and postgraduate research student at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR) at the University of Sussex. She developed the innovative approach while examining activism among children of migrants as part of her research project, and has recently been working with the Sussex Innovation Centre after receiving £2,000 from the annual Santander Junior Associate Entrepreneurship Bursary.

"Diasporas are understandably interested in where their ancestors came from, and deeply invested in the development and humanitarian challenges experienced there," says Bashair. "They also possess the cultural links and knowledge to really understand the needs of these communities. What's missing is a way of harnessing that experience and intention, and helping people to take action. That's what Shabaka is designed to do."

Historically, despite several initiatives and programmes including the Diaspora Partnership Programme and the Temporary Return of Qualified Nationals, much of the focus has been on first generation diasporas. Meanwhile, subsequent diaspora generations are a growing population that is largely overlooked by policymakers – a gap that Shabaka will look to fill.

"In my experience, this group are ready and willing to offer their support, but often do not have the opportunities and tools to provide their skills, rather than simply financial aid," says Bashair. "The name Shabaka comes from the Arabic for 'network', and that's exactly what this is; we help ideas grow by linking invested individuals to collaborate, providing information on volunteering and job opportunities, and offering capacity-building training."

3 people from African and Middle Eastern diasporas share their experiences:

  • Lamis is a postgraduate student at Manchester University and works in social housing. She recently travelled to Zambia with Abesu, an NGO committed to building housing and sanitation. She was inspired to get involved in similar projects after visiting her ancestral home of Sudan and recognising the value of shelter there.

"It took me years to find ways to assist in an impactful way, research on how to contribute my time, energy and there was no information," she says. "That was a huge barrier, but it was just determination and I kept building my skill sets for when the time was right…there are probably so many people who are in the same position as me and have not found an avenue to connect to others in the same boat."

  • Tania is a humanitarian aid worker with Algerian heritage, currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. She has worked for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, and the British Red Cross in the Middle East.

"There is a huge pool of talent we are not tapping into," she says. "Knowledge, languages, skills, and more importantly, motivated and passionate individuals who want to give back to their countries of origin, who want to learn more about their parents' cultures too, especially if they grew up with a foot in two worlds, like I did."

  • Mohamed's family come from Egypt, and he currently works as a Director of Graduate Programs in New York for Seeds of Peace, a non-profit organisation which inspires and cultivates new generations of global leaders in communities divided by conflict.

"In a world like today where the scale of challenges could not be bigger, the interconnectedness and interdependence of these challenges has made the world a more complex place," he says. "The need for platforms like Shabaka are no longer a luxury, but a necessity. We can no longer afford to work alone or in silos and we need these platforms to connect us to each other and connect us to the resources we collectively need. 

"We need to be part of communities and leverage our knowledge and our resources for betterment of others, because our survival depends on one another. If there is any hope that we face the scale of the challenges facing the world, which includes at the community level, country level and regional level, we need to collaborate."