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Collier’s Exodus: Reckless Recommendations

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Migration is a defining issue for global development. Not surprisingly, managing immigration remains among the most difficult policy challenges of our times. Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World begins to develop an analytical framework for thinking about this complex phenomenon: Migration is driven by income gaps between origin and destination countries; diaspora networks facilitate new immigration, and beyond a point, the diasporas undermine mutual trust among the taxpaying indigenes. Migration enables migrants to escape poverty and hardship, but it also drains sending countries, especially small ones, of skills. Given the global income gaps and the pull of large diasporas, migration will escalate and in the end empty out some sending countries. Receiving countries are therefore advised to limit immigration to the “happy medium” range, for the preservation of the welfare state and continued existence of the sending countries.

This highly readable book would have been commendable except for its unexpected and extreme conclusions that stretch evidence. In the end it further confuses facts to polarize views and adds to, instead of subtracting from, the complex challenges of managing migration.

It is hard to see how migration might continue until some sending countries “empty out”. One can imagine how some receiving countries might suffer a shrinking population if migration stops, but it is not easy to imagine any poor sending country emptying out because of emigration of its people. If any land is worth living in, emigration will raise wages sufficiently to either stop or begin to attract new people. If a land is not worth living in, there is of course the philosophical question: would it be too bad if it did empty out because its people escaped poverty by voluntarily migrating? Collier thinks so, even though he does not cite any evidence. He draws on the concept of “existence value” used by environmentalists to highlight the good feeling one has when species (the panda, for example) do not become extinct even if one does not ever come across them. According to Collier, societies have existence value, and “Mali should develop, not empty. It is not a satisfactory solution to Malian poverty if its people should all become prosperous elsewhere.” 

In fearing that sending countries would empty out, Collier tends to overestimate people’s desire to migrate and underestimates the pain and cost of separation from the family and the community. Migration is painful. Migration is a life event, and not a happy one in many cases. That’s why people from Bihar and Odisha in India do not migrate en masse to Delhi or Goa even though per capita income levels in the latter locations are 4-10 times larger. That’s why there are still small and dirt-poor villages co-existing with large and prosperous cities all over the world. (The occasional ghost towns in the West are a phenomenon more associated with recently migrated, resource-seeking inhabitants than “indigenes” who have been living on the land for generations.) That’s why we still have the First People in the North of Canada, Bedouins in Sahara and the tribes in the Amazon. Indeed, those working with evacuation of people know how difficult it is to make indigenous people move even in the face of natural disasters.

Collier’s fear of countries emptying out seems to be largely due to his narrow viewpoint – of migration from one small country in the South (a Caribbean country, say) to another small country in the North (the UK) in a post-crisis period. This narrow South-North, small-country view ignores the multiple migration poles developing all over the world – e.g., Bangladesh to India, Zimbabwe to South Africa, Tajikistan to Russia, and Guatemala to Mexico. Demographic projections and economic projections both point to increased South-South migration. The working age population in Africa and Asia is expected to increase by a billion and a half by 2050; it is difficult to imagine providing jobs for all of them without migration possibilities. Economic growth is inevitably accompanied by sectoral changes that require migration of workers.  As developing countries try to catch up with technology and climb the value added ladder, they would need new skills and immigration. Collier’s narrow post-crisis view loses the long-term perspective of economic growth and development that must involve sectoral changes and migration of workers across sectors, across regions, across countries.

Collier sweeps aside a mountain of new evidence on the positive developmental effects of migration on the origin countries. He underestimates the positive impacts of migration on poverty reduction via remittances—over $400 billion a year, more than three times the size of official development assistance, via trade, investments, philanthropy, and transfers of skill and technology. He ignores the evidence that a person moving from a poor country to work in a rich country can almost instantly increase incomes by 8-10 times, and that these migrants (Gandhi was a stellar example) often positively influence societal values in the origin countries.

As to receiving countries, Collier’s analytical framework ignores the evidence that increasing returns scale can be realized via clustering of human capital, as in the thriving cities all over the world.

His analytical framework focuses on a small receiving country facing a tradeoff between diversity and national identity. His use of Putnam’s findings on race diversity and societal values is not convincing in the case of migrants from different nationalities. He thinks national identity is a powerful force for good. That may not always hold true, it can even lead to violence and war. His approach to national identity is solitarist, not one where a person can identify with many things and has the choice as well as responsibility to prioritize those identities.  To quote Sen, “The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a woman, an environmental activist, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk, preferably in English.”

At times, Collier’s analogies seem politically poisonous:  “In respect of climate change, analysts have realized that the safe rate of carbon emissions is derived from the safe stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In respect of migration, the equivalent concept is the safe size of the unabsorbed diaspora”.

The only hope for stopping unwanted migration is convergence of incomes among nations, for which the more appropriate policy would be to reduce barriers to mobility. Border controls create developmental gaps, and give rise to place premiums. Absence of border controls can promote more benign voluntary migration and circular migration.

Collier could have been commended for a courageous, head-on discussion of difficult questions related to immigration. Instead, he will be noted for a lazy, selective, self-serving citation of the literature and reckless policy recommendations.

Note: I was a discussant at the OECD/KNOMAD seminar in Dec, 2013, where Paul Collier presented his book, "Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World."


Dilip Ratha

Lead Economist and Economic Adviser to the Vice President of Operations, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, World Bank

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