For many migrants, their first priority is staying connected to families and friends left behind. They do so by calling relatives, visiting home, and sending remittances. Emotional connections with the homeland are not limited to family ties, and migrants may also maintain their cultural identities by patronizing migrant businesses or purchasing nostalgic products from their countries of origin, such as tortillas, rum, or spices.
Another type of engagement — hometown associations, also known as HTAs — are organizations that allow immigrants from the same city or region to maintain ties with and materially support their places of origin.
At the same time, HTAs create a new sense of community among recent immigrants with similar backgrounds. They also represent a transnational identity rooted as much in the migrant's country of origin as in the migrant's adopted home.
HTAs are active throughout major migrant destinations, such as the United States, Europe, and parts of East Asia. The total number of HTAs is unknown as these associations change in number every year. Mexican HTAs number somewhere around 3,000, and Filipino groups may amount to 1,000, whereas there are about 500 Ghanaian organizations.
What HTAs Do
HTAs are usually led by a board of directors or elected officers. For the most part, these groups are completely voluntary and do not have official nonprofit status, such as 501(c)3 status in the United States. Those associations that achieve a higher level of institutional maturity are more likely to adopt formal nonprofit status and seek funding from organizations and governments.
Due to the voluntary nature of groups and the working-class profiles of their members, the amount of time devoted to HTA activities is often limited.
For any HTA, the primary activity is fundraising for ongoing programming or special needs, such as a natural disaster in the home country. Most HTA projects are focused on the promotion of health or educational activities.
Groups working in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa donate school or medical supplies to local institutions, or provide basic infrastructure through the construction of clinics, classrooms, parks, and homes. HTAs will also donate money for special occasions or circumstances, such as a religious celebration or to repaint or repair a local church.
Oftentimes, HTAs liaise with local organizations in the home community in order to implement their projects. For example, in Guyana, the most common local partners are local nonprofits and churches (see Table 1). In Mexico, 80 percent of HTAs report approaching municipal leaders to discuss their projects, coordinate efforts and distribute resources.
HTA fundraising activities can include cookouts, cultural events and concerts, raffles, and sports tournaments. Groups are often able to secure corporate sponsorship for their activities, including sponsorship by immigrant businesses. Although levels of success vary, these HTAs operate with limited resources and usually raise less than US$20,000 a year.
In some cases, fundraising is not limited solely to the immigrant community. The group Comite Ixchiguan in Delaware reached out to local media in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan in 2005 to collect donations for affected families in Guatemala.
Yet activities such as concerts and beauty pageants are more than fundraisers: They also promote culture and solidarity in the receiving communities.
Many HTAs have also started to develop projects and services aimed at immigrants, such as assisting with voter registration, providing legal and social services, or teaching a native language or culture to the children of immigrants.
The Fante Benevolent Society of Chicago, a Ghanaian HTA in the United States, has made its mission promoting Ghanaian traditions and values in the diaspora by helping with the "neighboring and outdooring ceremonies" when a child is born. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Ghanaian HTA activities often focus on burial traditions.
HTA Members: Who are They?
The percentage of remittance-sending migrants who belong to HTAs varies from one origin group to another. For example, on average, only about 9 percent of remittance senders in the United States of Latin American origin belong to an HTA. Surveys have shown that 29 percent of remittance senders from Guyana who live in the United States belong to an HTA, while 16 percent of Jamaicans are HTA members (see Table 2).
Among African migrants, 16 percent of Nigerians in the United States participate in an HTA, compared to 15 percent of Ghanaians. However, in the case of Ghanaians, this figure is relatively higher among migrants living in Europe (see Table 3).
Varying levels of membership are also seen in Southeast Asia, suggesting that migrant communities may be more organized in certain places than in others. While more than a quarter of Malaysians living in Japan contribute to an HTA, only 4 percent of their counterparts in Singapore do (see Table 4).
It is difficult to pinpoint the factors that may lead certain people to participate in an HTA, but these may include political culture, family links, material circumstances, cultural identity, and levels of integration.
Overall, it seems that more recent arrivals tend to become the core members of HTAs while HTA leaders tend to be more established immigrants. Central American remittance senders who live in the United States and belong to HTAs tend to be over age 40, have U.S. citizenship, and visit their home country once a year or more (see Table 5).
The example of the Filipino diaspora further highlights the way in which migrants' personal and cultural circumstances may impact their tendency to donate to an HTA. Filipino migrants can be found throughout the world and on nearly every continent.
According to the Ateneo Center for Social Policy in Manila, over 90 percent of philanthropic donations from the Filipino diaspora come from developed countries in North America, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe. In these countries, Filipino populations are largely professionals, are more likely to have some sort of legal status, and earn higher incomes.
Filipinos working in places like Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore tend to be contract-based workers, including lower-paid service workers, and while these migrants do contribute to HTAs, they tend to do so in smaller amounts (see Table 6). However, their participation in HTAs is equally active, reflecting a cultural tradition among Filipinos to remain dedicated to their communities of origin.
It is important to note that the reach of HTAs in a given immigrant community extends beyond formal membership, as nonmembers often attend fundraising events and make donations. For example, Guyanese HTAs in the United States are usually made up of less than 20 members, but they usually receive contributions from more than 100 people, meaning that some 40,000 (or 20 percent) of all Guyanese immigrants in the United States have donated to a Guyanese HTA.
HTAs as Development Players
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) defines development as a condition that creates "an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives." A development player aims to find solutions to human needs and to offer alternative ways to promote self-sustainability.
The work of HTAs generally targets the most vulnerable populations, sometimes overlapping with development but not always. Indeed, HTAs have largely attracted attention in the development community for projects in the home country that are ongoing or support income generation (microenterprises, agricultural activities, etc.) rather than one-off projects such as the rebuilding of a church.
For example, the Sankofa Foundation, a Ghanaian diaspora organization in the Netherlands, is currently undertaking a long-term, income-generation project in rural communities in Ghana. The Sankofa Family Poultry Project mobilizes investments from Ghanaian migrants in the Netherlands to provide start-up materials and technical training so that women in Ghana can raise poultry and operate their own businesses, with the goal of becoming economically independent.
These types of projects are significant because of the potential they have to promote equity, an important component of development philosophy. They may often impact more people than remittances alone, and provide aid in communities where the capacity of the local government has fallen short.
The case of Mexico is striking in this respect. In Mexican hometowns with fewer than 3,000 people, HTA donations are equal to more than 50 percent of the money in municipal public works budgets. In towns with populations under 1,000 people, HTA donations can amount to up to seven times the public works budget, according to the findings of political scientist Manuel Orozco.
It is essential to keep in mind, however, that while these donations are channeled primarily to the poor, these resources alone do not constitute a solution to the structural constraints of the poor. Also, HTA money often fails to create financial security for households or sustainable development in a community.
While HTAs are undoubtedly improving the quality of life in the communities they serve, their influence is further limited by both funding and organizational restraints.
Group leaders, for the most part, are not necessarily trained or experienced in the organization, implementation, or evaluation of development projects. Many HTAs do not work effectively with local community stakeholders and therefore do not understand their development priorities; they also cannot ensure that the community will properly care for new facilities or donations.
Orozco has identified a series of criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of a migrant HTA as a development player (see Table 7).
In his 2005 evaluation of Mexican HTAs operating in Jerez, Zacatecas, Orozco finds that the development impact of these associations is more effective when they are more organizationally mature. In other words, the development potential of HTAs grows over time. In addition, HTAs are more effective as development players when they conduct their work in partnership with other organizations, foundations, or governments.
Opportunities for Donors and Governments
International organizations, foundations, governments, and the private sector have the potential to link their development priorities to the work of HTAs, helping them define their goals and better implement their strategies. Contributions can be both in material and manpower. Also, it is important for states and other donors to work with HTAs and other migrant organizations to develop a joint agenda that will address issues of common concern.
Both nongovernmental (NGOs) and international organizations have already formed innovative partnerships with HTAs in order to promote development. Oxfam Novib, the Dutch arm of international NGO Oxfam International, works with the African diaspora in the Netherlands to fund HTA economic development projects in places like Somalia, Ghana, and Burundi.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) of the United Nations has also spearheaded work with HTAs, teaming up with the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank to fund the work of HTAs in Mexico, Honduras, and Haiti. A second round of funding for HTA development projects will be completed through IFAD in 2007, with a focus on HTAs based in Europe.
Governments have also become involved in the development work of HTAs, and perhaps two of the most successful government-HTA collaborations have taken place in Mexico and in El Salvador. In 1993, the state government of Zacatecas, Mexico, introduced the program Dos por Uno (Two for One), in which both the federal and state governments match one dollar for each dollar that HTAs contribute to development projects in Zacatecas.
By 1999, the program had expanded to include local governments and became Tres por Uno (Three for One), encompassing not just the state of Zacatecas but also other Mexican states such as Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Michoacan. In 2005, Mexican HTAs raised about $20 million for development projects throughout Mexico, which was matched by $60 million in Mexican federal, state, and local government contributions.
In El Salvador, the national development agency FISDL developed a similar program to match the funds of Salvadoran HTAs, called Unidos por la Solidaridad (Unity for Solidarity).
Through this program, HTAs submit proposals to FISDL, which then evaluates their feasibility and responsiveness to community needs. In order to participate, HTAs must match at least 10 percent of the total cost of the project. Between 1999 and 2003, 45 projects with HTAs were executed in 27 Salvadoran municipalities, representing a total investment of $11.3 million — $7 million from FISDL, $2.3 million from municipalities, and $2.1 million from HTAs.
Finally, the private sector also has the potential to play an important role in the work of HTAs. In 2003, the Salvadoran bank Banco Agrícola launched an innovative program that matches remittance transfers made through the bank with a donation to a fund for community projects led by migrant associations.
Through this program, entitled Manos Unidas por El Salvador (United Hands for El Salvador), Salvadoran HTAs were able to bid on grants for development projects. In 2006, donations made by Banco Agrícola to HTA projects in El Salvador totaled more than $200,000 according to the Pan-American Development Foundation.
Remittance industry giant Western Union has also followed suit in Mexico, unveiling its four-for-one program in 2005. This program, modeled after the Mexican government's Tres por Uno initiative, adds an additional tier of matching funds to donations made by Mexican HTAs, up to a cap of $1.25 million.
While these partnerships are promising, there is potential for more and deeper collaboration between HTAs and both public and private donors.
Both HTAs and donors need to find a space for interaction and communication to overcome the fact that HTAs are predominantly volunteer organizations. Governments need to develop confidence-building tools and initiatives that make migrants recognize that their home-country governments are serious and committed to working with them.
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Gammage, Sarah et al. 2005. "Gender, Migration and Transnational Communities." Washington DC: Inter-American Foundation, April.
Mazzucato, Valentina et al. 2006. "Transnational Migration and the Economy of Funerals: Changing Practices in Ghana." Development and Change 37(5): 1047-1072.
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Orozco, Manuel. 2006. "Considerations on diasporas and development." Paper presented at the Role of Diasporas in Development the Homeland, June 16, George Washington University, Washington DC.
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Western Union. 2006. "Western Union Expands Initiative to Promote Community, Economic Development in Mexico; Mexican State of Michoacan the Second State to Benefit from 4x1 Program." June 23. Available online.