Why is migration a Cinderella issue in Development?

July 11, 2012 12 By admin

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