Governments and private sector actions can drive down remittance prices for migrants (Credit: DFID-UK, Flickr Creative Commons)
An estimated 215 million people – 3 percent of the world’s population – have emigrated far from home in order to earn enough to support their families. They include workers from Bangladesh who go to Saudi Arabia to work in the construction trade, Afghans who go to Iran to work in the oilfields, and workers from Burkina Faso who go to Cote d’Ivoire to work on the cocoa or coffee harvests.
Toiling far from their loved ones is not their only burden. When migrants send their money home, they are often charged exorbitant fees, which can account for a large portion of the small sums being sent - sometimes upwards of 20 percent – and can inflict a punishing burden on poor migrants.
In the old times, the post office was the main connector between cities and villages, moving letters and money to every corner of the country, and contributing towards the territorial consolidation of states under construction.
Nowadays in developing countries, the post office is often seen as an old, inefficient, deficit-making, and outdated public service which has not been able to keep up with the evolving markets. It takes some imagination to see the post office as a potential engine for economic growth and social inclusion.
Migrant workers, earning money in jobs far from home, sent more than $400 billion to their families back home in 2012. Such remittances remain a vital source of income for millions of people in developing countries: Food, housing, education, health care and more are paid for every day by workers who earn money abroad. Through a simple and repetitive transaction – sending money home – those workers are really sending heart-warming feelings like hope for a better future and love of family.
Should you ever need a haircut in South London, you would have the option to choose from a wide array of African hair stylists. There you can get your hair colored, cut, or braided, while chatting up the latest gossip in town, and... you can send money back to Nigeria.
Many stores in South London allow you to send money abroad. It looks just like a fruit market, where the sellers have to compete among each other. Aside from trying to lure customers in with the best looking apples and pears, they also keep their prices exposed.
But the world is not... ("...enough" you are thinking, if you are a James Bond fan) ...the world is not South London and remittance services are not crispy apples nor they are juicy pears. The price for sending money might include a fee, taxes, a margin on the exchange rate applied, and a commission to the receiver. And each service is different in terms of speed and extensiveness of the network where money can be picked up by the receiver. In other words, it is not as easy to compare as the price of apples.
Economists usually enjoy working on economic data and writing up reports. But Sudharshan Canagarajah also likes giving conventional economic thinking a nudge — in this case, on migration.
As the World Bank’s Lead Economist for Tajikistan, Sudharshan noticed that Tajiks were on the move. In response to the country’s various crises, they sought new opportunities, mainly in Russia. They had no support from government, and little attention from donors, but the money they sent home created a huge economic impact.
Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the US. Sending remittances to Somalia was put at risk late December when the Sunrise Community Bank in Minneapolis announced that it was going to close the accounts of all Somali remittance companies on December 30th 2011.To our knowledge, the Sunrise Community Bank was the last bank that was serving Somali remittance companies in Minneapolis. Closure of accounts meant no operation for remittance companies. This in turn meant no money for remittance-dependent Somalis, who had no other options since remittance service providers such as Western Union and MoneyGram didn’t operate in Somalia. Aid groups lobbied to challenge the closure, and their petition reached all the way up to President Obama.
Emiko Todoroki, Senior Financial Sector Specialist, the World Bank and the chief organizer of the Caribbean Remittance Forum
Talking about remittances, that is, sending money to a home country in the Caribbean region is not new. In fact, it is an everyday issue. Remittances are an important source of income to the world’s poor, and certainly the case in the Caribbean Region. For example, remittances represent more than 20% of GDP in Guyana; and almost one in two households in Jamaica receives them. That is why literally everyone knows so much about remittances and you can start a debate on them with ordinary people. We were interviewed by a local radio about the 2-day Forum which we organized, and the questions by the host were really sharp. The questions were no remittances 101; it was more like remittances 501!