July 27, 2012

Can we afford to ignore migration post-2015?

Posted: 10:00 AM UTC

by Anna Knoll on July 27, 2012


Policy debates in international development frequently forget to acknowledge that the actions of individual citizens are often as least as important as the large development interventions. In Haiti, benefits from remittances sent home by migrants equal nearly 20% of GDP – more than twice the earnings from the country’s exports. Similarly, the reduction of income poverty in Nepal from 42% to 26% in 15 years was not mainly due to foreign direct investments, nor due to Official Development Assistance, but rather due to outward labour migration and remittances.

Larger benefits than from aid and free trade

International development policy is approaching a crossroads. With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework officially expiring in 2015, the discussion on what will follow is gaining momentum. The deliberations on a possible post-2015 global development framework have already brought forward a range of elements to consider, many of which are built on shortcomings of the existing MDGs.

Migration was not included in the original MDG framework, despite the references in the Millennium Declaration and clear - and at that time well-known - implications of migration on most of the MDGs. Acknowledging these development benefits, should migration, and especially opportunities for international labour migration be explicitly part of the post-2015 framework on development? If so, what would related goals or targets look like? While both questions are important, we will concentrate on the first in this article.

Globally, there are around 214 million international migrants, the great majority of which crossed borders in search of better employment opportunities. This phenomenon is not restricted to people from poor countries moving to developed ones seeking work. South-South migration has been increasing and is today as significant as South-North movements. In addition North-South migration, such as outflows of young Spanish and Portuguese migrants to Angola or Argentina, have dramatically increased following the deepening of Europe’s economic crisis, reversing the historical trend of labour flows.

For a future global development framework projections of how the world is going to develop in the next decades are important. There are good reasons to assume that world wide labour migration flows will rise or at least remain constant. Factors such as demographic developments, income disparities but also climate change will pressure workers to search for employment abroad. People have moved, they are currently moving and they will continue to move for better opportunities.

Research has shown that there are enormous global economic gains from international movements of labour. As Michael Clemens points out these range from 50 – 150 per cent of world GDP, if barriers to labour movement were substantially lowered. For poor countries citizens’ this could mean benefits of 305 USD billion a year – about twice as much as combining estimated annual gains from full trade liberalization, foreign aid and debt relief, as research of Lant Pritchett shows. Similarly, the 2009 Human Development Report concludes that “large gains to human development can be achieved by lowering the barriers to movement and improving the treatment of movers”. Even for disaster risk reduction and vulnerable countries, international labour migration can be an adequate response.

Yet, in the last couple of years changes in immigration policies of receiving countries, especially in the west but increasingly in the south, have restricted labour mobility. Costs for those willing to migrate remain high and the conditions in which migrant workers live are frequently characterized by hazardous work environments, discrimination and insecurity.

Contentious but too important to be left out again

Against this background it is most welcome that the UN Task Team Report on the post-2015 UN Development Agenda acknowledges better managed migration as an essential enabler for inclusive social and economic development. Economic and other contributions of migrants to their sending and host countries need to be more fully harnessed in a post-2015 development framework. Despite these promising references in the UN report, increasing opportunities for labour migrants is however far from being on top of the development agenda. With the political sensitivities surrounding it, particularly but not only among OECD members, we may once again witness that policy makers prefer not to factor international migration explicitly in a new global framework on development. Being aware of the difficulties of negotiations on international migration some argue that it is politically unfeasible and too contentious. We have already seen international negotiations on trade in the Doha Development Round having become trapped in a stalemate and EU and ACP countries are well aware of the difficulties of negotiations on international migration.

Yet, the MDG framework created momentum, raised public awareness and focused international attention on issues important for development. With a good chance that a new development framework would have a similar effect, there are compelling reasons to start putting a focus on opportunities for international migration this time around: the development community should keep in mind that the volume of remittances by far exceeds official aid flows. For politicians in developed countries it may become increasingly costly to ignore the fact that labour immigrants will be needed in the future to sustain economic activity on current levels. Moreover, even modest changes in countries’ immigration policies can have a huge impact on people in poor countries, without bearing substantial political risk at home.

The calls for going beyond aid and focusing on other means to achieve development goals are becoming stronger. Increasing access to more opportunities for those seeking to gain a livelihood abroad is one such way to promote development in addition to Official Development Assistance. The link between migration and development is however complex and adequate policies need to be in place to mitigate some of the well-known risks, such as brain drain and health issues. Yet, international migration does and will continue to have a significant positive impact on poverty reduction and development.  An impact that any meaningful post-2015 development framework and true global partnership can perhaps no longer afford to ignore?


Anna Knoll 150x150 Can we afford to ignore migration post 2015?Anna Knoll  is Research Assistant at ECDPM’s EU External Action Programme.



HenrikeKlavert Can we afford to ignore migration post 2015? Henrike Klavert, who co-authored this article, is an independent consultant and a former Policy Officer at ECDPM.



This blog post features the authors’ personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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