Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Magnifying the gains from migration in Zimbabwe

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Travelers in Zimbabwe boarding a bus.
Travelers in Zimbabwe boarding a bus. Photo: Shutterstock

The recent World Development Report proposes a simple framework to analyze cross-border migration. It juxtaposes the motive for migration and the “match” between migrants’ attributes and the destination country’s needs. People may migrate voluntarily in search of better economic opportunities, or they may be forced to leave for fear of persecution, conflict, or violence. Depending on their level of education, work experience, skills, or other attributes, migrants may be a good or poor fit for the destination country’s labor market. This simple two-by-two matrix creates a typology of migrants and provides a useful analytical scaffolding to think about migration (Figure 1).

As we celebrate International Migrants Day, we apply this framework to understand the migration choices and outcomes in Zimbabwe and consider the policies needed to magnify the gains from migration. 

The motive and the match matrix for migrants


Motivation for migration in Zimbabwe

The primary reason Zimbabweans migrate is in search of economic opportunities. The most recent evidence comes from the Zimbabwe 2022 Population and Housing Census (PHC). Of the approximately 908,000 emigrants counted in the census, a large majority–84%–had left the country in search of employment, while another 5% had migrated for education or training (ZIMSTAT, 2023). Other nationally representative data validate this pattern. For example, the 2017 Poverty, Income, Consumption, Expenditure Survey (PICES) shows that 15% of households had at least one member living abroad, and most of them (90%) had left in search of employment (Zimbabwe Poverty Assessment, World Bank, 2022). Many of those who are still in the country also have considered leaving. For example, the 2017 Afrobarometer survey showed that almost half (47%) of adults in Zimbabwe have either considered emigration, are planning to move within two years, or are preparing to move. In contrast to voluntary migration for economic reasons, the number of people who are forcibly displaced from Zimbabwe is comparatively small.

Migrant matching

Do Zimbabwean migrants have the education and skills to match the labor market demands in destination countries? This information can be gleaned from the way in which migrants sort themselves into different destinations according to their level of education. Among those who emigrate to other countries in southern Africa, the vast majority (86%) have less than lower secondary education (Figure 2). The education profile of migrants who go farther afield is markedly different. Among those who are elsewhere in the continent, a majority (52%) have secondary or tertiary level of schooling. Those who migrate to the global north such as the UK, other European countries, or the USA are the most educated. Among them, fully three-fifths have tertiary education.


Migrants' level of education data


Policy implications

What does this imply for policy? Those who migrate to the West or farther in the continent are likely a good match for the receiving countries since they are on average more educated. Concerns about the negative effects of “brain drain” notwithstanding, remittances, investments, and transfer of skills and knowledge from these migrants have an important role to play in Zimbabwe’s growth and development. Boosting the education attainment and skills of everyone would be an equitable, “no regret” investment, improving the productivity of all workers, whether they work at home or abroad.

However, the “good match” category constitutes a small segment of all migrants. According to the 2022 PHC, only about 16% of emigrants had secondary or tertiary level of education (ZIMSTAT, 2023). This leaves a large majority of emigrants who are likely a poor match for the receiving countries. The best long-term protection for such workers is investment in human capital to boost their productive capacities, complemented by equitable access to economic opportunities at home (Zimbabwe Country Economic Memorandum, World Bank, 2022). This will obviate the need for risky cross-border moves in the first place.

What migration means for development efforts

It is important to institute robust disaster risk management (DRM) and adaptive social protection systems to improve household resilience. This will remove the necessity of hazardous migration in response to economic or natural shocks. Through the Zimbabwe Reconstruction Fund (ZIMREF), the World Bank helped strengthen social protection and DRM response with pilots such as a centralized beneficiary registry management information system (MIS), and support to the DRM Strategy planning process, formulation of the DRM Bill, and the National Plan for Emergency Preparedness and Response. A World Bank pilot project to reduce school dropout of adolescent girls after the COVID-19 pandemic through complementary social protection and WASH interventions is an example of a multisectoral intervention to enhance human capital and increase resilience. These themes will be explored in the upcoming Zimbabwe Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR).

Cooperation with the destination countries, mainly South Africa, to promote legal pathways to migration and check illicit migration is important to protect the rights and interests of circular, irregular migrants.

Internal migration

While this blog focuses on cross-border migration, much of the movement is within the national borders. Between 2012 and 2022, 3.6 million people moved from one province to another (ZIMSTAT, 2023). Data show that urban and migrant households have a lower level of poverty than rural and non-migrant households (Zimbabwe Poverty Assessment, World Bank, 2022) and, although not conclusive, the association suggests that internal migration leads to better economic outcomes. Thus, well-planned internal movement of people, connecting them to better jobs and services, will be an important component of inclusive economic growth, poverty reduction, and human development in Zimbabwe’s development path (Zimbabwe Urbanization Review, World Bank, 2022).


Eneida Fernandes

World Bank Country Manager for Zimbabwe

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