IAAB Conference Panel 6: Transnational Alliances: Collaborating Across Borders

This panel (the last one) is being moderated by Nooshin Hosseini
Kamiar Alaei, Harvard School of Public Health
Reverse Brain Drain

How can we clot Iran’s hemorrhaging brain drain? There are a lot of reports about the problem, but what’s the solution? There are three arguments: it’s impossible, it’s very hard, it needs a lot of resources/has a lot of limitations.

Some of the barriers are that the first generation prefers to forget the brain drain. The second generation lacks information. Iranians don’t have a good picture of what goes on in Iran; they visit for vacation only. The second generation is under pressure and doesn’t know if they’re Iranian or American. “Mohammads become Mikes” and “Alis become Allens.”

We have a lot of human and financial resources here, so what’s the problem? Based on my idea, Iranians live together but work alone. We wished that top students would get sick so we would replace them. So when we go to work, we have a hard time with teamwork. We are great at individual pursuits but have a hard time working together in many facets, including music and art. The problem is that we didn’t have any model of teamwork in Iran.

In the United States, you have a lot of models of teamwork and access to these models. Why don’t you do this here?

The second generation wants to know more about Iran but can’t reach that knowledge with existing resources. We want to put people together and start with health.

There are 70 million inhabitants in Iran, and 70% are under 30 years old. They all watch satellite TV and think America is a big party; how can we show them what life here is really like? There are huge sexuality related problems. I believe that, like birds who fly together, we have to work together among the young people and those who are drug users and infected with HIV/AIDS. We collaborate with Afghanistan and Tajikistan on HIV/AIDS, but we want to collaborate with Iranians and Americans and Iranian-Americans. The Aspen Institute and Asia Society are two organizations that facilitate these programs.

We have to change the process; not the goal, but the way. The second generation has to want to volunteer. Help by working in Iran. Our mission is to make second-generation North Americans think about coming to Iran to help. We had some students starting in 2002. In 2006, they conducted research projects that examined HIV/AIDS and TB. We wanted them to have partnership with the Iranian young generation, to help show them teamwork.

The first generation has to help the second generation. So many of the second generation are passionate, but the first generation is not supportive.

Nassim Assefi, Writer, Physician
What is Our Duty to Our Homeland?
This is not a talk about why we should increase our civic participation. It’s really a talk with what we, with our good education and privilege owe to those who are less fortunate.

What is homeland? As a proper noun it has ethnic connotations. But as a common noun, it simply connotes the country of origin. But what about us who live between two worlds?

I turned to pop culture and thought about David Cassidy, and his album “Home is Where the Heart Is”: this made more sense ot me, in that heart-head dichotomy. The way I work is very American, but my heart, my emotion, pumps straight out of the old country.

At least 150K educated people leave Iran every year. The loss of this kind of talent has significantly adverse impact on Iranian society.

There is a proliferation of Iranian talent in the United States. Given the level of educational and professional success here, the freedom here, it’s no surprise that many Iranians have no desire to return to Iran to live.

I’d like to approach the question of duty to the homeland from many perspectives. First, religious: the idea that it’s a moral obligation for the rich to help the poor is one that’s actually normative among all religions of the world.

Second, moral: there are many prominent individuals (Carnegie, Rockefeller) who did their work not for religion but for moral reasons.

Third, ethical: By foregoing the nonessential benefits of consumer society, we can prevent a lot of deserved suffering.

Fourth, economic: Society is responsible for much of one’s wealth. Social capital is responsible for about 90% of what people earn in wealthy societies (Simon).

Fifth, personal: Until a few years ago, I was living the American dream in debt, working as a doctor and volunteered my time. In 2003, I was invited to check out the status of women’s health in post-Taliban Afghanistan. One of every seven pregnant women died, and the situation was bad in the region. I couldn’t not go to Afghanistan. It was the closest place to Iran where they really needed my women’s health skills. Upon returning from Afghanistan, a lot of my materialist trappings became meaningless. I sold my house and car and started getting serious about my writing. I thought that stories would heal, and maybe stories could change people’s minds. I’ve figured out alternative ways of giving back, like giving away royalties of my book.

I’m trying to explore the notion of reverse brain drain, but through my novels. In my first novel, “Aria,” I explore grief across cultures and reverse journeys. My second novel is “Say I Am You,” is about an aid worker.

Most of us can’t just go back. We need some structure to reverse this brain drain. Many organizations, like the UN, have programs that repatriate people who have certain skills that they can take back. Advocacy, civil society projects, and media work can be done within the West.

Going back to Iran is the first step. As the diaspora comes of age now, Iranians abroad are constantly reconciling their dual identities. For those who still have a place in your hearts for Iran, you can give back and you don’t necessarily have to be wealthy or retired to do that. My practical advice is to figure out what your skills are. Do good, serving whatever population that most strongly touches your heart.

Yaser Kerachian, Knowledge Diffusion Network
Iranian Scientific Diaspora Networks
Brain drain is a global problem. There is no independent solution, but there are policies the government can implement, including the prevention policy (not allowing the brains to leave). The opposite is “brain gain” – the return option allows people to leave and then return, the diaspora option tries to get benefits from the brains wherever they end up.

Diaspora option: most don’t return anyway, they’re interested in helping their home country, it’s inexpensive, and the brains won’t be wasted. There has been lots of implementation of the diaspora option all over the world.

The Knowledge Diffusion Network was founded in 2003 by Sharif University of Technology alums working/studying in North America. They are a network and help organize visits of Iranian scholars and short-term research visits. They are also hoping to invite non-Iranian academics. They want to collaborate with Iranian student associations outside Iran.

Challenges include lack of understanding and cultural differences between Iranians in Iran and those living abroad. The criticisms of this organization include that people say we are increasing the brain drain – when speakers come in and “steal” students, for instance.

I see this conference as an opportunity to work with all these organizations here and extend the organization to other fields.

Alidad Mafinezam, Mosaic Institute
Diasporas and Development: The State of the Art
What’s significant about our time of diaspora is that many organizations have made it a point of public policy to see how the resources of diaspora can be harnessed. I’d like to give you a sense of how the idea of diasporas and development arose. I’m going to be Googling and clicking my way along to show you key documents.

It’s not hidden that ours is the age of globalization. The role of information technology has really transformed the idea of diaspora communities and development. Immigration to North America has been for people to utilize their skills acquired elsewhere, which is very different from past experiences of other diasporic groups.

The Chinese diaspora provides a good model for Iranians. Half of all investment into China annually comes from the Chinese diaspora. Indians abroad send to India $15B a year in remittances, which is why the Indian government has a specific division focusing on Non-Resident Indians. When people in host countries see these two groups, the perception of these populations is different – they are invaluable resources for connection to opportunities in their home countries.

We can’t leave everything to markets and the IMF in supporting other countries. When Iranians and the Iranian diaspora look at the world, they are being shaped in rapidly changing ways.

[There are some technical difficulties, so he is walking is through the tour]

If you want to do work in this space, see the following 9 organizations: the Migration Policy Institute (do a search for “diaspora”); Center for Global Development (search for “Devesh Kapur”); the World Bank (“Yevgeni Kuznetsov”); Compass at Oxford University; George Washington University (you have to go to the “Center for the Study of Globalization” and type in “diaspora”); Harvard University (the Harvard Global Equity Initiative – will publish an 800-word book on diasporas and development)… [there are others that were not mentioned because we ran out of time]

North America is very important because the U.S. and Canada are nations of immigrants. Even the right-wing never adopts anti-immigrant policies because they don’t work. For Iran, North America is crucial – it’s the bottom line for Iran.

I have a dream for the future, so I call myself a third generation Iranian. While I was here, my dream was not at rest and was not talked about. It’s as if we have forgotten there is a theocratic regime in Iran. We can’t talk to about return to Iran without talking about theocratic regime. Zahra Kazemi was killed in Iran. It’s as though there is nothing going on – there is a regime that has forced us to do such. This is just a comment.
Mafinezam: I alluded to this, and change does need to happen.
Kerachian: We have to start where we are, we can’t wait until the change happens because who knows how long we’ll have to wait.
Assefi: My personal approach is to work on human rights in a subversive way, through health and family planning.
Aliae: We have to learn from our history. If the government changes tomorrow, we still have a lot of problems. Iran is our country, not their country, so we have to have respect for our country.

I think one of the things we need to do is mobilize the human resources in Iran. Here in the U.S. we value things beyond grades and status; we should teach them to value those things in Iran. What is our role in doing that?
Assefi: By going back and modeling and living it, we have the best chance of bringing about change.
Aliae: Some of our students are not Iranian-Americans, but Americans. There is one student who will explain why.
Student: I go to Iran and took a class and got really interested in Islam and politics, and then plunged into that interest. I’m going to Iran this summer and hopefully I can do research interviewing clerics to see what their role as politicians and religious authorities, how their views towards HIV patients propagates negative stereotypes of HIV patients.