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Investment in the rural economy reduces pressure to migrate internationally

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In a world characterized by high country income differentials, rising food insecurity, and the proliferation of conflicts, international migration is viewed by many as the path to a (better) life. Unsurprisingly, concerns are also rising in destination countries about an undue influx of migrants, especially economic migrants, fuelling antimigrant sentiment and policies.

A paradoxical narrative is further taking hold that development, and by extension development assistance, would increase (as opposed to reduce) migratory pressures, at least in first instance, and that the effect of development aid on migratory pressures has been small at best.

But further evidence, that has largely gone unnoticed, also shows that the results very much depend on the development process and the sectors supported. Rural development, for example, proves more effective at reducing international migratory flows. Support to the food system is also direly needed to tackle the world’s food security crisis. 

It suggests that investing in jobs for youth in rural areas can make a much-needed difference, in the short and long run, across the globe, while expanding legal pathways for orderly and well-matched migration should be equally pursued, to broker a migratory outcome that is beneficial for all.  

The migration-development paradox

With high cross-country inequality a major driver of migration, investment in more good-job creation in poor countries would seem intuitive to reduce migration.   Voters, at least, seem to believe so, with broader support for foreign aid observed in countries and regions with higher numbers of migrants. 

Yet, when development occurs, aspirations also change, education levels improve, and financial constraints become less binding, making migration even more attractive and affordable. Accordingly, it has been found that economic development in low-income countries typically increases emigration, with emigration only declining beyond PPP$ 10,000 GDP per capita. These studies further argue that the capacity of development assistance to deter migration is likely small.

Yet, this ignores that development in a country can occur through many different pathways with different impacts on its citizens’ intentions and ability to emigrate. One aspect that appears particularly important is the rate of urbanization and the extent to which it relies on rural-urban migration. Another is the extent to which efforts are targeted to job creation for those highly inclined to depart.

Migration to urban areas as a precursor to international migration

New research highlights the role of rural-urban migration as a potential driver of international emigration. Based on data for 21 Sub-Saharan African countries, individuals who migrated to urban areas are on average the most likely to develop international migration intentions, followed by those who migrated to rural areas, those who live in urban areas and have not moved internally, and lastly come rural residents who have not moved internally.

The interpretation is that internal migrants have lower international migration costs, both monetary and non-monetary, and accumulate resources and experience that help overcome constraints related to international migration.  An important factor is that social ties to places of origin weaken after initial migration, making it easier to decide to move again, whether internally or internationally. As such, urban migration greases the wheels of international migration.

Investing in and around rural areas makes a difference

Labour moving out of agriculture and rural areas into non-food and urban sectors is one of the structural transformations poor countries make as they develop. It reflects the declining food share of household spending as incomes rise (absolute food spending still increases). The challenge here for policymakers is to make urban migration a choice and not a necessity.

This requires providing attractive earning alternatives for prospective rural-urban migrants where they reside, on and off the farms, in the nearby towns. Consistently, research indicates that aid targeting rural development reduces emigration from aid recipient countries, while aid targeting urban areas does not. Taking the results to their extreme, providing an additional 1% of GDP of the recipient country as rural development aid reduces the magnitude of emigration by nearly a percentage point (from 4.3% on average to 3.4%).  In practice, the aid shares spent on rural development have been multiple times smaller. But underinvestment by governments in agriculture and rural development, especially in Africa, has also been widely documented, indicating substantial scope for expansion.

Investing in today’s rural territories, their towns and surrounding areas, by local governments and their international partners, is thus win-win: it provides a development path that more rapidly lifts people out of poverty and reduces migration movements that are more out of need than desire. Many of these investments will also be in the food system, on and off the farm, which is direly needed to tackle food insecurity globally. Careful targeting to areas and individuals with a high propensity to move can further increase the effectiveness in reducing irregular migration.

More orderly and properly matched migration could lie ahead

Greater attention in development policy to rural areas thus holds important promise to accelerate poverty reduction, increase food security, and reduce migratory pressures. At the same time, the global demographic bifurcation (with a youth bulge in the South and an aging population in the North) implies that migration will continue and that it will also be much needed as many vacancies in destination countries go unfilled, in agriculture, construction and caregiving, but also for higher skilled profiles. Creating economic opportunities in countries of origin, including in rural areas, will favor a migration more based on desire than existential need . Complementing it with more effective legal pathways to meet excess demand for labor in destination countries will further help broker migration that is orderly and properly matched to the skills in need. Combined, the approach holds great potential to be beneficial for all concerned.


Dr. Andrea Cattaneo

Senior Economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization

Luc Christiaensen

Senior Economist, World Bank Africa Region, Africa

Michal Rutkowski

Global Director for Social Protection and Jobs, World Bank

Máximo Torero Cullen

Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations of the United Nations (FAO)

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