Migration: development on the move

Migration is an unstoppable fact of life in the 21st century and should be based on a sound understanding of migrants’ motivations and real life experiences.
Alex Glennie
14 June 2010

Between 2006 and 2010, the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Global Development Network conducted a major research project on the development impacts of migration.  Working in collaboration with local research partners in seven countries – Colombia, Fiji, Georgia, Ghana, Jamaica, Macedonia and Vietnam, the project collected comparable primary data on households with absent and returned migrants from across the world through an in-depth literature review, interviews with key stakeholders and, most importantly, using a new nationally-representative household survey.  In total, around 10,000 households were asked about their day-to-day experiences of migration and its material impact on their lives, building a more detailed picture of migration in developing countries than ever compiled before. 

In the past decade, the relationship between migration and development has become an increasing area of focus, and in 2009 the United Nations Development Programme devoted its influential Human Development Report to the theme of people movement. But for all that is known about migration and how it impacts on development, some big questions remain unanswered. There is still no clear estimate of how many migrants there actually are in the world.  Despite a sense that the migration of skilled workers can create a ‘brain drain’ effect in the communities they leave behind, there is insufficient evidence about this phenomenon. And most critically, few studies have been truly holistic and attempted to determine whether on balance, migration is helpful or harmful to development in poor countries. The Development on the Move project was designed to address some of these gaps in the research, and a number of interesting – and often counterintuitive – findings have emerged.

Remittances are often seen as the most important benefit for developing countries from migration.  The opportunity to remit was the third most popular reason given by migrants interviewed for our survey when asked why they had decided to migrate - behind employment opportunities and the potential of earning higher wages abroad.  In some countries, remittance flows constitute a considerable proportion of GDP and frequently outstrip levels of foreign direct investment.  Exact amounts of money being sent home by migrants and the purposes they are put to are difficult to determine, since so many of these transfers take place outside of official channels. 

However, the Development on the Move study was able to dig deeper than the headline figures about the total value of remittances and look at their effects on households.  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.  This has been difficult for countries like the UK, where strong commitments to promoting development abroad have clashed with strict domestic migration policies.  The UK’s migration for work system is closed to low-skilled migrants from outside the European Union, even though research has shown that migrating to a more developed country for work can often be the most effective way of lifting migrants, their households and their communities out of poverty.

While acknowledging the significant challenges created by this finding, it implies that policies that recognise and even facilitate people’s migration ambitions are likely to be more successful than those that inhibit and frustrate them. For instance, policies that open legal routes for migration, make it easier for migrants to invest and buy property in their country of origin while away. And policies that reduce the transfer costs associated with sending remittances home are likely to boost migration’s positive impacts on development - as are all policies that support people’s migratory intentions and their interactions with their country of origin.

In contrast, policies that try to stop emigration, to induce return without changing the wider policy environment, or even those that are simply poorly connected to the lives migrants live, such as policies that try to force migrants to invest in community development projects that they do not have a strong stake in,  are much more likely to fail. Good migration policy interventions should be based on a sound understanding of migrants’ motivations and real life experiences, and should ‘go with the flow’ of migration as an unstoppable fact of life in the 21st century.


The Development on the Move project invited migrants from the case study countries to share their stories, which can be read here.




Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData