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Secondary towns for migration and jobs: The first move is different

Luc Christiaensen's picture
The key to breaking the vicious circle is the first move. This is the first, often bold step into the unknown. It comes with the realization that things need to be shaken up to overturn the seemingly inalterable conditions that keep people confined to the village. (Photo: Hendri Lombard / World Bank)


For a young person who has spent his or her whole life living in a village in rural Africa, moving out is often desirable in theory, but daunting in practice. From the life histories of migrants in Tanzania it becomes clear that a number of important resources are needed, which are typically scarce in supply, particularly within the village. These include, among others, cash to pay the bus fare and a familiar face at destination, professional skills to find meaningful employment, and the life skills to operate in the anonymous, cash-based urban environment. And just because of the particular challenge of getting these in the village, the first move becomes so special.

Secondary towns for migration and jobs: What makes a town a town and why it matters

Luc Christiaensen's picture
Asking how migrants themselves see the difference may further help understand why they often move to towns, while the income levels and amenities are higher in the cities. (Photo: Hendri Lombard / World Bank)


In our previous post, we explored how migration from rural to urban areas is not a one-step move, but rather a dynamic lifelong process that expands and modifies migrants’ action space and opportunities to improve their life conditions, and how the attraction of secondary towns could be partly understood within this framework because of their role as “action space” enhancers.

Yet, defining precisely what constitutes a town or a city is tricky, to the point that Wittgenstein found it even a useful analogy with which to demonstrate definitional conundrums more broadly. “And how many houses or streets does it take for a town to be a town?”, he rhetorically asks his readers, while discussing at what point a language should be considered complete in his Philosophical Investigations.

At the same time, the distinction between towns and cities is intuitively unambiguous to most non-experts. Asking how migrants themselves see the difference may further help understand why they often move to towns, while the income levels and amenities are higher in the cities. According to the conversations we had with 75 migrants from rural Kagera, Tanzania, three dimensions stand out: vibrancy, monetization and anonymity.

Secondary towns for migration and jobs: Creating the action space

Luc Christiaensen's picture
These are some of the insights emerging from the in-depth conversations with 75 migrants from rural Kagera, Tanzania which are recounted here in a 3-blog series. This first blog focuses on the importance of “Making action space”. (Photo: Hendri Lombard / World Bank)


Raymond is a young boy living in rural Kagera, Tanzania. He has always dreamed of moving to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s prime city, 1,650 km away and currently with a population of 4.5 million. Getting there, for someone with his background and skills, was next to impossible. But, having familiarized himself with the wheeling and dealing of urban life through his moves through several secondary towns in Tanzania, he is getting closer. Over the past few years, he moved 8 times, expanding and contracting his action space with each move.

The story of Raymond challenges the traditional vision of rural to urban migration as a one-step process. It further draws attention to the opportunity that secondary towns can add for improving people’s welfare through migration. These are some of the insights emerging from the in-depth conversations with 75 migrants from rural Kagera, Tanzania which are recounted here in a 3-blog series. This first blog focuses on the importance of “Making action space”.

Migration and Developing Country Labor Markets

Amelie Constant's picture

In developed countries, vocal debates about how much immigration is desirable often make the headlines, but what’s the case for migration in the developing world? We recently discussed this topic with one of the leading experts on the economics of migration — Amelie Constant, Program Director of Migration at the Institute for the Study of Labor (Bonn), and a visiting professor at George Washington University and Temple University.

China's Labor Challenges

Cai Fang's picture

For China, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, a huge challenge is balancing growth between the booming coastal areas and the inland areas. We spoke about this and China's labor market with Cai Fang, one of China's most influential economists. Fang describes how efforts to balance growth are affecting China's huge migrant worker population, which typically lacks the formal employment contracts enjoyed by urban workers.