Migrants and development: a new era

About the author
Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie is a co-founder of the African Foundation for Development (Afford), and a consultant and writer on international development

Also in openDemocracy, Gregory Maniatis of the Migration Policy Institute critically assesses the 2005 report of the Global Commission on International Migration, Migration in an interconnected world: New directions for action:

”The road to nowhere” (6 October 2005)

As states and international agencies struggle to deliver the promise of development in the 21st century, they are increasingly turning to migration and migrants to do the job for them. But what kind of relationship will they choose: cooptation or collaboration?

A battle for trained talent is looming for countries and companies alike. Developing countries are producing twice as many educated graduates as are developed countries. In 2005, migrants from developing countries sent $167bn in remittances to relatives and friends in developing countries. For some countries, this sum exceeds domestic tax revenues, foreign aid, export earnings on commodities, and foreign direct investment.

The human impacts of migration, and the efforts of governments to restrict migration flows, are equally great. Between January and October 2006, for example, Canary Islands authorities recorded more than 25,000 destitute African undocumented migrants risking all to seek jobs and a better life in Europe. In September 2006, the US department of homeland security awarded Boeing a contract reported to be worth $2.1 billion to deploy high-tech equipment to police the borders with Mexico (and Canada) against illegal immigration.

Migration is important, urgent, complex, and sensitive. It raises a host of issues, including labour, human rights, demographics (as in low fertility and ageing populations), women's experience, social integration, citizenship, national security, and xenophobia and racism. International migration is now as much a matter between states at it is within them.

A growing interest in the link between international migration and development is the latest twist in migration's long history. To grapple with this, the United Nations general assembly convened, for the first time, a High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development on 14-15 September 2006 in New York. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan confidently declared: "Just a few years ago, many people did not think it possible to discuss migration at the United Nations. Governments, they said, would not dare to bring into the international arena a topic on which their citizens are so sensitive."

At the heart of the meeting were four informal roundtable sessions dealing with various aspects of international migration and development. Some 130 UN member-states participated in the dialogue, reflecting the growing worldwide importance of this issue. Among non-state participants were twelve representatives from civil society (this author among them) and the private sector.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie works for the London-based non-profit organisation, the African Foundation for Development (Afford)

Also by Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie in openDemocracy:

"African agency vs the aid industry"
(July 2005)

"The G8 summit: good for Africans?"
(July 2005)

"Accountability, Africa and her diaspora" (September 2005)

"Make poverty history? Make migration easy!" (10 January 2006)

There is clearly some justification for embracing informal dialogue in the search for consensus and concerted action on migration and development (the Global Commission on International Migration, which presented its report to Kofi Annan in October 2005) recommended increased coherence, cooperation, and capacity-building to harness the benefits of migration for development).

The complexity and contentiousness of the issues challenge rich and poor countries alike. The Netherlands' representative was able to boast of efforts by his government to bring together the ministries responsible for international development, immigration, and labour to hammer out a joint policy paper - a process he described as "difficult" - for parliamentarians to debate.

By contrast, the UK's department for international development (DfID) has yet to produce its long-awaited policy paper on international migration and development. The most recent delays in its publication are linked to changes at the top of the home office and an alleged renewed hardening of attitudes on questions related to immigration.

Informal dialogue enabled sending countries to air their concerns. Ghana, for instance, was among a number of countries to express anxieties at the damage that mass expulsions of undocumented migrants would inflict on the economy in terms of loss of remittance income.

A downside to the informal nature of the dialogue is the lack of clarity on concrete outcomes (although it was decided that Belgium will host the first follow-up forum in 2007). Some developing country delegates complained that host countries in the north focused excessively on readmission agreements with sending countries and were overplaying the potential of migrants' developmental impact to deflect attention away from rich countries' own development obligations. Rights of migrants and their families, compensation for loss of skilled personnel, tax rebates on remittances were just some of the issues sending countries raised, although it is too early to say whether the dialogue moved the debate towards satisfactory resolutions.

The remittance vehicle

Migrants' and diasporas' decisions about use of their resources lie at the heart of efforts to harness the benefits of migration for development in their countries of origin. This underpinned Belgium's observation that there are four partners in this migration and development dialogue: sending countries, receiving countries, transition countries, and migrants and diasporas.

However, migrants' representation at the high-level dialogue was limited. Ultimately, such a global forum needs migrants to be organised and to participate directly. Civil-society groups and NGOs are inadequate proxies for migrants' own organisations, given the many questions about how well the former can represent the latter. This is a huge and urgent challenge for migrant leaders and groups to tackle, and one that states themselves shall have to facilitate if they want to devise workable solutions to the task of harnessing migrants' resources for development.

Inevitably, there was a huge focus on remittances during the dialogue. However, as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) pointed out, only 13% of migrants' earnings find their way home in remittances; 87% stay in the destination country. Is this a fair share of resources? France and the Netherlands have offered migrants tax incentives on their remittances. As an alternative to rebates for individuals, Africans in Britain have called for a pooling of tax rebates into a fund that migrants can control and direct towards development initiatives in their regions of interest.

Nonetheless, remittance tax relief has strange bedfellows:  Zimbabwe called for receiving countries such as Britain, now home to a growing number of Zimbabwean workers, to hand over the tax collected directly to the government of Zimbabwe. Clearly, this would be unacceptable to the British government and to most Zimbabwean migrant workers.

Latin American states have taken the boldest steps in recognising the essentially transnational character of contemporary migration: many of "their" migrants live simultaneously in the host country and the country of origin, through frequent travel, cheap communications, active cultural and social associational life, and consumption habits.

In response, several countries in the region (El Salvador is one example) now have a ministry dedicated to the affairs of the diaspora, offer dual nationality and have even amended their constitution to enable diaspora communities to directly elect their own representatives to sit in the legislature. These states understand that if migrants are to scale up their contributions to the development of their home regions, the originating states need to maintain a meaningful social contract with them.

These efforts are already paying dividends: representatives from Latin America estimate that today some 33% of the $60bn in remittances received is invested productively, an increase of 5% since 2001. Mali, by contrast, reckons only 5% of remittances are productively invested today.

Beyond remittances, however, migrants will increasingly have to consider how they can deploy knowledge, skills, and networks to help address the most pressing issue in the developing world: the creation of the 430 million jobs, 80% of them in the developing countries, needed (according to the International Labour Organisation) between 2006 and 2015.

Whether we can harness the benefits of international migration for development depends to a large degree on the will and ability of migrant and diaspora communities to step up their efforts and to exercise effective leadership in this direction. It also depends upon whether state and non-state actors alike will lose their old habits of top-down imposition and work in facilitative and collaborative ways with migrants and their home communities to effect lasting change.