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Jonathan McIntosh via Flickr

Should and can development cooperation reduce labour migration?

Theo Rauch | 09 July 2018

When asked about solutions to the ‘refugee crisis’, politicians often refer to fighting the root causes of labour migration by improving living conditions in migrant regions of origin through development cooperation. However, the topic is highly controversial. Some people question whether development cooperation might be misused for preventing migration and others doubt whether it can actually prevent migration.

From a human rights perspective, the answer to whether development cooperation should address the root causes of migration is easy: If addressing root causes means reducing migration pressure by providing people in their home regions with better food, job or income prospects, this is perfectly in line with the objectives of development cooperation. If, however, development cooperation funds are misused for preventing migrants from reaching their destination, the answer is a clear no.

The ‘can-question’ is more complicated to answer. Evidence shows that development cooperation has not been very successful in creating sufficient jobs and income opportunities in poor people’s home regions so far. A closer look at the ‘push-factors’ of labour migration gives a hint as to the reasons why.

First, through stimulating economic growth, economic globalization under free-market conditions has failed to create sufficient jobs and income opportunities for a growing population due to progressing rationalization of production. Trade liberalization prevents governments from protecting their producers from external high-tech competition. As a result, many countries suffer from ‘job-less growth’. This corresponds to the widespread pattern of trans-local livelihood systems, in which people in poor regions tend to respond to limited economic opportunities in their home places. Family members follow strategies of regional diversification as neither their home regions nor their places of destination offer sufficient income opportunities. Thus, migration has become an integral part of survival systems. More than half of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa is part of such diversified rural-urban livelihood systems.

Furthermore, demographic and environmental factors also have an impact. Increasing numbers of young people are entering African labour markets due to high population growth rates around 2.5%. Most African countries are in a stage of demographic transition, where fertility rates are still to follow declining mortality rates, as people tend to reduce births only after being sure that their children will survive. Last but not least, climate change and environmental degradation tend to deteriorate income opportunities.

Looking at the short term, none of these driving forces for outmigration can be easily eliminated by means of development cooperation. Some experts even fear that successful poverty reduction by development cooperation might stimulate far-distance migration by enabling poorer sections to afford the high migration costs to overseas destinations. While there is evidence of a correlation between people’s wealth and migration distance, this argument neglects the cascade nature of migration systems: If the migration pressure in rural regions is reduced, the pressure transmitted to better-off people competing for limited income opportunities in urban regions will also be reduced. Thus, poverty reduction in regions of origin can reduce migration pressure in the whole migration system.

The big question is how? As development cooperation has the potential to either reduce or increase migration pressures, the overarching strategy recommendation is to ‘do no harm’ and ‘leave no one behind’. In other words, the strategy needs to be socially inclusive by creating more income opportunities than it destroys. Our research experience shows that different strategies, outlined below, need to be considered to arrive at a positive income and employment effect in migrants’ home regions.

  • Trade policies: International trade agreements should allow governments to protect labour-intensive trades against the competition of capital-intensive imports or investors.
  • Climate policies: Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be accompanied by supporting climate change adaptation and sustainable management of natural resources in poor regions.
  • Identifying opportunities: Development cooperation should help identify labour-intensive income opportunities that have a fair chance to become internationally competitive.
  • Appropriate technologies: Promote the development of appropriate technologies according to the principle ‘as labour-intensive as possible while as capital-intensive, efficient and ‘smart’ as necessary’ for becoming competitive, at least in local markets.
  • Human potential: Analyze the often under-estimated potential of poor producers.
  • Producer organization: Assist poor small-scale producers to get organized for getting fair and effective access to markets and services as a prerequisite for making use of their potential. 
  • Skills development: Training needs to be related to existing local opportunities. Otherwise it may just serve as a springboard for migration.
  • Investment promotion: As investments may destroy more income opportunities than they create, they need to be promoted according to their net-employment effect, which requires analyzing their impact on existing local economic activities.
  • Land policies: As long as off-farm income opportunities are limited and insecure, land policies should avoid making poor smallholders landless by compelling them to sell land in case of indebtedness.
  • Public works programmes: Labour-intensive schemes for building public infrastructure should be supported as they can provide necessary seasonal income opportunities in the short-term. This might be a necessity, considering the limited scope for quick improvements under the prevailing global economic environment.

By following these strategy guidelines, development cooperation, accompanied by a developmental trade, investment and climate policy, can contribute to fighting the root causes of labour migration by creating a positive net-employment effect in the regions of origin. If done effectively, international migration may be reduced but —as long as the unequal distribution of global wealth persists—probably not stopped.

Photo credit main picture: Jonathan McIntosh via Flickr