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Migration and Development: Who Bears the Burden of Proof? Justin Sandefur replies to Paul Collier

Duncan Green's picture

Justin Sandefur responds to yesterday’s post by Paul Collier on the impact of migration on developing countries, and you get to vote.

The global diaspora of educated Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans living in the developed world stand accused of undermining the development of their countries of origin.

Paul Collier’s recent book, Exodus, makes the case for strict ceilings on the movement of people from poor countries to rich ones.  My colleague Michael Clemens and I already reviewed the book at length for Foreign Affairs (ungated here), but Duncan asked me to respond to the specific issue Paul raised in his recent post for this blog: that skilled migration from some low-income countries is so high that it undermines the development prospects of people “left behind”.

I suspect many people reading this blog in Europe or North America share Professor Collier’s skepticism about skilled migration. You are not racist or xenophobic.  You are concerned about the plight of the global poor, and you welcome diversity in your community. But you worry that maybe Paul’s right.  Maybe the fate of your university-educated Haitian neighbor down the street, earning a good salary and sending her kids to good schools since moving to the UK, is a distraction from, and maybe even a hindrance to, reducing poverty in Haiti.

How Does Emigration Affect Countries-of-Origin? Paul Collier Kicks Off a Debate on Migration

Duncan Green's picture

Take a seat people, you’re in for a treat. Paul Collier kicks off an exchange with Justin Sandefur on that hottest of hot topics, migration. I’ve asked them to focus on the impact on poor countries, as most of the press debate concentrates on the impact in the North. Justin replies tomorrow and (if I can work the new software) you will then get to vote. Enjoy.

How does emigration affect the people left behind in poor countries? That many countries still provide little hope of even basic prosperity to their citizens is the great global challenge of our century. It is a vital matter that the poorest countries catch up with the rich world, but it will require decades of sustained high growth. To see how emigration might affect this process of convergence we need some understanding of why poor countries have remained poor. Poverty persists in very poor countries because of weak political institutions, dysfunctional social attitudes, and a lack of skills. These all make it difficult to harness economic opportunities. Emigration can either help or hinder convergence depending upon who leaves, how many leave, and for how long they go.

Potentially the most important effect of emigration is on political institutions and social attitudes. There is now solid evidence that emigrants can be influential in their home societies. Students from poor countries who have studied abroad in democracies and then return home bring with them pro-democracy attitudes. They spread these attitudes and are sufficiently influential that they speed up democratization. An astonishingly high proportion of the political leaders of poor countries have studied and worked abroad, and this equips them with both new skills and new attitudes. Even migrants who do not return have some influence with their relatives back home. During elections they give advice and commentary, and they become role models for smaller family size.

The Currency of Diasporas

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

The financial contributions that diasporas make to their countries of origin have received an enormous amount of attention. It’s not surprising with figures like $372 billion, the estimated amount of remittance flows that developing countries received in 2011. Indeed, this is a significant contribution that warrants our attention, but there is another type of currency that diasporas provide that has received much less consideration—the political capital attained through citizen activism.

In countries facing governance challenges, diaspora communities, particularly those living in more democratic countries, have a number of advantages over local activists in their home countries. For one, their economic contributions often provide them with influence over important social and political issues.  Their organizational power is another important contribution, one that Steven Vertovec writes about in his piece entitled, The Political Importance of Diasporas. He notes that diaspora based associations can lobby host countries to change polices in favor of a homeland and influence homelands in support of or in opposition to governments.