Harnessing Social Remittances for Africa’s Development: The Case of Skilled Returnees and Skilled Return Migrant Groups in Ghana

Mary Boatemaa Setrana and Kwaku Arhin-Sam


The impact of migration in the broader context of development has over the years been studied in relation to the gaps (e.g. brain drain) that migration creates in the home country. Gradually over the years, the debates have begun to incorporate changes in attitudes and behaviours of the people in both host and home countries with whom migrants have direct contacts. Despite its popularity, the concept of migration and development faces contestations without clear positions (Castles, de Haas, & Miller, 2009). The mere underlining assumption in development that some societies are lower and have less differentiated status and as a result, need to be moved to a higher differentiated and better status, is questioned (Hammar & Tamas, 1997: 18). Also, the relationship between the key concepts of the nexus has come under scrutiny. As de Haas (2010) pointed out, often the major criticism of migration and development is the widespread treatment of migration as an external factor that affects development, rather than one that is an inherent element of change (de Haas, 2010 cf. Borchgrevink & Erdal, 2016).

Nevertheless, the role of migration in development continues to yield evidence to support the understanding that migration plays a key role in development and subsequently the entire role of remittances in this union. That is, the migration and development nexus acknowledges the key role of remittances. Even so, the idea to ‘bring culture back into migration debates’ (Levitt & Lamba-Nieves, 2011: 2), thus, frames the role of social remittances in migration and development. Indeed, while the economic impact of financial remittances is important, and have received much attention in research and policy circles, extending the view onto non-monetary transfers is equally needed and important in the conceptualization of the nexus. Interestingly, the achievement of sustainable development goals (SDG) does not give prominent attention to the concept of social remittances. What is underlined in the SDGs is the need to leverage financial remittances (Target 10.c reduce to less than 3% the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance

Social remittances for Africa 139 corridors with costs higher than 5%). An examination of the nexus between social remittances and SDGs exposes the invisible and unrecognized achievement of many of these goals through social remittances. For instance, social remittances of returnees have impact on the following SDGs: Goal 3, ‘Good health and well-being for people’; Goal 7, Target 10.7 to facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people; and Goal 9, ‘Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation’. These are explored in the discussion of the findings.

Even though the non-financial aspects of remittances hardly have footprints in the SDGs, scholars of transnational migration have recognized the enormous contribution of social remittances.

The coining of the term ‘social remittances’ by Levitt (1996) delineates economic and non-monetary remittances (Nowicka & Serbedzija, 2016). Among such non-monetary transfers include information, values, and ideas (Levitt, 1998; Levitt & Lamba-Nieves, 2011; Grabowska & Garapich, 2016). Despite these growing interests, there is still more to be achieved with regard to evidence-based research on the nuances and impact of social remittances. This chapter contributes to the on-going scholarship on social remittances by exploring how return migrants utilize their knowledge, values, and networks acquired in the home country. Using Ghana as a case, the chapter examines the reasons, knowledge, and values of skilled return migrants to Ghana and how they mobilize themselves for development of the home country as well as sustain their return.

First, the paper provides an understanding of the social dimension of remittances. This is followed by a conceptual framing of social remittances in the context of return migration. Then there is a presentation on the elements of social remittances in the Ghanaian context and how they impact on the achievement of the SDGs. The paper ends with conclusions.

Understanding the social dimension of remittances

According to Cliggett (2003), money continues to have symbolic value for all people involved in remittances. However, in recent times, scholars of transnational migration are gradually shifting their attention to recognize the fact that remittances from migrants are more than money. Social remittances are the constant iterative circulation of ideas, values, and practices, and are also about demonstrating power and success (Levitt, 2016). It is an iterative circulation because what is remitted in social remittances is, in fact, influenced by the different places that the person who is transmitting the remittances has moved through and what she or he has been exposed to. These accumulated ‘social wealth’ gathered between the different times and spaces is thus circulated. It is also important to acknowledge the power constellations that are inherent within these transfers. Within this understanding, migrants’ pre-migration experiences and exposure in the country of origin, in addition to exposures abroad, are important (Arhin-Sam, 2019). These exposurescan influence the kind of non-monetary transfers as well. A migrant or returnee’s knowledge of the country of origin is important because for social remittances to be successfully exchanged, there is the need for what Levitt (2016) calls a ‘cultural and discursive backdrop’. That is, while people may be considered to have acquired new ideas and behaviours as a result of moving around, it is the cultural and discursive background (shared in common with the origin society) that makes them more open to new ideas and behaviours, and vice versa. In other words, a stranger cannot exchange new ideas and behaviours as easily as a native can.

As with financial remittance, social remittances also demonstrate the power of success between the remitter and the receiver of social transfers (Levitt, 2016). That is, in whichever form social remittances take one should be aware of the power relations between the sender and the receiver. Often, the person transmitting social remittance comes up as the successful one (for having acquired new ideas and behaviour), and, with such projection and power, they are able to transmit social remittance to the less successful person. The fact that people can choose to whom to remit what social remittance further underscores the purposeful nature of social remittances and the power of the remitter (Levitt, 2016).

The idea of social transfers is not new to the migration literature. Yet by coining and revisiting social remittances Levitt (1998, 2001) and Levitt and Lamba-Nieves (2011, 2013) categorized social remittances into three domains: (1) normative structures; (2) systems of practices; (3) social capital. Normative structures are ideas, values, and beliefs. The application and the practising of ideas, values, and believes through actions make up the systems of practices, while harnessed values and norms, including social and political networks, form the social capital of social remittances (Levitt, 1998, 2001). For social remittances to occur, one or all of the following must take place: migrants have to return to live in or visit their communities of origin; non-migrants must visit those in the receiving country; or letters, videos, cassettes, e-mails, messaging, or telephone calls must be exchanged between migrants and the home communities (Levitt, 1998; Levitt & Lamba-Nieves, 2011, 2013). At the same time, in the case of return migrants, social remittances can be exchanged face to face in addition to the above transfer channels. Social remittances can also be collective in nature when individual exchanges are gathered as part of their role in an organization or group and are used in organizational and group settings (Levitt & Lamba-Nieves, 2013). Examples of such collective social remittances are old schoolmate associations and hometown associations, among others.

As with many social science concepts, social remittance faces distinct challenges aside from the critiques for Levitt’s definition and categories of the concept. First, it is imperative to acknowledge that the impact of social remittances is not always positive (Levitt & Lamba-Nieves, 2013). The existence of power relations means that there is the likelihood that such influences are used negatively or abused for personal gains of the one

Social remittances for Africa 141 remitting, for either the short term or the long term. Also, the ideas, values, and behaviours that are remitted may be negative to the receiving society and its norms. Second, social remittance as a term is still underdeveloped theoretically (Grabowska & Garapich, 2016). Third, with all the attention it is getting, the discourses on non-monetary transfer which forms social remittances are still intertwined in the literature with the dominant economic views on remittances (Nowicka & Serbedzija, 2016). For instance, within the broader migration system theories, de Haas (2010) sees social remittances as contextual and as a second-order effect of migration by calling it ‘migration-driven forms of cultural change’ (p. 1592). Indeed, every economic activity may have a social function (Levitt, 2016) and social remittances are seen as a derivative of‘economic remittances’ (Paasche, 2016). Nevertheless, while scholars are busy devising ways to keep social remittances within economic remittances, the fact is that remittances come in different forms, transferred via different channels, and affect different people in the migration cycle. The imperative is to find ways to fully understand social remittances and their transformative roles.

Conceptual framing of social remittance in the context of return migration

Remittances are divers and context-dependent but not a unitary package (Durand, 1994; cited in Goldring, 2003). The social, political, and economic status of migrants who transfer social remittances is also different, and likewise are the non-migrants who are involved in these transfers. The differences in status of both migrants and non-migrants also determine the influence of social remittances in terms of impact (Levitt, 2001), for example, between men and women, married couples, and single men and women. In this chapter, therefore, we refer to social remittances as diffusion and circulation of knowledge, technology skills, political identities, ideas, values, and different social practices into both sending and receiving countries (Levitt, 1998; Fitzgerald, 2000; Nicholas, 2002). Specifically, we look at social remittances from the perspective of return migrants in the home country.

First, social remittances are constrained in societies where the remittance is expected to impact when the said society is relatively different from the source society of the remittance (Levitt, 1996; Levitt & Lamba-Nieves, 2013). Even so, the relative difference in West African (Ghanaian) and Western societies (many of the return migrants in this study came from Western Europe and North America) is the starting point where the social remittance assessment is conceptualized. That is, we see certain socio-cultural values, ideas, and practices in Ghana to be relatively different from Western countries.

Second, social remittances are not only exchanges but more than the mere fact that people have acquired new values, ideas, or practices and are ready to share. There is the need for a broader cultural background that makes social remittances exchanges possible by making people open to the newidea, practice, and behaviour (Levitt, 2016). Here we see returnees and nonmigrants sharing to some degree similarities in terms of knowledge of the country of origin. Considering that we look at returnees who started their migration journey from the home country, their pre-migration experiences on certain ideas, values, and practices are not entirely different from nonmigrants (Arhin-Sam, 2019). Social remittances are therefore chiefly enabled if the one remitting the new ideas and values understands and is knowledgeable of the old ideas of the values of the receiver. The power dynamic, however, is derived from the influence that the person remitting the new ideas and values has, which in many instances conies from the show of social, political, and economic superiority (Levitt, 2016). Therefore, we are aware of the inequalities that could be created by this idea of differences. On the one hand, returnees are likely to assume that the country of destination in this context is a better environment where they had acquired some knowledge and values that need to be imposed on the Ghanaian non-migrant. They may neglect the values of the home country and replace them with the acquired values with the assumption that everything ‘Western’ is the best. On the other hand, the expectations of the non-migrant or families left behind towards these destinations contribute to the perceived inequalities embedded in social remittances that are not rightfully defined. In cases where return migrants have come with certain luxurious and elegant lifestyles, the youth are tempted to assume that ‘streets of destination countries (especially advanced Western countries) are made of gold’.

Third, we see social remittance transfers from returnees as potentially constrainable in the context of the home country’s norms, ideas, knowledge, and values. In the definition of social remittances, Levitt (1998) mentions social capital in addition to norms and practices. As part of social remittances, social capital in this paper explores the collective social norms, networks, and trust (Putnam, 2000) either among returnees or between returnees and nonmigrants or among non-migrants that can improve the efficiency of society. For example, returnee groups, old school associations, and others serve as social networks. Also, we align social capital to ‘individual’s obligations and expectations that take the form of a “capital” invested in one person for future use’ (Coleman, 1988: 2 cited in Markley, 2011).

Fourth, in both individual and collective sense, the conceptualization of social remittances in this chapter follows the three distinctions of social remittances proposed by Levitt (1998) and Levitt and Lamba-Nieves (2013). Even so, returnees come back to the home countries with ideas that are often based on expectations, and values and beliefs that are informed by their interactions in the home society. These normative structures include how, after return, the individual returnee approaches household responsibilities, including participation in religious, political, and other social activities and groups. For example, the attitude of returnees towards social institutions like marriage, funerals, and festivals and the intrinsic gender and social roles are capped within the normative structure of social remittances.

Furthermore, the ideas, values, and approaches towards social, political, and religious activities are put into actual practice when returnees participate in these systems or reject them and/or set up entirely new systems of practice. In whichever way, the returnees put into practice certain systems of norms, values which define how they interact in groups, generate networks, and establish management and leading roles. These systems of practices may confirm, contradict, or complement existing systems of practices in the return society.

Fifth, skilled returnees constitute powerful people who both have the financial resources and possess certain information, ideas, values, and behaviours which can enable them to benefit from the social and political networks that they interact within. These social capitals provide the platform for harnessing different social, cultural, economic, and political values and norms (Levitt, 1998, 2001, 2016). These power relations, often in favour of returnees, can be further exploited by returnees as a group or as individual returnees to the disadvantage of non-migrants.

Lastly, the period of impact of social remittances can be both short- and long-term. In the short term, we conceptualize the impact of social remittances by returnees as part of the negotiation strategies with non-migrants as they resettle. For example, the display of differences in ideas and values and the show of acquired new behaviour and ideas in the short term can impact the society if these ideas are accepted. The returnee, in this case, gets the benefits of the short-term impact of what he or she is remitting. In the long term, social remittances can impact both the society and the returnee after the potential clash of these new ideas and behaviour with old ideas and behaviours. The resulting impact begins to manifest when the negotiations of these exchanges have taken place and the cultural and discursive backdrops are ripe for long-term impact. We analyse the timeframe for the impact of social remittances in the discussion part of the paper.


The data used to write the chapter was gathered from secondary sources, such as books, and administrative reports from state and private agencies. Primary data were collected through oral communication with 15 return migrants. Phone interviews were conducted with a leading international return association in Ghana. The chapter also benefitted from research works and publications of the authors. The returnees interviewed were between the ages of 24 and 45 and above, with a majority of them within the ages of 25—34 and 35—44. The returnees were within their productive ages. Male respondents were nine, while females were six. Their educational levels were high, with seven of them having a graduate certificate; four had post-graduate certificate, and five had undergraduate certificate. All of them said they had either furthered their education or acquired some kind of training or skills abroad. The returnees were found in all sectors of the

Ghanaian labour market with the majority in the education sector as lecturers or researchers, four medical doctors, three bankers, two consultants, and two administrators. This is attributed to the fact that recent recruitment of skilled personnel appears limited to the teaching sector as well as some non-governmental organizations (compare Anarfi & Jagare, 2005). Six of the returnees were married, while the rest were single, divorced, or separated and widowed. Many of the return migrants had lived in the UK, Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, and Italy (Refer to Table 8.1). The average time spent abroad was about nine years. The majority of return migrants who came to Ghana had completed their training or ended their contract abroad or wanted to start their own businesses or projects. Further to these reasons, the returnees had much more expectations towards home because they felt with their higher level of education, they could easily find jobs in Ghana and also be fulfilled in Ghana in terms of career aspirations than elsewhere. Several socio-economic factors attracted the return of these migrants (Setrana & Tonah, 2016) (Table 8.1):

the stellar performance of the national economy during the period of the researches; the achievement of a middle-income country status in 2008; the per capita income reached US SI500 in 2009 as well as the income earned from the production of gold, cocoa, tourism, exports of non-traditional goods and remittances from Ghanaians abroad, Ghana started the commercial production of oil in December 2010. These developments resulted in considerable confidence in the economy by foreign and local investors. Furthermore, macro-economic conditions relevant to the performance of any business venture were quite favourable. Economic growth reached a peak of 14.4 per cent in 2011. The rate of inflation and interest rates were falling and the exchange rate was relatively stable. Thus, the general economic conditions for doing business in Ghana were quite favourable during the period of research (in Setrana & Tonah, 2016:553).

The context: elements of social remittances

Return migrants are able to recoup the benefits of their networks at both ends of migration based on the kind of investment they made to sustain and build the trust of the networks. Social remittances are presented as any simplistic measure of societal values, norms, and ideas. However, unlike financial remittances which can be measured quantitatively, it is difficult to do the same with social remittances. To better understand social remittances is to rather talk about the nuances and details of what make up social remittances and how they impact left behind families as well as the migrants themselves. For this section, we focus on the networks, values, norms, and knowledge transfer of return migrants.

Table 8.1 Background characteristics of the returnees



Percentage (%)


















Married status


























Medical Doctor









Country of Destination




United Kingdom






United States ot America









Transnational networks as forms of social remittances

The transnational network of the return migrants can be categorized into two based on the nature of contacts (Setrana & Tonah, 2016: 556—558). These categories are very relevant to our discussion on social remittances of return migrants. The first is a group of professionals, such as doctors and university lecturers who have ties with former colleagues and institutions abroad. Through these transnational networks, the return migrants learn new skills and technology and earn some additional income. These transnational networks allow the returnees to spend their sabbaticals in some hospitals and universities abroad. The visits are, among others, a means by which returnees learn new and modern techniques that are relevant in their fields of work. Such transnational professional networks have a positive benefit for both the home and the host countries. One of the key elements that enabled the return migrants to continue with this kind of network was either they had permanent residence, citizenship of the destination or could easily acquire visitors’ visas from the home country. The story of Kweku tells the story of such returnees.

Kweku the forty years health professional migrated from his home region in Ghana after his vocation training and some years of practising as a nurse to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. He migrated to the United States where he started his training as a medical doctor. After his studies in the United States, he moved on to the United Kingdom where he had the opportunity to specialise and also work with one of the renowned hospitals. In the early 2000s, Kweku returned to Ghana permanently and has since then been working as a medical health professional in the country. His former employers abroad sometimes call him to help out in the hospital, especially during the summer breaks. He confirmed that the intermittent call for support gives him the opportunity to earn more income as well as learn new skills in his area of specialisation. He is a member of the Medical Association in both Ghana and the UK. With his kind of profession and his previous travelling experience, he has never been refused a visa.

(Kweku, interview in Accra)

The second group of transnational networks consists of returnees who have business collaboration with foreign partners abroad (Setrana & Tonah, 2016: 557). These partners provide financial and/or technical support to the business here in Ghana. The partners sustain their relationship on a reciprocal basis; both the returnee who serves as the business associate in Ghana and the foreign partner enjoy benefits from the collaboration. For example, Ama has a business partner who supplies her with electrical accessories. She explained their relationship thus:

Ama, the 30 years old lady migrated to the Netherlands in search of a better life. In 2009, she decided to return to Ghana permanently because she had managed to earn some income and also pursued her diploma education in Information systems. She felt satisfied and thought she could find a better job in Ghana and also help her to be with her family, and settle down for marriage since she was growing in age. Prior to her decision to return permanently to Ghana, she discussed with some of her colleagues to trade in electrical accessories, especially the unused electrical gadgets. With this agreement, she returned to Ghana in 2009 and since then, her friends have supplied her shop with these accessories. The deal is that her colleagues in the Netherlands and even sometimes those livingin other countries ship her the goods so that she pays for them after-sales. The business has expanded and employs other Ghanaians as well.

(Ama, interview in Accra)

In the case of Ama, she had acquired further knowledge from the country of destination which she didn’t have prior to migration. She returns with knowledge in information systems which helps her set up her own business and employs others to reduce the unemployment rate in the country. She also finds herself in a network she is benefitting from to support and sustain her business in Ghana. The knowledge has had a triple positive effect on her as a migrant, the community, and the nation as a whole. The amount earned from the business is used to improve the livelihoods of the migrant, her family and friends, as well as other non-migrants.

Home-grown return networks as forms of social remittances

Apart from transnational ties, current trends in returnee networks also show an increasing number of home-grown networks. In Ghana, returnees are heterogeneous, spread across different parts of the country and involved in many activities and professions (Arhin-Sam, 2019). Nevertheless, returnees still organize themselves into many networks such as forming returnee groups. Here, the social, professional, and cultural groupings of returnees are the focus.

According to Arhin-Sam (2019), home-grown return networks in Ghana can be grouped into external networks and internal networks. External networks are those that come about as a result of institutions or organizations whose efforts create platforms that bring together return migrants in the home country. These platforms can be governmental or non-governmental. Examples of government network platforms are the Diaspora Affairs Bureau, and Ghana National Investment Promotion Council. These governmental institutions specifically organize events and outreach programs that create avenues for returnees to mingle and interact. Non-governmental local institutions that provide networking platforms for returnees include professional associations such as the Ghana Medical Association (GMA), the Ghana Bar Association (GBA), and the Ghana Chamber of Commerce (GCoC). Similarly, returnees’ other institutions and setups such as universities provide networking opportunities for returnee professors and lecturers.

International organizations and embassies of other countries are among the external platforms for return migrants’ mobilization. These institutions mobilize their alumni to take part in voluntary activities using their acquired experience and knowledge during their stay in the host country. Mostly, embassies organize exchange programmes or give scholarship to Ghanaian citizens to take part in various activities with the aim of knowledge exchanges and capacity building. Once they return, the embassies organize them to give back to their communities through either policy or voluntary services.

Examples are the US Department of State, British Council, the Dutch embassy as well as the German embassy, German Development Cooperation, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), among others. For example, the Centre for International Migration’s (CIM) programme under the German development cooperation (GIZ) organizes programmes to bring together returnees from Germany. Aside these international organizations, some Western country universities have alumni networks (German Academic Exchange Service [DAAD] alumni network,1 Harvard University Alumni network, etc.) and foreign language/cultural centres such as Alliance Française and Goethe-Institut. These networks are organized to share information with returnees but also to mobilize the transfers of social remittances from returnees.

Internal networks are homegrown returnee networks that are set up by returnees themselves usually informed by sharing of information and social events. An example is Ahaspora.2 These returnees-initiated networks become trans-local spaces. For example. Gene, a human resource professional who returned from the UK, shared insights on some of the returnee associations:

‘Ahaspora’ is one of these return groups. It is a group of networks of young Ghanaian professionals who have lived or been educated outside Ghana and have returned home. We want to use our knowledge, skills and resources to make Ghana a better place to live. For those of us in Ghana, we tend to meet. I also belong to a group called the Inter-nations. They are also another returnee group from all over the world as well. I belong to these groups because they provide the platform for young professionals like us to impact positively on our nation Ghana.

(Gene, interview in Accra)

In addition, many returnees mobilize themselves on lines of alumni, cities where they lived abroad and even from countries where they have returned from and according to city or village in Ghana where some of these returnees originate. Returnee networks/groups are continuations of diaspora communities back home. Thus, due to many ethnic diaspora associations abroad (Manuh, 1998; Byfield, 2000; Mohamoud, 2003), when members of these communities return, they tend to continue to organize themselves along these lines.

Returnee networks are also used as ways to mobilize resources that are remitted into the home community. For example, Nii shared one of the activities of the Ahaspora network:

When I realized that I really wanted to stay, I started looking for new networks, new friends and came across ‘Ahaspora’. They know how the snow-ball thing goes. Now people know that I’m here, students are coming and I’m mentoring and coaching and supervising them. Ahaspora has this mentoring program where they pair returnees professionals with high school students and youth so that we can mentor these young people. It is a way for us to impact the new generation.

(Nii, Interview in Accra)

The complexities of gendered norms as a form of social remittances

Here in Ghana if you are above 30 and are not married people look at you as if something is wrong with you. For me, I am changing that by working on my business and showing success. My girls who work with are all learning from how I work with professionalism and therefore I am not afraid if am not around. Some men see returnee women as easy to “sleep” around with only because we returnees show' that we are independent women and therefore can decide who we want and do not want to be with regardless.

(Abena, Interview in Accra)

Showing a sense of independence and non-reliance on men is thus seen as being contradictory to the social structure. Nevertheless, a reflection on these social values and the desire to affect social structures are among the ways in which returnees’ shape gender perspectives and expectations as ways of social remittance. The gendered norms usually acquired from Western countries by returnees may not align with existing traditional norms. For instance, the Ghanaian environment is mainly patriarchy; women are expected to lead a certain kind of life in order to attract the necessary respect from their male counterparts. While men are accorded much respect back home, women returnees rather face difficulties because they are compelled to return to the traditional norms of men as breadwinners and women as housewives. In that sense, what happens is that the acquired empowerment and values the women return with are shelved by families and communities. The few women who plan to overlook such comments are nicknamed as in the story of Abena.

Some return couples admitted the challenging nature of sharing household responsibilities with their partners upon coming back to live in Ghana. Adwoa and Kojo have such experience:

Adwoa and Kojo are both professionals in different fields. Adwoa is a nutritionist who runs her own consultancy as well as work full time in a hospital. She acquired her master’s degree in the UK. Kojo her husband is a civil engineer who works with a construction company. They both have returned to live in Ghana with their three kids. Adwoa has a bitter experience upon return. She thinks that Kojo is not helpful as he used to be. To Adwoa, she is not sure if he is the same man he lived with the UK. She feels she is overburdened with the house duties as well as the caring for the children. She does all these in addition to her job as a career woman. Unfortunately, Kojo has the same feeling towards Adwoa. Kojo complains about the attitude of not contributing to the running of the house financially. Kojo thinks his wife has enough money because of her job, just as he does. So, he has decided that so long as the wife refuses to contribute financially as they did in the UK, he has also resolved not to involve himself in any house chores because he is the breadwinner. Kojo said he was sad because sometimes he had to eat from restaurants just because his wife refused to cook.

Nonetheless, women like Adwoa also now desire for duties to be shared, which was the practice abroad. However, they found it more challenging to retain such arrangements, although they perceived them as good values. This finding supports the literature that says that women enjoyed a more independent lifestyle abroad, partly because of their experience of paid work in a more open society (Kosack, 1976; Phizacklea, 1983; Anarfi, Kwankye, & Ahiadeke, 2005). As a result of these restraining roles imposed by local traditions and cultural norms, some marriages could not be sustained upon return, and among the returnees of this study, some women divorced their partners and left the country while the men stayed to marry new wives. Some male returnees interviewed had re-married, while one was in the process of making a new marriage proposal because their intended wives decided not to live with them in Ghana. In the case of a returnee couple — Isaiah and his wife — the continuous contention over these housekeeping duties and financial obligations, and the wife’s inability to cope with the challenges on return led to a break-up of their marriage. Isaiah is now re-married and lives in Ghana with his new family, while the ex-wife has relocated back overseas.

Harnessing social remittances for sustainable development

The nexus between social remittances and the SDGs is important but complex. Leveraging social remittances is key to the sustainable development of many African countries, of which Ghana is one. Unlike financial remittances, social remittances have not received attention in the SDGs. Yet, the voluntary return of skilled migrants with the intentions of finding better opportunities at home constitutes social remittances and an achievement of the SDG Goal 10, Target 10.7, which seeks to facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility oj people. Encouraging the return of skilled migrants promotes humane and dignified homecoming. The stories of Kojo, Adwoa, Ama, and Kwaku who returned voluntarily show that they prepared their return by furthering their education abroad and expanding their transnational networks. Ghana and other countries receiving such skilled returnees have less burden promoting the economic inclusion of such skilled returnees. Governments per SDG Goal 10, Target 10.2 are compelled to provide support to all persons, including the economic reintegration of returnees; it is worth noting that the greatest burden taken off African governments is when the

Social remittances for Africa 151 returnees come home with skills, knowledge, and capital to start their own businesses or fill in the vacancy needs of a country. The government is left with fewer mechanisms of reintegrating them into their social environments, even though studies have shown that, in Ghana, families provide the most support to their return migrants (Setrana & Okyerefo, 2018; Arhin-Sam, 2019). Related to the SDG Target 10.2, which focusses on empowering/pro-moting the social, economic, and political inclusion of all, is the creation of external and internal networks known as the homegrown return networks. The networks support the social and psychological inclusion of their members into the Ghanaian structures. Aside economic benefits, the formation of returnee networks along the lines of socio-cultural and professional groups provide returnees with mechanisms for social, political, and psychological reintegration. These networks support their members to overcome the challenges of return and reintegration and aid their sustainable return.

One of the latent functions of such networks is the creation of a category of class with their own sets of lifestyles and regulations which widens the income and inequality gap. Non-migrants feel pressurised to migrate and acquire certain qualifications in order to ‘belong’ to this growing upper class. Added to these challenges is the negative feedback this growing upper class has on the non-migrant youth or unsuccessful potential migrants. While the return of skilled migrants promotes safe, regular, and orderly migration, the feedback loop from these returnees can exacerbate the desire of the youth to migrate by any means, whether ‘regular or unregular’, ‘safe or unsafe’, ‘orderly or unorderly’, in order to acquire such resources to belong to the increasing upper class. It was usual for returnees to be immersed in visits and telephone calls from friends and relatives, many of whom expect to be given gifts and support in one form or the other. Some of the presents given away by the returnees in the first few weeks of returning home include clothing, perfumes, mobile phones, cameras, toiletries, footballs, as well as cash donations to relatives and friends. Although these may be described as burdensome by the return migrants, it must also be acknowledged that they are a means by which returnees gain social acceptance into the family and communities in Ghana. To some extent, the returnees themselves contribute to the kind of behaviour that is expected of them in their communities. Having ‘seen the world’, they exhibit an arrogant and superior attitude (King, 2000). In some parts of Ghana, the behaviour of returnees reflected the irritation of modern imagery of social status and therefore previously known as ‘Burgers’ (Nieswand, 2011). In terms of behavioural changes, people from the supposedly more developed countries exhibited certain traits in terms of language and the level of confidence espoused make them stand out differently from others. According to Dahya (1973), these kinds of attitudes become more symbolic since returnees are trying to present themselves as part of the new middle class. In many instances these attitudes reinforce non-migrants’ perception on returnees (Arhin-Sam, 2019) as well as motivate non-migrant youth to migrate mostly using irregular channels.

Kwaku, the return medical practitioner, through his transnational network, enhances his skills continually. Although he earns money, his skills and knowledge contribute to Goal 3 of the SDG, ‘good health and well-being for people’. As part of this SDG, countries are encouraged to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. Among the various measures is to reduce the gap between doctor-patient ratio and improve maternal and child mortality in some African countries such as Ghana. Hence, among the various means of leveraging social remittances is for the government of Ghana to motivate short- and long-term return of medical doctors like Kwaku. Such initiatives, as hinted earlier, have been carried out by IOM under the Migration for Development in Africa (MIDA) project and GIZ under the return experts’ program (Setrana, 2019).

One of the ways of promoting SDG Goal 9, ‘Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation’, is through the skills and knowledge return migrants bring to Ghana. Ama, the entrepreneur, and the members of the Ahaspora create small-, medium-, and large-scale businesses. These businesses add value to the Ghanaian goods, create jobs, and pay taxes to government, among others. The return migrants interviewed foster innovation and resilience for their own enterprises. Employment creation has a ripple effect on the well-being of the returnee as well as generating income through taxes for the country’s economy. However, most of these enterprises struggle to survive due to the absence of government support. The government has the responsibility to leverage such social remittances in order to achieve the full potential benefits of these enterprises by creating an enabling business environment for these businesses to thrive in. Financial and business strategic fora should be organized frequently to support the initiatives of the existing platforms of the return networks. Concessions to support return migrant businesses should be enhanced to sustain return migrants’ enterprises for the economic growth of Ghana. Additionally, the home-grown networks assist returnees to sustain their return and reintegration into the home society (Arhin-Sam, 2019). They provide information on useful and important events and needs. They also engage in the development of the communities.

Migration empowers both the Ghanaian man and woman. Once couples or individuals migrate, they tend to acquire some flexible gender roles contrary to rigid patriarchal norms in many traditional contexts. The stories of Adwoa and Ama are examples of such skilled female return migrants who have been empowered through their migration experiences abroad. However, the challenge is how to ensure that these acquired values and norms are perpetuated and enjoyed in a male-dominated environment. The home country context, in this case, prevents the women from exercising their obtained values. Although the females have all it takes to promote SDG 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls), its transfer into such a male-dominated environment makes the women vulnerable. Ama and Adwoa have overcome these hurdles by forgoing what many women cherish in the traditional custom, such as having a husband. They are labelled by society as women of deviant attitudes just because they want to assert their rights and apply the learned values from migration. They can make an impact on other young girls only through such means.

Some return migrants were concerned with what they considered to be the excessive religiosity of Ghanaian residents (Setrana & Tonah, 2014; Setrana & Okyerefo, 2018). They were alarmed by the number of churches in Ghana. Returnees were amazed about the ease with which religious explanations were provided as a cure for all sorts of challenges in life and the impact of such attitudes on residents. Though they considered themselves to be religious, their experiences abroad, in largely secular environments, had shown them the importance and limits of religious explanations. It was difficult for some returnees to ‘comprehend the ridiculousness associated with the number of hours Ghanaians spend in churches instead of engaging in productive activities, only for them thereafter to beg for alms’. The return migrants describe the excessive religiosity of Ghanaians as unproductive, having a negative impact on the amount of time spent on making economic progress in their workplaces. One of the skilled returnees said, ‘I am so upset with my own staff. Time for work is spent in religious gathering ... I wonder how they can improve their economic statuses when they engage in such’ (Eselali, interview in Dormaa, March 2015).

As we have shown, the impact of social remittances in the Ghanaian context is both short term and long term in nature. In the short term, returnees are challenged by their own new ideas, values, and behaviours which are sometimes in contrast with the society of origin. On the one hand, such an impact may be negative as it discourages, demotivates, and leads to lack of sense of belonging and less productivity (Arhin-Sam, 2019). On the other hand, social remittances can have short-term positive impact for returnees through the knowledge transfers within their networks that can be harnessed for reintegration purposes. The long-term impact of social remittances in the Ghanaian context is visible from the increasing change in taste, ideas, values, and practices that continue to challenge existing cultural and discursive backgrounds. The long-term impacts result in changing attitudes towards work habits, entrepreneurial behaviours, shifts in gender roles and norms, social tastes, and the overall increase in returnee networks and groups.


The invisible nature of social remittances presents its complexities and challenges with regard to measuring its impact on sustainable development. It is a hard to define and conceptualize concept that can further be disaggregated. Social remittances have the potential to affect many of the SDGs if only it is made less complex in its definition and conceptualization. A more friendly approach to the concept can attract more governments, policymakers, and governments to tap into such aspects of development. The point is that many of such stakeholders do not envisage the direct impact because it cannot be quantified in economic terms. It has mostly been studied in qualitative terms. Other critics have also complained about the expensive cost associated with governments’ attempt to harness social remittances for development.

Although much of the discussions on remittances are on the financial aspect, this study among return migrants also shows the social dimensions of the remittances which include the transfer of knowledge, skills, values, and networks, among others. Harnessing social remittances for the achievement of sustainable development is possible under many circumstances. The return of skilled migrants is a source of brain gain to Ghana. Qualitatively, they contribute enormously to the achievement of the following SDGs: Goal 3, ‘Good health and well-being for people’; SDG Goal 5, ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. Goal 7, Target 10.7, to facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people; Goal 9, ‘Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation’. Despite the positive impacts, it is worth noting that they also have a negative impact on the country through the creation of an upper-middle-class through the kind of wealth they exhibit. The increasing migration of youth through all kinds of channels and the taste for foreign goods by local people eventually have a negative impact on the promotion of Ghanaian goods.

The study recommends a more comparative and large-scale data collection on social remittances and its impact for countries of origin. There is also the need for governments, through diaspora and migration policies, to create an enabling environment for return migrants to contribute to the home country economy through the knowledge, values, and norms gained.


  • 1 http://ic.daad.de/accra/alumni.htm.
  • 2 ‘Aha’ is a Twi (Akan) word for ‘Here’ and ‘spora’ is a stem of Diaspora. This name befits our status of being home as global citizens. The group aims to bridge the gap between those who are ‘Alias’, Ahasporans, and Diasporans, by sharing ideas and experiences to build a true ‘Gateway to Africa’, http://www.ahaspora.com/.


Anarfi, J.K., & Jagare, S. (2005). Towards the Sustainable Return of West African Transnational Migrants: What are the Options? Conference paper. World Bank Conference: New Frontiers of Social Policy Development in a Globalizing World. Arusha.

Anarfi, J.K., Kwankye, S., & Ahiadeke, C. (2005). Migration, Return and Impact in Ghana: A Comparative Study of Skilled and Unskilled Transnational Migrants. In Manuh, T. (ed.), /If Home in the World? International Migration and Development in Contemporary Ghana and ITesf Africa (pp. 204—226). Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers.

Arhin-Sam, K. (2019). Return Migration, Reintegration and Sense of Belonging: The Case of Skilled Ghanaian Returnees. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlag. https://doi. org/16.5771/9783845294223.

Boccagni, P.. & Decinio, F. (2013). Mapping Social Remittances. Migration Letters, 10(1), 1-10.

Borchgrevink, K., & Erdal, M.B. (2016). The Circulation of Transnational Islamic Charity In Migration and Social Remittances in a Global Europe (pp. 259—280). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Byfield, J. (2000). Introduction: Rethinking the African Diaspora. African Studies Review, 43(1). 1-9.

Carling, J. (2008). The Determinants of Migrant Remittances. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 24(3). 582-599.

Castles, S., de Haas, H., & Miller, MJ. (2009). The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 4th edition. New York: Guilford Press.

Cliggett, L. (2003). Gift Remitting and Alliance Building in Zambian Modernity: Old Answers to Modern Problems. American Anthropologist, 105(3), 543-552.

Dahya, B. (1973). Pakistanis in Britain: Transients or settlers? Race, 14(3), 241-277.

De Haas, H. (2010). Migration and Development: A Theoretical Perspective. International Migration Review, 44(1), 227-264.

Durand, J. (1994). Mas alia de la linea: Patrones migratoroi entre Mexico y Estados Unidos. In Goldring, L. (ed.) (2003), Re-thinking Remittances: Social and Political Dimensions of Individual and Collective Remittances. Toronto: York University Press.

Fitzgerald. D. (2000). Negotiating Extra-Territorial Citizenship: Mexican Migration and the Transnational Politics of Community. La Jolla, CA: Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.

Grabowska, I., & Garapich, M.P. (2016). Social Remittances and Intra-EU Mobility: Non-Financial Transfers Between U.K. and Poland. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42(13). 2146-2162.

Hammar, T, & Tamas, K. (1997). Why Do People Go or Stay? In Hammar, T, Brochmann, G., Tamas, K., & Faist, T. (eds.), International Migration, Immobility and Development (pp. 1—19). Oxford: Berg.

King, R. (2000). Generalizations from the History of Return Migration. In Ghosh, B. (ed.), Return Migration, Journey of Hope or Despair? Geneva: IOM/UN.

Kosack, G. (1976). Migrant Women: The Move to Western Europe - A Step towards Emancipation? Sage Journals, /7(4), 369—380.

Levitt, P. (2016). Social Remittances and More: Reflections on 25 Years of Migration Studies. Central and Eastern European Migration Review, 5(2), 15—19. https:// doi.org/10.17467/ceemr.2017.02.

Levitt, P. (2001). Transnational Migration: Taking Stock and Future Directions.

Global Networks, 1(3), 195-216.

Levitt, P. (1998). Social Remittances: Migration Driven Local-Level Forms of Cultural Diffusion. The International Migration Review, 32(4), 926—948.

Levitt, P. (1996). SocialRemittances: AConceptualToolforUnderstandingMigrationand Development. Working PaperSeries, 96(4), 1—24.Retrievedfromhttp://citeseerx.ist.psu. edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=BA74A366998C0B36D81BDFF333AFF023?-doi=

Levitt, P., & Lamba-Nieves, D. (2013). Rethinking Social Remittances and the Migration-Development Nexus from the Perspective of Time. Migration Letters, 10(1), 11-22.

Levitt, P., & Lamba-Nieves, D. (2011). Social Remittances Reconsidered. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 57(1), 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691 83X.2011.521361.

Manuh, T. (1998). Ghanaians, Ghanaian Canadians, and Asantes: Citizenship and Identity Among Migrants in Toronto. Africa Today, 45(3), 481-493. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4187240.

Markley, E. (2011). Social Remittances and Social Capital: Values and Practices of Transnational Social Space. Quality of Life, 22(4), 365—378.

Mohamoud, A. (2003). African Diaspora and African Development. Background Paper for AfroNeth, Presented December, 5. Retrieved from http://www.diaspora-centre. org/DOCS/Diaspora_Developme.pdf.

Nicholas, G. (2002). Dynamic Effects of Migrant Remittances on Growth: An Econometric Model with an Application to Mediterranean Countries. Discussion Paper, 74, KEPE.

Nieswand, B. (2011). Theorising Transnational Migration. The Status Paradox of Migration. New York and London: Routledge.

Nowicka, M., & Serbedzija, V. (eds.). (2016). Migration and Social Remittances in a Global Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, https://doi.org/10.1057/978-l-137-60126-1.

Paasche, E. (2016). The Role of Corruption in Workplaces Experiences of Iraqi Kurds upon Return from Europe. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42(7), 1076-1093.

Phizacklea, A. (ed). (1983). One Way Ticket. Migration and Female Labour. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Setrana, M.B. (2019) A continental policy forum and workshop on the role of academic Diaspora in revitalization of Africa’s Higher Education: The Case of Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia. Report published by CIDO—AU/Carlton University, funded by The Carnegie Corporation New York (CCNY). Retrieved from http://diasporaforum2019. com/download/a-continental-policy-forum-and-workshop-on-the-role-of-academ ic-diaspora-in-revitalization-of-africas -high er-edu cation-the-case-of-ghana-nigeria-zambia/.

Setrana, M.B., & Okyerefo, P.K.M. (2018). Internal and International Migration Dynamics in Africa. In Triandafyllidou, A. (ed.), Handbook of Migration and Globalisation (pp. 281—196). Cheltenham and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Setrana, M.B., & Tonah, S. (2016). Do Transnational Links Matter after Return? Labour Market Participation among Ghanaian Return Migrants. Journal of Development Studies, 52(4), 549-560.

Setrana, M.B., & Tonah, S. (2014). Return Migrants and the Challenge of Reintegration: The Case of Returnees to Kumasi, Ghana. A Journal of African Migration, 7, 116-142.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >