Migration and Development

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The positive and negative effects of migration lead to the conclusion that a cooperative management of migration is needed


by Hans Werner Mundt

There is renewed interest in the nexus between migration and development, with the issue being intensively discussed at international conferences and workshops. The discussion has been pushed strongly by the World Bank, particularly in its “Global Development Finance Report “of 2003. This relatively new debate emphasises the positive impact of migration on the countries of emigration, in particular focusing on the role of remittances.

More recently the discussion has broadened further to include other activities of Diasporas, such as investment, trade and charitable actions. The World Bank report demonstrated the fact that remittances form the most important source of external finance for most developing countries. Exceptions include some of the emerging markets which receive more foreign direct investment. Since 2003, remittances have continued to increase, though this is probably also due in part to the availability of better statistical data. According to a survey carried out by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, remittances add up to about USD 3 billion.

Even the emigration of highly skilled persons, usually described as the brain drain, has been at least partially reinterpreted as a brain gain. The theory suggests that highly skilled emigrants are likely to return with their newly acquired skills to their home countries and contribute to development there. This effect has been observed in detail in the case of the nearly 500,000 Indian IT-professionals migrating to the USA.

Now, in addition to this, scholars have shown how the prospect of migration has also led to a noticeable rise of university graduates. This has not only increased the number of highly qualified migrants, but has also improved the human resources in the respective countries. Finally the contribution made by transnational networks of emigrants from the countries of origin has been emphasised by a number of scholars.

In the excitement to advance the development agenda we should remember some very basic facts:

  • Migration is a highly complex social phenomenon. Its development impacts cannot be understood when we focus on a single aspect of this phenomenon such as remittances. What we must do is to trade off the positive against the negative effects of migration. Remittances alleviate the poverty of families and might even foster economic development by its multiplier effect. But at the same time they might reduce the efforts of the recipient families to earn their own livelihoods at home. Remittances strengthen the balance of payments of the receiving countries, yet they might at the same time reduce the competitiveness of these counties by increasing the external value of their currencies, thereby weakening the competitiveness of the local export industry. Furthermore the development impact of remittances cannot be properly assessed without taking into account other effects of migration. High levels of remittances might imply a large number of disrupted families, single mothers or fathers, and children growing up without their parents or in single-parent families. As a consequence, the development effects of migration can only be judged by balancing economic, social, cultural and political implications.
  • Such an assessment will bring about a mixed picture with regard to the development impact of migration. Whether there is a positive or a negative impact will depend on the structure of the émigré population (e.g. highly skilled or unskilled), the number of highly skilled as a proportion of the overall numbers of highly skilled available in the original county, the inclination to return and to invest (which in turn also depends on the overall investment climate), the uses remittances are put to (productive or pure consumption; consumption of local or imported goods), and so on. Each case will be different and has to be examined carefully in order to formulate a development-oriented political response.
  • Designing a migration policy is not an easy task; to get it accepted can be even more difficult. We have to concede that there are conflicts of interest between the sending and receiving countries. For instance, sending countries might be interested in the emigration of low-skilled persons, while receiving countries want to attract highly-skilled persons. Combating illegal migration and the readmission of irregular migrants is more likely to be in the interest of the receiving countries. In most fields of policy, conflicts of interest are usually resolved through negotiation, normally moderated by specialised, international organisations - as, for example, with trade or cross-border capital flows regulated by the IMF and WTO. Migration policies, by contrast, are still decided unilaterally by the receiving countries. Migration is still governed in the way that trade was during the times of Colbert’s mercantilism. In fact, there is no political or institutional framework through which a reconciliation of conflicting interests could take place.

There is much talk of win-win, or even triple-win scenarios. Yet it is hard to imagine how these scenarios could come true if migration remains one of the last areas of truly protectionist policy.

What are the prospects for change?

Some effort was made by the former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Anan, who organised the first High Level Dialogue on International Migration in 2006, followed by a Forum on International Migration and Development in Brussels in 2007, and in Manila in 2008. But there is no indication that this process will lead to any more cooperative management of migration. Neither have the efforts of the EU Commission - starting with the conferences of Rabat and Tripoli — shown any results yet. As long as the negotiations focus on irregular migration and re-admission and do not open a window for legal migration they will fail.

Why should governments -particularly ministers of home affairs - agree to negotiate migration instead of deciding it unilaterally? With an estimated five million irregular immigrants in the EU and a chaotic situation on the EU’s southern and eastern boarders; with the consequent loss of confidence among the EU population in the ability of their governments to control migration properly; and with the incompatibility of migration policies and other policies such as trade or development: with all these pressures, the governments should finally realise that the unilateral management of migration is simply not feasible.

Negotiation does not mean that borders will be opened. Rather, negotiation and the cooperative management of migration mean that migration policies can be formed based on the needs and interests of the EU while taking into account the legitimate interests of the sending countries. Not until this is done can we talk seriously about migration and development.


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Dr. Hans Werner Mundt is Senior Advisor at the Department Migration and Development of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ).