This article analyses how European governments and civil society actors engage diasporas in Europe as agents for the development of their countries of origin. Through a critical examination of diaspora engagement discourse and practice in various European countries, we identify three implicit understandings. First, development is conceived of as the planned activities of Western professional development actors; second, diasporas are seen as actual communities rooted in a national ‘home’ and sharing a group identity; and third, migration is regarded as binary mobility. We argue that these interpretations are informed by notions of ethnic or national rootedness in given places and that they lead to further assumptions about why, and in pursuit of what goals, diasporas engage. We conclude that such essentialized understandings limit the potential of diaspora engagement as a means of innovating the development industry by broadening understandings of what development entails and how it can be done.