How does emigration affect countries-of-origin? Paul Collier kicks off a debate on migration

March 19, 2014

Is ‘Getting to Zero’ really feasible? The new Chronic Poverty Report

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Migration and Development: Who Bears the Burden of Proof? Justin Sandefur replies to Paul Collier

March 19, 2014
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Justin Sandefur responds to yesterday’s post by Paul Collier on the impact of migration on developing countries, and you get to voteJustin Sandefur

The global diaspora of educated Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans living in the developed world stand accused of undermining the development of their countries of origin.

Paul Collier’s recent book, Exodus, makes the case for strict ceilings on the movement of people from poor countries to rich ones.  My colleague Michael Clemens and I already reviewed the book at length for Foreign Affairs (ungated here), but Duncan asked me to respond to the specific issue Paul raised in his recent post for this blog: that skilled migration from some low-income countries is so high that it undermines the development prospects of people “left behind”.

I suspect many people reading this blog in Europe or North America share Professor Collier’s skepticism about skilled migration. You are not racist or xenophobic.  You are concerned about the plight of the global poor, and you welcome diversity in your community. But you worry that maybe Paul’s right.  Maybe the fate of your university-educated Haitian neighbor down the street, earning a good salary and sending her kids to good schools since moving to the UK, is a distraction from, and maybe even a hindrance to, reducing poverty in Haiti.

Before we begin, it’s important to note that we’re not really debating whether the rate of skilled emigration fro Freetown to London or Port-au-Prince to Miami is too fast or too slow.  We’re really talking about whether to deport your neighbor.  Or whether to refuse her a visa in the first place, and consign her and her family to a future of low wage employment, bad schools, and preventable disease “back where they came from.”  That is the policy proposal on the table for your consideration.

My argument is that the burden of proof here should be heavy, and it should rest on the shoulders of those who would build walls and tear apart families.  If you think the prosecution has met that burden of proof, here are three reasons to reconsider.

1.   Empirically, the alleged “brain drain” from poor countries does not exist.

Yesterday, Prof. Collier worried that while China wins from an emigration “brain gain”, Haiti and other small, poor countries lose out to “brain drain”.  So let’s have a look at the numbers.

Based on research by economists Frederic Docquier and Abdeslam Marfouk, I compiled a list of the ten low-income countries with the highest rates of skilled emigration.  They are: Haiti (84% of secondary grads living overseas in an OECD country circa 2000 – though this exaggerates a bit, by counting Haitians educated abroad), Gambia (63%), Sierra Leone (53%), Mozambique (45%), Liberia (45%), Kenya (38%), Uganda (36%), Rwanda (26%), Guinea Bissau (24%), and Afghanistan (23%).

LICs with high skilled emigrationYou might suspect that such high emigration among educated people has led to stagnation or decline in the share of skilled workers.  You’d be wrong.

In the low-income countries with the highest levels of skill emigration, the stock of skilled workers left behind is going up, not down.  Even after you exclude the migrants, the prevalence of both secondary and tertiary education more than doubled! This simple fact is often lost in fretting over a “brain drain”.

Skeptical readers will rightly note that the counterfactual here is unclear: maybe residents’ education would’ve been even higher without emigration.  There’s good reason to think the opposite.  The opportunity to join the diaspora is a key motivation for pursuing higher education.  Multiple studies looking at natural experiments from Cape Verde, to Fiji, to Nepal, have all found that new migration opportunities led to more investment in schooling not only for migrants, but for people who didn’t end up migrating as well.

2.  Emigration is not an alternative to other drivers of development, it is a cause.

Perhaps you feel letting poor people move to better opportunities is a distraction from the real work of promoting development within brain drain v gainthe geographic borders of poor countries.  Rather than migration, we need more aid, more investment, and better governance in poor countries.

Consider Haiti again.  The World Bank’s bilateral remittance and migration matrices show that the 670,000 adult Haitians living in the OECD sent home about $1,700 per migrant per year.  That’s well over double Haiti’s $670 per capita GDP.  And Haiti is not unique.  On average, across the whole set of low income countries, each migrant to the OECD sends home more than double her country’s per capita GDP each year.

Remittances took a dip during the 2008 financial crisis, and have not yet fully recovered, but they still clock in at roughly $400 billion worldwide, compared to a total foreign aid budget globally of about $125 billion.

It’s true that skilled workers earn more back in Haiti than the unskilled, but they also remit considerably more as well.

And it’s not just remittances.  Migrants also significantly boost FDI back to their country of origin.  There’s also tantalizing new evidence emerging from various corners of the globe about the effects that migrant diaspora have on home-country governance — some of which (to be fair) are summarized in Exodus. From Mali to Moldova and back to Cape Verde again, there is growing evidence migration exposes citizens to democratic values and strengthens demands for accountability and good governance at home.

3.  There is zero evidence that trapping skilled workers in places with few skilled jobs will generate growth

remittances per migrantThe argument put forward in Prof. Collier’s post yesterday is that emigration deprives countries of the talented and skilled individuals that will drive broad-based growth.  It’s undeniable that education has huge economic and social payoffs for individuals and their families.  And we probably all agree that in order for Haiti to grow in the long run, attracting and retaining more skilled workers will be a necessary step.

But it’s also clear that education alone is insufficient for economic development without public infrastructure, functioning credit markets, tolerable government, etc…. the sorts of things places like Haiti and Afghanistan often lack.  Knowing that those ingredients are lacking, are we confident enough to deny people the right to leave?

Bear in mind there is no study out there, from Haiti or anywhere else, showing any empirical evidence that migration restrictions have contributed to development.  So this is a huge, evidence-free gamble we’re taking with other people’s lives.

Economist Branko Milanovic estimates that 80% of global inequality is explained by your country of birth. Through education and migration, skilled migrants from low-income countries have struggled to overcome their unlucky draw in this birth lottery. They owe us no explanation.  Their success stories are what we mean by development.  They’re also a key motivation driving young people in poor countries into higher education, as well as a vital source of development finance far in excess of official aid.

So feel free to oppose immigration from poor countries if you’d like, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking there’s anything altruistic about that stance.

And now it’s time to vote. You can tick more than one box. Please add your views in comments, and if you feel they warrant a separate post, get in touch.


  1. Professor Collier,

    TJ once wrote: “All men have the right to depart from the country in which chance, not choice has placed them”

    It was by chance that my mother and I were born in Sudan, but it was by choice that my mother emigrated to the US when I was 4.

    Choice creates opportunity. It was by choice that a single mother with limited English abilities worked hard to put 3 children through school, university, and post graduate education. It was my mother’s choice to make investing in her children’s education and future her life goal.

    Had my mother’s right to choice of movement been impeded on – this world would have been 3 third culture kids less, and 3 opportunities short of building bridges and strengthening dialogue between two worlds inherently alien to each other.

    To put it simply – thanks, but no thanks. As Justin clearly articulates here – the development world has far more to gain from nurturing the benefits of emigration – rather than curbing it to prevent baseless theories of ‘brain drains’.

    FYI, I’m back in Sudan now – a year and still kicking – walking back and forth across the bridge I was given the opportunity to build thanks to my mother’s choices!

  2. In this thought experiment we’re also ignoring how bilateral attempts to restrict migration would actually play out in the `migration market.’ Sure, the UK could stop letting skilled Malawians in tomorrow, and on the margin a few might not be able to find another place to go. But most would head to the next best alternative, so they lose out (slightly) by moving to a place with less opportunity, and even if we believed there were negative effects of skilled emigration on Malawian development, out-migration would continue almost unabated.

  3. Thanks,
    clear, cogent.

    1 The back-flow of remittances and returnee skills (don’t forget them) accrue up to one generation from the moment the emigrant left his country. In order fully to assess the impact of migration, one must consider the time-lines involved.

    2. Out-migration cannot be divorced from migration flows going the other way. Retirees are flocking to Mediterranean countries and beyond, bring wealth, and often skills too. Turkey, but also Morocco, are instances of successful reverse flow.

  4. The vote looks pretty overwhelmingly clear already. What if anything does this imply for Oxfam strategy? Continue to avoid the issue because change isn’t politically feasible? Would Oxfam have ignored slavery because change wasn’t politically feasible? Isn’t there a point where you have to stand up for what is right, public opinion be damned?

    1. Thanks Lee, I’m currently discussing possibilities with a couple of country programmes in migration-dependent economies. I think engaging on the ground in maximising developmental benefits might be a better use of scarce time and $ than joining massively polarized dialogue of the deaf at global level. Purely personal view, please note.

      1. Thanks Duncan. Going back to your 2012 post –

        You raised 3 reasons for why UK BINGOs don’t work on migration:

        – Sedentary bias in development (misunderstanding the economics)
        – Radioactive politics for campaigners
        – Brain drain (which today’s debate indicates is also misunderstanding the economics)

        What would you estimate is the current % split in UK BINGOs between misunderstanding the economics and not wanting to take on the politics?

        1. Now that sounds like a good topic for research – anyone offering to do a survey of INGO decision makers to identify what the block is?

      2. Greetings Duncan. I hope you’ll rethink this reply of yours to a comment on Justin’s post: “I think engaging on the ground in maximising developmental benefits might be a better use of scarce time and $ than joining massively polarized dialogue of the deaf at global level.”

        YOur own value-added is not on the ground, where so many good Oxfam people working. We need you in the debate, helping to make it more thoughtful and less polarized
        — as in this good Collier-Sandefur example.

        1. Thanks Nancy, as you can see I am engaging on a personal level, but don’t like it when people use that to play gotcha and say ‘so will Oxfam now do XX’ – whole point of this blog is to operate at a bit of a distance from the official Oxfam ‘line’. But I do think the migration debate is one of the most frustrating I come across, too often polarized between ‘realists’ and ‘let them come’ fundamentalists, with both sides telling each other that they are knaves, fools or both. Wd love to see a decent theory of change, inc a political economy analysis on how/when migration becomes more acceptable, or more beneficial to poor people, either in the past, or present – haven’t seen it yet.

  5. I ended up agreeing with the position defended by Justin Sandefur that rich countries should not consider restricting skilled immigration, but I still consider that whether or not emigration hurts poor countries is an open question.

    Do I consider that smoking is dangerous? Yes. Do I believe that we should ban smoking? No, people should be free to do what they want.
    In the same way here, we could legitimately imagine that emigration is good for the migrants and for their families, but bad for the poor countries, and still advocate opening the borders.

    Still, poor countries could be better off building incentives to keep educated workers (without using coercion). Why are we considering here that only rich countries have a say on migration? This seem a bit paternalistic to me.

    1. Thanks Florent — great comment. You emphasize two important conceptual distinctions:
      1) To justify smoking bans, advocates were able to show not just that smoking is sort of bad for you, but (a) that it’s a leading cause of death, and (b) that smoking imposes enormous negative externalities on third parties. Nobody claiming negative effects of emigration can meet this standard of evidence. And my point above is that the evidence tentatively points in the opposite (positive) direction.
      2) Even if we believe the enormous gains to migrants are partially offset by costs to sending countries, rich-country border controls are not the only or most obvious response. A longer piece could address the implications of migration for, say, education finance in poor countries. But the policy proposal in Paul’s book “Exodus” is explicitly for rich countries to impose immigration ceilings, so I wanted to tackle that head on.

  6. Thanks, Duncan, for incorporating this blog-debate on a key development issue which, however, is often clouded by the images and passions of the media and daily life. In Spain, for instance, we see increasing efforts by African migrants to cross into Ceuta and Melilla and the popular reaction is we can’t affort this. However, they will continue to try because for them the grass is greener here. We can’t justify sending them back by saying that is good for their countries’ development; if we want to stem the flow we have to do more to improve the basic conditions, governance, etc.

  7. In response to Duncan and possibilities for Oxfam to become engaged: Nothing to say against getting involved at country level to support smart policy choices in countries that experience large-scale migration flows and impacts. But it’s too easy to discount global level engagement as pointless. There is movement in the global level debate on migration and development and having Oxfam on board – in particular in the context of the post-2015 debate and in the Global Forum on Migration and Development – would be very welcome!

  8. Thanks Justin and Paul for these thought-provoking arguments.

    Justin, I want to be convinced by your arguments, as like you I am very nervous about the shorcut policies Exodus could help support (regardless of the author’s possible intentions).

    Fundamentally, I agree that control of human migration is not the solution to long term development, rather a variable that needs to be left more free than not to adapt to/resource the development achieved by other drivers. Trying to control individual human lives can’t be the panacea to a better life for all (and that control is always highly incomplete, and often comes with tragic individual consequences, as Lampedusa etc. proves).

    But if this is a tactical, policy duel rather than a strategic, big theory conversation, these points may be of relevance for sharpening the thrust.

    Your first argument: I think it’d be important to show evidence supporting a causal link between emigration and increase in secondary and tertiary education – is this possible? One could argue for other contingent factors driving this increase (including ODA! which could in fact underscore the brain drain argument). It’s also important to close the loop with the development trajectory in these same low income countries: are these higher numbers of skilled workers directly leading to/feeding stronger growth & development, or are they just the unfortunate trapped that have not made it through the emigration portal? If it’s not leading to growth, the gainsayers of migration will add that to their case (braindrain + demographic/political timebomb).

    Your second argument assumes that remittance flows = growth, stability and development, which I don’t think there is yet any strong evidence for, I may be wrong. The trickle down of increased demand for good governance feels credible but obviously hard to evidence. The FDI argument stands out to me as the strongest strand to this argument, but the causal relationship between FDI and inclusive growth and development for the poor is also perhaps tenuous (cf. macro-farming, extractives, etc.).

    The third argument depends largely on the first argument not holding water: if there’s nothing gained by skilled workers staying in a low growth zone, how can it be good for emigration flows to increase numbers of skilled workers who stay in country?

    I wonder if I’ve argued myself out of what my heart wants to vote for…

    Anyway, I hope these comments on the logic and evidence of the arguments are of some use.

    Thanks again for a great exposition of this topic!

    I guess the obvious position is to say we need an internationally co-ordinated, multi-dimensional policy response, that old chestnut…

  9. Justin,

    You say “In the low-income countries with the highest levels of skill emigration, the stock of skilled workers left behind is going up, not down.”

    So? Clearly it would be going up a lot more in the absence of skilled emigration. It’s bit like saying car theft doesn’t matter because the asset value those who had their car stolen is still increasing. Maybe that’s a bad analogy, but you get my point. It’s all relative and you’ve chosen a nonsense baseline of no growth in education in this case.

    Moreover, if skilled emigration is so tops, wouldn’t the obvious policy solution for developing countries be to encourage more of it? Maybe give all doctors, engineers, etc a $100,000 to leave the country and go to Canada. It’s the only logical conclusion, because the return on that investment is so positive for the source country (for example, also due to remittances).

    You argumentation leaves a lot to be desired as well. It is not, as you say, about deporting your neighbour. Moreover, your burden of proof position is just saying that my philosophy is right, you should therefore have to prove me wrong. Which either side could do.

    More of my views here

    1. Hi Cameron,

      You write: “So? Clearly it [education in poor countries] would be going up a lot more in the absence of skilled emigration.”

      Have a look at the links above to studies on Fiji, Cape Verde, and Nepal. Each of these is a careful microeconometric analysis of natural experiments where the opportunities of skilled workers to emigrate changed. Each study finds *positive* effects on human capital acquisition among residents who don’t emigrate.

      So I have to disagree with your assertion. The case is certainly not closed, but the best evidence we have is that without skilled emigration, there would’ve been even *less* education in these sending countries.

      As for developing countries encouraging emigration: many developing countries do in fact facilitate migration. That’s different from a subsidy though. Clearly, a huge share of the gain from migration accrues to migrants themselves. People can and should bear this cost directly given equal access to education and migration opportunities. It’s not unreasonable to think a good student loan program would enable more people to finance their own education and migration without large net public subsidies. Win, win.

      Thanks for weighing into the debate.

      1. Justin,

        I understand that. But that’s not really welfare analysis is it?

        Let’s use an example. There are 100 people in the relevant working age population of a poor country, of which 10 are university educated (or highly skilled in some area). 5 of these educated people leave, and 6 of the remaining people invest in education because of this new higher incentive (the option to leave). The population now has 11 skilled people out of 95 total.

        That’s basically what the papers show if I understand correctly.

        The relevant welfare question is whether output per capita is greater with that distribution of skills with 95 people instead of the previous distribution of skills with 100 people.

        If it is true that the remaining people are better off, then the obvious welfare-enhancing policy is for the poorest people to subsidise the high skilled workers to leave. Otherwise, those damn engineers and doctors are merely punishing their poorest country-folk by sticking around.

        I personally find it hard to believe.

  10. Justin,
    You do a good job of clarifying the data side of the argument. I want to add that the for those that depart, others come with actually more financial clout and ideas than just paper qualifications. If I can use Zambia as an example, the massive improvements that have occurred in the service sector over the past decade are not because of Zambians. South African businesses have brought new ideas forcing the old economic actors (Zambian Asians and Lebanese) to step up. Chinese too have entered the fray. I am amazed to see Chinese people in some rural places challenging a lot of to think, if they see opportunity in these remote areas why not us locals.

    Another point I want to make is that views such as represented by Paul Collier make emigration seem like just a fun thing to do. I lived abroad under very favourable circumstances. But it was hard because it was not home. So for those that do need (some yes just want to) to leave it is the best decision in a worst case scenario.

    Finally, and I don’t want to make sweeping statements, the quality of life has improved for educated people. So the need to live abroad is diminishing. Here I am sitting in my little house in Lusaka chatting with the world while enjoying the food I like to eat, the company of my extended family, friends etc.

    A lot is changing even though the static view of emigration may dominate. I think it is actually a great new world!

  11. Thanks for the nice debate!
    I believe we should move away from the duality “open borders” vs. “closed borders” as if those were our options to choose from. None of the two options is really possible; there will always be migrants crossing the ‘closed’ borders as there will be many people staying in their country of origin in case of no border checks and limitations. It is surely interesting and thought-provoking to ask this sort of questions, but I do not think it gets us anywhere from the policy point of view, which is in my view the main reason why we are discussing all this.
    What makes more sense to me is to ask how we should intervene with our limited powers in the migration dynamics in order to make the process most beneficial for all parties (origin society, destination society, migrant). Let’s not think in open-closed alternatives, but rather in more flexible and dynamic scenarios, in which some policies will have an “open” character and other a “closed” one.

  12. What I continue to find odd is that people made the exactly symmetric argument against capital flows–that people putting their money abroad inhibited development as in the old fashioned “two gap” models the return to capital was high in poor countries so “capital flight” was bad. But this all melted away. Perhaps the asymmetry in the “capital” and “human capital” flight stories is because rich country banks to want poor country investor dollars? When UK banks turn down Ghanian investors deposits I’ll be convinced migration restrictions are altruistically motivated by concerns about development impact.

  13. The options you ask to choose from don’t go far enough. Why not include a box that says, “Rich countries should consider promoting immigration from poor countries on developmental grounds”?

  14. Dear Duncan,
    Thanks very much for setting up a very interesting and informative debate and thanks to all those involved. I fear however that your asking people to ‘ focus on the impact on poor countries, as most of the press debate concentrates on the impact in the North’ has resulted in a rather ‘Alice in Migration Blunderland’ discussion’. Just on the ‘brain drain’ debate I’m afraid I find Justin’s arguments utterly unconvincing. I am more swayed for example by Professor Vasile Astarastoae, president of the Romanian College of Physicians who ‘thanks’ to Europe’s open border policies has seen the number of doctors in Romanian hospitals fall by virtually a third from 21,400 to 14,400 since 2011 and who responded that ‘Romania spends €3.5bn (£2.9bn) educating doctors; we are basically spending it on solving problems in the UK, Germany and France.’

    It is not just the poorer countries in Europe that experience this ‘brain drain’. Since 2000 at least 11,000 Philippino doctors have retrained as nurses and gone abroad. After staff from Britain, the Philippines provided the highest number of qualified nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff i.e. over 8000. The Philippines also provides the third highest number of NHS staff overall at nearly 13,000.

    Perhaps because of the way the debate was structured to focus on the effects on poor countries, I’m afraid Justin’s arguments in this debate and in his Foreign Affairs response to the Exodus book (I’ve read all three) led me to use the term of ‘indigenophobia’. He utterly ignores the democratic views of the people in the countries receiving immigrants.

    For example, half a century of opinion polls have consistently shown that the public in Britain favours a reduction in immigration. More than two thirds of people also think that Britain’s population is too high. This concern can only increase given official projections showing that the population of the UK is expected to rise from an estimated 63.7 million in mid-2012 to 73.3 million in the 25 years to mid-2037. That increase of almost 10 million is around 2 million greater than the present population of Greater London of 8.2 million. About 60 per cent of this rise is either directly attributable to future migration (43 per cent), or indirectly attributable to the effect of fertility and mortality on these future migrants (17 per cent).

    Its good to hear that Oxfam is getting involved in social and poverty issues in the UK –that should also mean that they will need to have a view about the affect on these concerns of the countries present and projected population numbers, the role of immigration in this and what policies should be proposed to deal with the huge levels of public concern about these issues.

    I am in the process of finishing a book ‘Progressive Protectionism’ which addresses the need to curb the damaging affects of the free flow of goods, capital, services and people worldwide. It will also propose the policies to counter today’s free market theology in such a way as to enable communities and countries to rebuild their local economies and provide a secure and sustainable future for the vast majority of their inhabitants i.e. to ‘Protect the Local, Globally’. When it is finished I hope Duncan will allow me to use his excellent debating chamber to put forward the book’s arguments of the relevance of policies to reduce migration globally as one part of a policy package to achieve this transformation.

  15. I think you make some good points, and far be it for any of us to deny anyone the right to emigrate (which can also be driven for other reasons: need for health care; escaping violence, etc). That all said, Collier also has a point. You say:

    “But it’s also clear that education alone is insufficient for economic development without public infrastructure, functioning credit markets, tolerable government, etc…. the sorts of things places like Haiti and Afghanistan often lack. Knowing that those ingredients are lacking, are we confident enough to deny people the right to leave?”

    Economic development, public infrastructure, functioning credit markets, etc – have the best chance, if not the only chance, at being created and maintained by educated and skilled members of that community. One of the issues with development not working – be it top-down or bottom-up – is the fact that real and lasting change usually has to come from within an area or country by the educated and skilled people living there – who will have a nuanced understanding of the cultural and social mores – as well as (usually) a better idea of what is lacking and therefore what is needed.

  16. Dear Justin and other colleagues,
    I would like to reflect on the issue of remittances, which you, Justin, also refered to in your article. It seems to me that remittances have become the “buzzword” in migration and development debates and there is often much stress given on the comparison of remittances and ODA.
    However, I would like to get back to an issue that is not that often discussed, as it is obscured by very technical difficulties: the methodology of collection of data.
    For instance, the World Bank data that you have refered to, Justin, define remittances as the compilation of three components: workers’ remittances, compensation of employees and migrants’ transfers. However, many National Statistical Offices and Central Banks which provide these information for the World Bank do not collect the information correctly (as WB itself admits in its Factbook 2011).
    For instance, I am researching Slovakia in Central Europe and the only data that is available is the compensation of employees (note that compensation of employees is *gross income*). This means that the table which presents the amount of remittance inflow to Slovakia, actually shows the sum of compensation of employees. However, there is no evidence of how much of this money was actually spent in the country where the compensation was given (that is, outside of Slovakia). One could imagine that from the total compensation, some part goes to social security, then there are taxes, everyday expenditures (rent, food…) and also travel to Slovakia and back. This may constitute a significant sum of the total amount of the employee compensation. However, the statistics of the World Bank do not show this, which I think may casue a big misrepresentation of reality.
    I wonder how often this is the case; how many countries are actually miscalculated in this way? Also, this could cause a large exaggeration of the real amount of remittances worldwide.
    What is your view on this?
    Many thanks for your opinions.

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