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‘Root Causes’ Development Aid: The False Panacea for Lower Migration

Migration is a positive side effect of development, and aid should not be spent in pursuit of keeping people where they are. Development economist Michael Clemens sorts the evidence from the politics in conversation with Refugees Deeply.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
African and European leaders met in Paris on August 28 to try to build a “new relationship” aimed at stemming the flow of migrants into Europe from northern Africa in return for aid. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

Since 2015 it has become popular among policymakers in Europe to talk about aid as a means of tackling the “root causes of migration.” A similar mantra has been repeated in the U.S. in response to migratory pressures on its southwest border.

World leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in 2016 lined up with promises to address these root causes through a hard and soft dual-policy approach. The borders would get harder with increased security and interdiction, which was softened by promises to increase development aid to poorer countries so that fewer people would need to migrate.

Leading development economist Michael Clemens has been one of the earliest and most influential voices countering some of the basic assumptions behind the new aid rhetoric. In a new paper for the Center for Global Development, with researcher Hannah Postel, Clemens reviews the historic evidence to question whether aid can really deter migration.

Refugees Deeply: Can you highlight what’s new in this research, as you have been making the case that development aid cannot deter migration. How does this paper strengthen your case?

Clemens: Two key things are new. The first is that we track how emigration has changed as countries develop. Prior studies have compared emigration in poor countries today to emigration in richer countries today, and it’s clear that emigration in middle-income countries, like Colombia or Albania, is much greater on average than in low-income countries, like Mali or Laos.

But it could be that there’s something else about middle-income countries that is irrelevant to their level of development but encourages migration, like their geographic location. So instead we track how emigration from a country has changed over time as that same country has developed. In the 71 countries that grew to middle-income or higher between 1960 and 2013, 67 had a concurrent rise in the emigrant share of the population (the fraction of people born in that country who live outside it). In other words, greater emigration is a nearly universal part of the experience of successful economic development. There is just no sign at all that sustained, successful economic development by poor countries reduces emigration. Just the opposite.

The other new thing we do is systematically review the evidence on the direct statistical relationship between development assistance and emigration. Given that development itself is positively and strongly associated with greater emigration, that should make us skeptical that there will be any clear depressing effect of development aid on migration.

This doesn’t mean that aid doesn’t “work” because the numerous goals of foreign aid – improve the economy, public health, human rights – have little to do with migration. Indeed, because emigration is part and parcel of sustained successful economic development by nearly all countries that have achieved it, a sign of aid “working” is that we will see more migration from now-poor countries as they emerge from poverty. At any rate, several studies have now directly assessed the relationship between aid receipts and emigration. The only one published in a peer-reviewed academic journal so far finds there to be a positive overall, average relationship between development aid receipts and emigration. Several others are in progress and none of them finds a clear negative effect of overall development assistance on emigration.

Refugees Deeply: How does development aid impact migration flows from poorer countries and at what stage of development could aid have an impact on migratory pressures?

Clemens: A systematic pattern in the data is that after developing countries reach a certain level there is a turning point. It comes somewhere very roughly around the $7,000 to $10,000 average income per person per year (measured at “purchasing power parity,” which is to say, adjusted for the fact that a dollar can buy more in some countries and less in others). As countries reach higher average incomes than this, emigration falls on average with additional development. The basic reason for this U-turn is that there are two competing forces.

First, as countries get richer there is more opportunity and security at home. That tends to deter migration. But second, as poor countries get richer they often go through a demographic transition – child mortality rates falling before fertility rates do – which brings a youth wave into the labor force, tending to raise migration. As poor countries get richer, more people invest in education, which gives them both the tools and aspirations to migrate, tending to raise emigration. As poor countries get richer more people have the disposable income to invest in migration, a terribly costly enterprise whether it is regular or irregular, tending to raise emigration. This second group of forces, and others, tends to overwhelm the first group at low levels of development, so that the forces raising emigration win out. At higher levels of development, the deterring effect wins out.

Refugees Deeply: Some of the recent advocates of addressing “the root causes of migration” seem to come from political backgrounds traditionally hostile to international assistance. How sincere do you see increased support for aid linked to migration deterrence?

Clemens: Only advocates of “root causes” aid know about their own sincerity. What I do know is that “root causes” development assistance is politically popular because it offers a narrative that is attractive across the political spectrum. It is attractive on the right because it promises fewer migrants, and it is attractive on the left because it offers an alternative to raids, interdictions and other direct interventions in migrants’ lives that have humanitarian consequences.

“Root causes” aid seems to offer a centrist response, promising a low-immigration panacea achieved by helping poor people. The power of that narrative is clearly greater than the power of social-scientific evidence, which offers no sign whatsoever that development assistance will do anything but spur more of the migration that has been part and parcel of nearly all successful economic development around the world.

Refugees Deeply: If development aid to reduce migratory pressures is not the way forward, how should we be thinking about the current challenges?

Clemens: Demographic pressure for migration is vast and will continue to be vast for many decades. This is particularly true between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. This is one of many symptoms of Africa’s development success – the fundamental reason for that demographic pressure is that child mortality rates in Africa have collapsed in recent decades. Emigration pressure is a sign that development in Africa is working. Development agencies cannot and should not assume the mantle of stopping migration because to the extent that their core mission of promoting development succeeds, there will be more migration. But development agencies can do a great deal to address their citizens’ concerns about migration in ways other than trying to stop it. They can shape it.

One of many ways they can do that is to help African countries build Global Skill Partnerships – arrangements for migrant-destination countries to support vocational training for potential migrants before they migrate, in skills the destination country needs and values, bundled with training for nonmigrants. That would fit directly in the core mission of aid agencies, strengthening African countries’ human capital and training institutions, while also addressing their own citizens’ concerns about migration by ensuring that migrants arrive with the skills they need to integrate fast and contribute best. In fact, such arrangements are impossible without the experience, connections and capital that aid agencies have.

Refugees Deeply: You talk about migration strategies in terms of investment and insurance, could you elaborate on these for us?

Clemens: I think it’s easier for people to think about why migration rises with development when they think about how many poor families use migration. For very poor people who face terrible employment prospects at home and high risks to their health and security, migration can be two things. It can be an investment in future employment prospects, requiring a very big upfront cost for a large and risky future return, like all investments. It can also be a form of insurance: When members of a household work in two different places, the whole household is much less vulnerable to shocks like an economic downturn in one of those places.

And when one member of the household has access to work in Europe or another place where wages are vastly higher than in parts of Africa, they can help the rest of the family in case of health problems, bad harvests or other risks. Now, it’s obvious to everyone why middle-class people spend more on investments and insurance products than poor people, in their own country. Once we understand that migration is a form of investment and insurance for some of the poorest people in the world, we understand why they invest more and insure themselves more – via migration – once they get a bit of money.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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