Is South-South migration better at reducing poverty than South-North?

June 1, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Interesting research on migration in the June issue of World Development. Sorry, no ungated version available. Two papers contrast the poverty and inequality impacts of North-South and South-South migration: Mexicans migrating to the US and Nicaraguans migrating elsewhere in Central America.

The Mexican study, by Alejandro de la Fuente from the World Bank, finds that “support available to the rural poor through remittances is surprisingly low and transfers are not going to the poorest members in rural communities in Mexico.” He concludes that encouraging migration is definitely no substitute for building social safety nets for the poorest. This makes sense – migrating to another country is expensive, and easier for those with connections beyond their communities and experience of travel. All these are likely to be in shorter supply among the poorest households.

In contrast, the Nicaraguan case study by Karen Macours at John Hopkins University and Renos Vakis at the World Bank finds that South-South migration is more likely to be pro-poor (partly, I imagine, because the barriers to entry are lower in crossing over the border to a fellow Spanish-speaking country than running the gauntlet to enter the US). Specifically, the paper looks at seasonal migration (typically to find jobs at harvest time) and compares the impact of male and female migration on early childhood development (ECD).

The authors are somewhat surprised to find that migration by mothers has a more positive effect than migration by fathers. “We attribute these findings to changes in income and to the intra-household empowerment gains resulting from mother’s migration, which offset potential negative early childhood development effects from temporary lack of parenting.”

Some other twists: the authors reckon this effect will be more pronounced with seasonal migration, since the migrants often return home clutching the money. Rather than women sending home remittances (where if stereotypes are right, men will grab them and gleefully head for the local bar), when they come home with the money it is more likely to be spent on feeding and clothing the kids.

which is better for the kids?
which is better for the kids?

coffee picker woman


Overall, it’s not clear how much of the greater benefits in the Nicaraguan case are due to the south-south effect, and how much to the seasonality, but they may well be linked anyway, as it’s more likely people will undertake short-term migration to neighbouring countries with fewer border controls.

This echoes some of the findings of a useful overview, recently published by a DFID-funded consortium of research institutions. Making Migration Work for Development comes up with 10 main points:

1. Poor people are more likely to move over shorter distances, either within or between poor countries.

2. One of the least visible forms of migration, but one of particular importance in poor communities, is that of children and young people who move without their parents.

3. Education and training play a major role in the migration decisions of children and poor people

4. Liberalising the mobility of people should lead to global welfare benefits.

5. Where poor people have a greater choice in terms of migration destinations, the net effect on inequality is more likely to be positive.

6. Access to formal social protection for migrants is highly patchy

7. Skilled migration is largely a symptom, not a cause, of underdevelopment.

8. Migration can both exacerbate the impact of existing gendered roles and bring about significant changes in gender norms.

9. Diaspora engagement can contribute to the development of countries of origin

10. Policy development on migration remains fragmentary, and there is still a lack of consensus on what pro-poor migration policies should look like in poor countries.

June 1, 2010
Duncan Green