Migration and development: how to improve on a feeble new Human Development Report

October 20, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

HDR_2009_coverThe Human Development Report, published by UNDP, is traditionally the best of the UN annual tomes. This year’s HDR, entitled Overcoming Barriers, discusses migration. It’s a critical issue in development – moving in search of work and a better life has always been a strategy for people living in poverty as most modern-day Americans and Australians can testify (not including indigenous inhabitants, and we deported some of the Aussies, but you know what I mean).

First, some highlights from the survey of the data, which explodes any number of stereotypes:

‘The 2009 HDR explores how better policies towards human mobility can enhance human development. It lays out the case for governments to reduce restrictions on movement within and across their borders, so as to expand human choices and freedoms.

The overwhelming majority of people who move do so inside their own country. Using a conservative definition, we estimate that approximately 740 million people are internal migrants—almost four times as many as those who have moved internationally. Among people who have moved across national borders, just over a third moved from a developing to a developed country—fewer than 70 million people. Most of the world’s 200 million international migrants moved from one developing country to another or between developed countries

Most migrants, internal and international, reap gains in the form of higher incomes, better access to education and health, and improved prospects for their children. Surveys of migrants report that most are happy in their destination.

People displaced by insecurity and conflict face special challenges. There are an estimated 14 million refugees living outside their country of citizenship, representing about 7 percent of the world’s migrants. Most remain near the country they fled, typically living in camps until conditions at home allow their return, but around half a million per year travel to developed countries and seek asylum there. A much larger number, some 26 million, have been internally displaced.

The share of international migrants in the world’s population has remained remarkably stable at around 3 percent over the past 50 years, despite factors that could have been expected to increase flows.[cheaper transport, communications etc] [The reason lies in increasing] government-imposed barriers to movement. Internal migration rates have also only increased slightly.’ (see graph)internal migration rates

And what’s the HDR’s proposal?

‘Overcoming Barriers lays out a core package of reforms, which comprises six ‘pillars’. Each pillar is beneficial on its own, but together these offer the best chance of maximizing the human development impacts of migration:

1. Liberalizing and simplifying regular channels that allow people with low skills to seek work abroad;
2. Ensuring basic rights for migrants;
3. Reducing transaction costs associated with migration;
4. Improving outcomes for migrants and destination communities;
5. Enabling benefits from internal mobility; and
6. Making mobility an integral part of national development strategies.’

There’s some good detail under each heading, but I must admit, I find it a pretty disappointing list. Why?  Because it ignores the political realities of migration – anti-immigrant feeling is high all over the rich world and yet the debate seems paralysed, with no attempt to find new ways of ensuring that migration benefits all sides. What is the HDR’s response to this? To ignore it, apart from saying ‘you are wrong’ to the anti-migration lobby and making some rather feeble exhortations for ‘political leadership’, which basically consists of asking politicians to commit professional suicide by becoming advocates for increased migration. Hardly a winning strategy.

This absence of political engagement contrasts with an excellent draft paper by Gonzalo Fanjul and Lant Pritchett (submitted to the new Global Policy journal), which argues that ‘labor mobility is a glaring, and as yet unaddressed, challenge to fair and progressive system of global governance.’ Gonzalo and Lant argue that since both unilateral liberalization and a binding, WTO-style international agreement are ‘politically radioactive’ in the rich countries, the answer will have to lie in what they call a ‘Goldilocks approach’ somewhere between the two, that is “adaptive” and “pluri-lateral”. How would this work?

‘Countries or other entities could join an organization by acceding to a minimal(ist) core set of standards.  The organization would then serve three functions: 
(a) a registry of migration voluntary agreements among the nation-state members of whatever scope the nation-state members choose (bi-lateral, regional, open accession by a host, multi-lateral),
(b) an implementation and dispute-resolution forum dealing with registered agreements, and
(c) a capability to examine experiences and promote extension of success, tailored to circumstances.’

Such an organization would allow countries to experiment, learn and share that learning, while reducing some of the political risks in doing so. Gonzalo and Lant point out that lots of interesting experiments are already happening (as does the HDR, to be fair), but they are not being scaled up or passed on rapidly enough:

‘New Zealand has launched a temporary migration scheme for agricultural labor with explicitly developmental objectives; Canada and Jamaica have an innovative program in which cooperation in voluntary return of temporary migrants is encouraged by allocating fixed quotas to specific Jamaican localities; Spain is considering a range of “co-development” schemes with major migration partners.  There are innovations in improving aspects of existing large-scale flows—such as protection of the human rights of Indonesian migrants—by publicizing their rights and providing access to regular communication.  There are also existing large scale successful programs in managing repeat temporary migration, often just within sending countries but also involving bi-lateral agreements, such as those in the Philippines.  Individually, these are not “the solution” waiting to be adapted, but by having no organizational nexus in which lessons can be drawn and elaborated they lack sufficient dynamism to scale up and affect the system.’

Shame the HDR didn’t borrow more of these ideas. And the final word goes to Gonzalo (who – declaration of interest – is a friend and works for Intermon – Oxfam Spain); ‘why is no big international NGO campaigning on this? I fear our capacity for outrage is selective.’

October 20, 2009
Duncan Green