A new casting of diasporas, exiles and returnees as potentially transformative agents in post-conflict polities is the topic of this article. ‘Return of Qualified Expatriates’ programmes have recently been launched by international agencies in a number of post-conflict countries in an attempt to promote better capacity-building within post-conflict states institutions. This article argues that the ostensible technical orientation of these programmes is misleading, and they have a political significance which is noted and contested locally. In political terms, they represent attempts to smuggle Western hierarchies of knowledge into post-conflict reconstruction efforts under the cover of ethnic solidarity, to the detriment of local participation and empowerment. The article argues further that this is always contested by interested parties locally, often by mobilising alternative capacities, labelled ‘authentic’, in opposition. As such, strategies that attempt to use ethnic ties to overcome this local contestation are placing a significant burden on ethnic categories that are slippery, malleable and contested in post-conflict contexts. These points are demonstrated with reference to the cases of Cambodia and Timor-Leste.
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