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July 11, 2012

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July 11, 2012

Why is migration a Cinderella issue in Development?

July 11, 2012
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Last week I had to speak on ‘Why is migration not a bigger development issue?’ at an IPPR/CGD seminar. The seminar (and the question)

US Coastguard intercepts Haitian migrants

US Coastguard intercepts Haitian migrants

really got me thinking. The main speaker was Michael Clemens, CGD’s migration guru (as well as part-time bête noire of the Millennium Villages Project). He was brilliant – going well beyond the standard arguments (migrants contribute more to an economy than they receive in benefits etc) and the huge benefits that flow home (remittances are about the most resilient form of capital inflow, barely dipping during the global financial crisis, and run at three times the volume of aid). ‘What percentage of poverty reduction in Haiti is owed to migration?’, Michael asked. Answer ‘All of it.’

He reinterpreted the fall of apartheid as the abolition of borders between white South Africa and the Bantustans, and showed that everyone benefitted from this sudden upsurge in migration – the incomes of blacks and coloureds increased rapidly, and whites lost nothing. Effectively, he was making the economic case against borders of any kind. Sometimes ‘seeing like an economist’ can be mind-blowing.

So back to my question – if migration is that good (and is being stifled by politics), why isn’t it top of the development agenda? Here are a few thoughts (helped along by another guru on migration and development, Gonzalo Fanjul).

Sedentary prejudice’: Development organisations cherish a mental image of happy peasants, tilling fields or resting of an evening in a flourishing village with schools, water and the like. I think many people in development therefore see migration as a failure – the talk is all about people forced to migrate, rather than choosing to. At least that point of view is reinforced by European history (think of the forced and miserable emigration of the Irish famine), but makes even less sense for New Worlders in countries built on migration.

Radioactive politics for campaigners: the gulf between politics and economics is probably wider on migration than any other issue. It’s always at the top of public concerns, and politicians know what’s in store if they’re seen as ‘soft on immigration’. Campaigning organizations

That was then.......

That was then.......

are also keenly aware of the public mood, so the issue stays with the thinktanks like CGD until that mood shifts.

But I also wonder if there’s a more subtle political problem – supporting migration sets you up to oppose poor people in the UK. Lining up with a bunch of liberal economists to inform your fellow citizens that they are wrong (and quite possibly racist too) is not a comfortable exercise for any progressive spirit.

Brain drain: despite plenty of arguments to the contrary, a lot of people still see ‘stealing their doctors and nurses’ as an act of neocolonial plunder.

So what might shift the impasse?

Firstly, I think time is on our side, in the sense that it’s young people and those living in the areas of the highest migration who have the least problem with it. It’s odd, but the most passionate anti-migrant views appear to coincide with the places were fewest are to be found.

Second, an aging population in many Western countries, and the need to staff the proliferation of care homes over the coming years, is surely likely to lead to demands for more migration – young people could become a scarce resource over the next few decades. Migration might also move up our agenda as an issue that truly transcends old North-South divides. The flow of people binds us together even more fundamentally than the more anonymous flows of goods, services and capital.

Unfortunately, in today’s development organizations, I see little sign of movement on this, although we are increasingly engaging with

..... this is now

..... this is now

Diaspora groups on humanitarian work, which may start to influence opinions. But DFID has wound up its migration team, and discussions among the NGOs get nowhere (I’ve more or less stopped raising it in the UK, although Oxfam affiliates in the US and Spain are more engaged). Maybe we could shift public opinion on some wedge issues, such as refugees, but first we would need to be clear about why we currently don’t see migration as a development issue, and decide that that has to change.

That’s as far as I’ve got, but I still feel pretty baffled about why migration never makes our agendas, so any help is very welcome. Over to you.

But last word (for now) to another frustrated economist:

‘Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?’
J.K. Galbraith, The Nature of Mass Poverty, 1979


  1. I am more familiar with intra-country migration. Even there I have seen resistance – from political parties campaigning on “sons-of-the-soil” platform or NGOs who are probably just being romantic when they work against rural to urban migration.

    I have a story from India – I do not have data / links to back it up but..

    In the aftermath of the horrific drought in 1972-73, thousands of poor migrated from rural parts of Maharashtra and settled in slums of Mumbai. Some got employment in private sector or government. Some started small businesses. They had come seeking relief but a large number ended up staying in Mumbai. Over time their children went to school, got higher education and were able to break out of the poverty trap in the space of one or two generations. I have met a number of such families in Mumbai. I remember being unequivocally told that though the drought was bad and destroyed lives as they knew it, people were actually thankful for it, eventually. It forced them to move out of rural areas where their livelihoods were going nowhere in particular.

  2. Fantastic post about an issue that should be bringing together the neoliberal and pro-poor camps to stand up to xenophobic/protectionist governments.

    Free(er) trade, although by no means a done deal, took more than 50 years of concerted effort to achieve. Making a change to attitudes about migration will have similar challenges.

    It’s interesting to think that migration was actually easier 100 years ago (politically) than it is now, in the era of ‘globalisation’. With a large proportion of the people living in less developed countries willing to move if they could, the impact on the global economy would be huge.

    Part of the problem, I suspect, is that richer countries want to be immune to migration, in or out. 100 years ago people without jobs in the UK were desperately clamoring for the chance to move to Canada/US/Australia, but not now, where the responsibility is on the government’s shoulders to defend jobs and prevent migration that might (although in reality not) make things any worse.

  3. The 2009 UNDP Human Development report addressed migration – it was launched in Thailand, a country that both receives and sends out migrants. But you are right – not much comes of it. Much of the bad press that migration gets is a result of laws that seek to stop immigration or prejudice against migrants – e.g. family separation and abandomment of children; dangerous work practices. The laws seek to address the perceived ‘problems’ rather than seek to enhance the clear benefits.

  4. Fantastic question on today’s World Population Day, particularly for poorer countries that restrict internal migration movement and are xenophobia about rural-urban migration from areas of high pop. pressure on resources. Here in Ethiopia, WPD was celebrated with a National Seminar and the launching of our (Teller and Assefa) new book on the Demographic Transition and Dev’t in Africa: The Unique Case of Ethiopia (Springer, 2011). The evidence in our book is that the current National Population Policy to restrict rural-urban migration should be changed, as the youth bulge must move around to search for better opportunities. This should be part of the Poverty Reduction and Growth and Transformation (GTP) Policy. The potential demographic dividend from the youth bulge will become a burden if migration continues to be restricted.

  5. A very interesting post, but I have to take issue with one sentence:

    “he was making the economic case against borders of any kind. Sometimes ’seeing like an economist’ can be mind-blowing.”

    Why is it mind blowing to conceive of a world without borders? My mind is blown on a daily basis that we willingly accept (and teach to our kids) that political and economic borders are natural, immutable, equitable and just.

    Please reader ask yourself – in the world which you would like to see exist, which would be mind blowing (ie out of place):

    b)no borders?

    If your answer is a – how are you working towards this?
    If your answer is b – get off my planet, you are not welcome!

  6. Great post! Like Duncan I was at the IPPR/CGD seminar and was also impressed by the clarity and force of Michael Clemens argument. His primary concern though was shifting migration policies in the Global North, so its really good to put the emphasis more squarely onto development here.

    Three other thoughts to add to your list of reasons why migration and development don’t seem to mix so well:
    1. Infrastructure is so often central to many development interventions, yet is fixed in space – and for those trying to plan future infrastructure migration is a pain because people (unlike water pipes, schools, hospitals) are mobile, which connects to a second issue…
    2. The persistant assumption that rapid urbanization is a ‘development problem’ and that that process is driven by rural-urban migration. Plenty of evidence that neither assumption is true, but nevertheless they are widely held ideas. The consequence is a view that rural-to-urban migration is an obstacle to development.
    3. Diasporas might represent competition for development professionals. Though many diaspora interventions in the name of development might appear ‘amateurish’ to development professionals, (lacking standardized procedures for evaluation, duplicating existing work, not reflecting needs, prey to local political intrigues…) nevertheless they have an authority and credibility locally that some external interventions may lack. There is the potential for forms of local participation based on a level of understanding born of ‘membership’ within a community by those seeking to develop it from the diaspora. In addition vocal and articulate critics of current development practice in the diaspora might make things uncompfortable for development NGOs. Is it just possible that development professionals are lary of migration because they see it as a challenge to their own position and interests? Of course, it doesn’t need to be an antagonistic relationship as successful examples of diaspora engagement can show, but they are few in number.

  7. Noone is Illegal ( are one of the few organisations with the intelligence to recognise that it is a duty of the human race to rid the planet of these scourges of injustice, oppressiona and inequality.

    Duncan, your use of pictures also problematises the issue of migration. As a teacher, my biggest problem dealing with the teaching of migration is (as you rightly say) that it is almost exclusively framed as a problem and millions of ‘illegals’ are shamefully demonised. Page 14 of the same Oxfam Education magazine I mentioned in a previous discussion features a relevent migration focussed event I organised at a school:

  8. This is a very thought-provoking piece. Here at the International Migration Institute (based in the Oxford Department of International Development), we have done a lot of thinking about the relationship between migration and development. In 2009 our Co-Director Oliver Bakewell took a look at why development agencies might remain ambivalent about whether and how they should bring migration into their work (see his article published in Third World Quarterly: ). Oliver concluded, as Duncan has suggested in this post, that NGOs’ reluctance to engage with migration is by and large a result of the sedentary nature of their concept of ‘development’. There seems to be some double-think going on here; as Oliver points out, the apparent assumption is that ‘mobility is normal for the wealthy, international elite, but a symptom of failure among the poor’. If we can agree that development interventions mustn’t assume that people want to stay in one place, we then need to move on to look at the relationship between migration and broader social transformaitons. The underlying challenge for development agencies is to agree on the nature of the ‘good’ to be achieved in the much-trumpeted ‘win-win-win’ situation where migration works for origin countries, destination countries, and the migrants themselves.

  9. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for this post. I’m one of the few, secretive advocates of taking on migration as a major development/poverty issue. There do seem to be a lot of obstacles; political, psychological, emotional.

    It’s ironic that a form of economic theory underlies a lot of the resistance to immigration (especially among progressives): constraining supply of labor should raise the price (wages).

    That makes all kinds of sense, although the evidence doesn’t prove it out. And, more importantly, making the counter argument is more complicated.

    We recently hosted Branko Milanovic to talk about inequality. His presentation showed that despite the increased attention to growing intra-national inequality, international inequality is bigger by far.

    His policy solution? Open borders and let people reduce global inequality through migration.

    I almost choked and thought – “well, that’s a pretty stupid thing to say. Maybe he should think of something that has some political viability.”

    But of course, he’s right, even if it’s a long way to go.

    So – we all have to find ways to thaw out discussion of migration – as a development issue, as a justice issue, and in the interest of global prosperity – including our own.

  10. I did try to post to this discussion yesterday but it has not appeared so am sending one again today..

    Thanks Duncan for raising this important issue. I am happy to see that a few posts refer to internal migration, which tends to involve poorer people. Policy positions on internal migration, especially rural-urban migration are negative across diverse countries and continents. According to UN sources, an astonishing 67% of governments had policies to control or limit rural-urban migration in 2009. Underlying these policy positions are romantic visions of sedentary peasants and elitism (referred to by others above) but also notions of exploitation of labour where migrants are seen as moving from one exploitative situation to another. Expanding slums have added to negative perceptions as these are viewed as nothing more than breeding grounds for crime and disease. But recent evidence shows that there is much more going on below the radar; poor migrants are engaged in a number of economic activities that can set them and their families in the village, on a route out of poverty. Internal remittances from such migrants are significant and not many people realise that the sum total of internal remittances can exceed international remittances in large countries with high levels of internal mobility. The potential of internal migration to reduce poverty is being researched in five global regions by the DFID-funded Migrating out of Poverty RPC at the University of Sussex. Please visit our website for more information

  11. I’m really glad to see this issue being discussed. I have long fought to see migration – and particularly detention in and deportation from the UK – put onto the development agenda but have hit obstacle after obstacle, and cries of “this isn’t a priority”. I find this not only disappointing but also really quite short-sighted (and frankly a bit dim). I support asylum seekers and irregular migrants in detention centres awaiting deportation to countries that are direct development partners of the UK – Afghanistan and Iraq are two obvious examples. These guys are being returned, often to lands they left as children, as products of a British system. They are thrown into a society they often have no connection to, and little incentive to belong. They often wind up, at best, unemployed, in precarious living conditions and with little personal security. At worst, the end up being lured into insurgent groups for lack of a better alternative. How is this NOT a development issue? It baffles me.

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