June 14, 2010


Migration: development on the move (Alex Glennie, 14 June 2010, OpenDemocracy)

On average, more than half of the migrants from the countries studied sent money home and in countries like Jamaica a third of all households receive some remittances. These funds can make a real difference to the lives of recipients. In Colombia for example, households that receive remittances are 12 per cent less likely to be below the national poverty line than those who do not. Alisi Tuqa, a Fijian migrant who blogged for the ippr project, observes that ‘indirectly, my family in Fiji have also benefitted through remittances and items we sent back home; our Fiji home which we had bought is being rented; and we have had family come visit us in New Caledonia without worrying about having to pay for a hotel when here’.

It is often suggested that receiving money from relatives abroad might make people in households with absent migrants less likely to work. The data collected in this research project indicates that on average, remittances do not have a significant effect on labour force participation or unemployment levels. Though return migrants tend to have a greater chance of being unemployed than expected for people with similar characteristics for the first 12 months after return, they then adjust and this risk dissipates. Meanwhile, in Georgia and Jamaica, having an absent migrant reduces the likelihood that anyone in the household is unemployed by more than 35 per cent.

Migration also has significant social impacts – both positive and negative – on households. We found that in some countries, households with absent or returned migrants and remittances increased their spending on education and health. Households in Ghana with absent migrants, for example, spend US$107 more per year on education than those without – a considerable sum in light of the fact that the World Bank’s estimate of average annual per capita income in Ghana is US$670. In Jamaica, each additional returned migrant in a household increases healthcare spending by more than 50 per cent. These benefits are in addition to what the migrants themselves gain by being able to access education and health services abroad. Monika Trajanoska, a young migrant from Macedonia describes her experience of studying abroad as having ‘opened a lot of doors, such as by allowing me to continue my studies with a scholarship at a postgraduate level’.

However, the evidence suggests that in some countries such as Jamaica, and possibly in Ghana and Macedonia, migration may be leading to an overall drop in the numbers of skilled professionals to a degree that cannot be compensated for by the more beneficial effects of immigration, return and remittances. But 'brain drain' does not seem to be occurring uniformly across all developing countries. In Vietnam, Georgia and Colombia, the data suggests that these countries may now have more skilled people than they otherwise would have had, had no one been able to migrate. Although causality is difficult to determine here, there is evidence to suggest that migration can act as an incentive for individuals to acquire educational qualifications or skills that they otherwise would not have had, when they observe family members and friends benefiting financially and socially from having moved abroad.

The Development on the Move study also produced some interesting findings about the gender impacts of migration. For instance, more than 70 per cent of migrants from each case study country said that as a result of their experiences, they were more committed to achieving gender equality in their country of origin. However, these changes in attitudes do not necessarily seem to translate into changes in behaviour. While there is less evidence on this than on some of the other impacts, none of it suggests that migration is changing who – men or women – undertakes household tasks such as childcare, home repairs or cooking. In some countries, men who have migrated and returned actually appear to be less likely to engage in tasks traditionally thought of as being ‘female’.

Most migrants leave their countries of origin because they do not have the opportunity to achieve their goals at home. But while migration is improving the lives of many people in developing countries, these changes tend to be incremental rather than transformational. In short, migration cannot be relied upon to act as a substitute for national development strategies. As Maria Latorre, a Colombian who lived and worked in the UK for a few years before returning home, puts it, remittances are ‘just a short-term solution for poverty in a country like Colombia. Migration is a good option for those with scarce opportunities but governments should not depend on that. Migration must be a choice rather than a forced action’.

However, at both the individual and household levels, migration appears to be an important way of improving people’s lives, which suggests that policymakers should not view it primarily as a ‘problem’, at least from a development perspective.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 14, 2010 6:07 AM
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