The Role of Lithuania’s Diaspora… Then and Now

Gintė Damušis
Director of the Lithuanians Living Abroad Department at the ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania from 2013 to 2015.

Photo credits: Bronius Čikota

The knowledge, skills, investments and social/professional networks of the international Lithuanian community can be tremendously influential and beneficial in advancing Lithuania’s economic, political and cultural sectors.

Gintė Damušis


Many governments have somewhat overlooked the potential role well-organized diasporas can play as partners and transformational agents in the development of a country. In Lithuania’s case, the government program “Global Lithuania” seeks to strengthen the ties of Lithuanians living abroad to their country of origin and to promote their engagement in the life of Lithuania.

Even so, many in Lithuania, both in the public and private sector, do not appreciate the importance of the diaspora. Discussion about the diaspora usually goes down like a lead balloon, but attitudes are changing as the nation learns more about its patriots living abroad and their positive contributions to Lithuania both today and in years past.

Before Lithuanian independence was re-established, the diaspora had a clear mission. Post-World War II immigrants, many of whom were educated leaders and professionals, hoped to someday return to Lithuania. They kept non-recognition of Lithuania’s occupation on the international agenda and the idea of self-determination in the public eye. They maintained Lithuanian identity through language education and cultural activities in the countries that received them. Numerous institutions established for Lithuanian language education, cultural appreciation, and community activities still exist today. A Lithuanian High School in Hüttenfeld, Germany, founded by the Lithuanian-German community after World War II with support from Lithuanians worldwide, continues to operate with German and Lithuanian governmental assistance even 60 years later. It also serves as a gathering place for diplomatic and other events promoting Lithuanian culture, tourism and European integration.

Many cultural and community centers, parishes, Saturday schools, youth camps, credit unions and non-profit foundations were established and continue to be funded independently by the Lithuanian diaspora in North America. The oldest-living Lithuanian newspaper, Draugas, has been published abroad since 1909. Dainava youth camp, founded in the 1950s, continues to host popular summer camps for children, families, teachers, artists, youth leaders and other groups. In 1961, a group of Catholic philanthropic physicians in Chicago created the non-profit foundation “Lietuvių Fondas” to support Lithuanian art, culture, education and youth programs. In the 50 years since its inception, the donor base has grown substantially. The Lithuanian Foundation has awarded over $18,000,000 USD in grants and scholarships, along with a special one-time capital fund disbursement of over $1,300,000 USD to aid Lithuania’s fledgling educational and cultural institutions after the country broke away from the Soviet Union.

When the Sąjūdis reform movement came to power in Lithuania and re-established national independence in 1990, Lithuanian-Canadians launched a fundraising campaign to assist the country’s return to the international community. The money raised, over a million Canadian dollars, was given as a gift to purchase Lithuania’s first diplomatic representation in Brussels.

Where are we today in terms of harnessing the potential of the diaspora for the benefit of Lithuania, and does the diaspora itself recognize that it has much more to offer than just remittances?

The Global Lithuania program seeks to engage the diaspora in a cooperative relationship as a way to build upon the wealth of existing diaspora initiatives. There are many mechanisms by which engagement and communication is possible. The Department of Lithuanians Living Abroad at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs coordinates the Global Lithuania program and its implementation by 13 government agencies. It also acts as a clearinghouse for diaspora information, which flows freely on the Global Lithuania Network Facebook page.

More formal dialogue groups between the state and diaspora exist, whereby each has the opportunity to better realize mutually beneficial goals. The Prime Minister’s office oversees a bi-annual consultation process with a diaspora umbrella organization, the World Lithuanian Community (WLC), and the Parliament chairs a joint commission with the WLC twice a year.

Each government agency contributing to the implementation of the Global Lithuania program has services it provides to the diaspora and mechanisms for engaging target groups abroad, such as the business community (Ministry of Economy), Lithuanian language teachers (Ministry of Education and Science), and youth (Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor), to name but a few.

A challenge faced by the state is that diaspora communities are multifaceted with different needs and interests. Their approach in their relationships with the homeland often differs: some see the benefits of a strategic relationship with Lithuania, while others see only obstacles. Most concur with the ultimate goal of supporting the interests of their homeland, but they do not always agree on how to best approach this goal. Even though the World Lithuanian Community purports to represent the interests of all Lithuanians living abroad, its efforts have been hindered by a lack of financial independence, as well as weak intra-organizational communication skills or inter-organizational relationships necessary to make an impact. Well-organized diaspora organizations are in the interest of Lithuania because they can be more effective partners in Lithuania and abroad. Country branches of the WLC and other diaspora groupings have been more effective at demonstrating this by nurturing community initiatives, promoting Lithuanian education and culture abroad, attracting trade, tourism and foreign investment, and creating closer cooperation with their local institutions and partners in Lithuania.

Online professional networks that link professionals living abroad with counterparts in Lithuania for knowledge and skills transfers exert far greater influence. One of the more successful examples is “Create for Lithuania,” a one-year rotational program launched by Invest Lithuania, which places junior professionals in public sector jobs. Also, the World Lithuanian Youth Association is forging private-public partnerships and mobilizing youth worldwide for greater engagement with Lithuania.

In a nutshell, the diaspora should be recognized as a significant and underutilized engine of change, as it has much more to offer than just remittances. The knowledge, skills, investments and social/professional networks of the international Lithuanian community can be tremendously influential and beneficial in advancing Lithuania’s economic, political and cultural sectors. Lithuania and its diaspora need to recognize what each has to offer and to build stronger networks of cooperation.