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Collier–Sandefur Debate on Migration – What is the Question Please?

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Paul Collier and Justin Sandefur are discussing migration with recent postings on the popular From Poverty to Power blog hosted by Duncan Green of OXFAM.  But, can we please first agree on the question?

Collier’s blog-post starts with the question of how emigration affects people in countries of origin, and goes on to emphasize that the pertinent issue is “whether poor countries would be better off with somewhat faster, or somewhat slower emigration than they have currently.” His answer, in a nutshell, is that it depends: on the country of origin (“in small countries that are falling further behind … brain drain predominates” when there is further skilled migration) and the emigrant (students – good, unskilled – fine, skilled worker – may already be excessive). To this, one could also add that it depends on the host country (and the scope for migrants realizing their potential there) and the circumstances of the migration (voluntary or forced).

Sandefur’s blog-post emphasizes a different question.  Rather than focusing on the rate of skilled emigration, what “we’re really talking about [is] whether to deport your neighbor … or refuse her a visa in the first place,” he says, going on to ask “who bears the burden of proof?” His answer: “[it] should be heavy and it should rest on the shoulders of those who would build walls and tear apart families.” He adds that, empirically, there is no brain-drain from poor countries, emigration helps promote development, and “there is zero evidence that trapping skilled workers in places with few skilled jobs will generate growth.”     

The reader is then invited to participate in a poll as follows (results at the time I participated in the poll included in brackets):

Having read both posts, my considered opinion on migration's impact on countries of origin is:

  1. Rich countries should not consider restricting skilled immigration from poor countries on developmental grounds (77%, 120 votes)
  2. There is no evidence that poor countries are being harmed by emigration (48%, 74 votes)
  3. I am totally confused and have no idea who is right (10%, 15 votes)
  4. Many of the poorest countries are being harmed by emigration of skilled workers (8%, 13 votes)
  5. Rich countries should consider restricting skilled immigration from poor countries on developmental grounds (3%, 4 votes)
The total number of voters at the time was 155, and the total votes cast were 226. The moderator then suggests drawing “a veil over the slightly disappointing migration wonkmassacre wonkfirstroundknockout wonkwar and get on with other stuff.”
In my mind, what is disappointing is that the protagonists are speaking past each other, not to each other (reminding me of ideological debates), and things are far from clear. The options given in the poll are not mutually exclusive, and do not align with the positions taken by the authors in their blog-posts, which are also not mutually exclusive.  Surely, I could believe that somewhat faster emigration of skilled workers from Haiti may harm Haiti’s development prospects, while also believing that my neighbor should not be deported, and families should not be torn apart? I might also believe that development is a complex problem that would not be solved by restricting migration, or that individual liberty is paramount (including the freedom to move across borders, regardless of impacts, developmental or otherwise)? The various questions posed quickly become matters of: compared to what, causality or symptom, and competing principles. 

I hope Duncan Green will arrange another round, asking authors to stick to a particular question. For my part, as an economist, I am attracted to the answer ‘it depends,’ and I have no doubt that the debate is far from over.

PS – I joined the majority in selecting option (a), as well as the minority in choosing option (d).    


Christian Eigen-Zucchi

Senior Economist, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

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