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Diaspora’s Impact on Growth and Prosperity

In the current socio-political climate, diaspora groups migrating to developed nations are often cast as threats or problems to be overcome. The variety of factors forcing these immigrants from their homelands - including economic opportunity, climate change impacts, and/or violence – allow political actors to categorize them as potentially dangerous burdens on a taxed system. DUSP’s Visiting Lecturer of International Development and Planning and MIT alum, Paul Altidor (SM ’04), advocates for an alternative narrative - one that is grounded in data - to describe how these diaspora groups and increasingly their US-born children act as catalysts for sustainable growth and economic prosperity in communities both in the United States and within the developing world.

After graduation from DUSP, Altidor, worked for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private arm of the World Bank Group. At the IFC, Altidor focused on advising governments on public private partnerships (PPPs). Altidor later joined the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund as its Vice-President. In May 2012, Altidor assumed the position of Ambassador Plenipotentiary & Extraordinary of Haiti to the White House. As Ambassador, Altidor strove to dismantle the negative narrative often associated with Haiti, a perception that has historically stood in the way of the country’s development growth. Under Altidor’s leadership, the Haitian Embassy in DC was transformed into an open and welcoming destination that became a hub for showcasing Haiti’s culture and history. This transformation facilitated the creation of a new narrative for Haiti’s public diplomacy in the nation’s capital while streamlining services offered to Haitian citizens in the United States.

In his Spring 2020 course, Altidor aims to encourage students to examine the evolution of diaspora groups; more specifically how second and third generations of US-born descendants of immigrants have become engines of growth in both their communities in the US and in the regions of origin of their parents. The course will explore the best mechanisms for implementing planning and policy strategies which accurately reflect the trans-border linkages within immigrant groups and their development impacts across spatial divides.

Q1: How did a background in urban planning influence your approach to serving as a senior diplomat?

Altidor: Stakeholder mapping and building consensus are key tenants of Urban Planning pedagogy. These two concepts are as equally essential in the diplomatic field. Understanding and addressing the concerns of various stakeholders, whether it is a legislator on Capitol Hill or members of the Haitian-American community, are essentials for an Ambassador in order to effectively advance a foreign policy objective. A critical component of the job of Ambassadors revolves around their ability to identify and engage with stakeholders and ultimately win their buy-in on a position. Whether it is a bilateral issue that necessitates convincing a partner to see the merits of a policy objective or negotiations on a trade agreement among multiple countries, a position in diplomacy requires an ability to be a consensus builder. During my seven year tenure in Washington DC as Haiti’s top diplomat, I experienced numerous situations in which I played the role of a convener in trying to get various stakeholders to come to a consensus on a policy objective. Time and time again, I used some key tools that I have acquired as a planner to achieve my diplomatic objectives.

Q2: What drew you to return to DUSP to teach after your tenure as Ambassador?

Altidor: Last June, I had the privilege to be invited back to MIT as the keynote speaker for the DUSP graduation. In my remarks, I reminded the graduating class, as they embark on their professional journey, of the clout and influence that will be bestowed upon them as a result of their education at MIT. The training that they received undoubtedly equipped them with the tools and the intellectual ammunition to help communities, governments, and industries tackle complex issues. As they grow and mature professionally, they will become the leaders, influencers, and decision makers in their field; in short, the agents of change who will enable communities to grow and thrive.

In my remarks to the graduates, I challenged and reminded them of their duty to ensure that others can learn and benefit from their experiences. It is with that sense of duty, I have accepted to return to MIT and share both my scholarly knowledge as well as my field experience with the student community.

My return to MIT is special from a personal standpoint as well. I received my training from DUSP as a graduate student. Many of the tools that helped me excel in my professional career, I learned and acquired them from the department while pursuing my graduate degree at MIT. For the past two years, I have also had the honor to be invited to serve on the SPURS International Advisory Board. My bonds with the Institute, DUSP and the SPURS Program are deeply rooted and date back many years. I view my return to MIT as a homecoming.

In my course entitled “(Re)Engineering Planning and Diaspora Groups”, I intend to expose the students to some of the current thinking in leveraging the power of diaspora groups as catalysts of growth in communities both in the US and the developing world. Whether as a diplomat, as a development practitioner or as an advisor to governments, I have been exposed to this topic from many different perspectives. Given the continuous movement of people across borders, this topic will continue to be of significant importance to the planning and policy making community. DUSP, in my view, constitutes the appropriate setting for me to challenge and engage future planners, scholars and policy makers on analyzing and understanding the current framework on this topic with an outlook on the future.

Q3: Why is studying the impact of migrant groups important to the field of planning?

Altidor: Trans-border linkages created by diaspora groups and migration are and will continue to be critical topics in the fields of planning and public policy. Scholars and practitioners are constantly challenged to design frameworks that will enable US cities and regions around the world to effectively address these issues. I hope to share my experience as a planner, advisor, diplomat and investor with students so they are better equipped to address these topics in their future careers. From my professional experiences I have observed that understanding migration flows, the dynamics of diaspora groups, and their impact on development is very critical to mapping out the future of cities – but creating the proper policy framework to help will require sound and continuous scholarly research, which I hope students and colleagues at DUSP will collaborate to produce.

On a personal note, I came to the United States as an immigrant. The narrative of the immigrant experience and immigration process are deeply personal to my own identity. Despite, or maybe due to, evidence that migration will continue to increase in the near future, the current narrative permeating the public dialogue around immigration in the US is largely negative. Through my class this coming term, I will endeavor to recruit allies at MIT to document the benefits, both to their new home and to their country of origin, of immigrants – allowing us to provide context for a new, positive narrative around immigration.