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Can Migration Change the World?
Alex Steffen, 24 Apr 07
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Can migration change the world for the better?

The standard rap on migration in well-intentioned circles in the global North seems to have been split between two camps: those who believe that migration is completely bad, because it changes cultures in the South while adding to the number of people who are over-consuming in the North, and those who think it is mostly bad, but okay in small doses as a means of creating a multicultural society.

But what if migration, properly conceived, could be crafted into a powerful force for good?

Already, remittances -- the money sent home from the two hundred million people who have migrated from the Global South to the North, often intending to return home -- may prove to be, as we're remarked before, one of the most important levers for creating the conditions for sustainable development. As the NYT puts it in a really terrific magazine story titled "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves.",

About 200 million migrants from different countries are scattered across the globe, supporting a population back home that is as big if not bigger. Were these half-billion or so people to constitute a state — migration nation — it would rank as the world’s third-largest. While some migrants go abroad with Ph.D.’s, most travel ... with modest skills but fearsome motivation. The risks migrants face are widely known, including the risk of death, but the amounts they secure for their families have just recently come into view. Migrants worldwide sent home an estimated $300 billion last year — nearly three times the world’s foreign-aid budgets combined. These sums — “remittances” — bring Morocco more money than tourism does. They bring Sri Lanka more money than tea does. ...In 22 countries, remittances exceed a tenth of the G.D.P., including Moldova (32 percent), Haiti (23 percent) and Lebanon (22 percent).

Why do they head North? Many are pushed by desperation, but many more are lured by the desperate and growing need for young laborers created by the aging of the developed world. Throughout most of the developed world (and increasingly in some middle-income countries), populations would already have leveled out (or even begun dropping) if immigrants didn't keep arriving: what's more, given the longevity booms most in developed countries are seeing, the percentage of elderly people in their populations would be manifestly a crisis were immigrants not here to add their taxes to retirement funds and provide the care-giving aging populations demand. Immigration is not only beneficial to most developed nations, it's necessary.

Which doesn't mean that those of us in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan have resolved all our issues with the latest waves of new arrivals to our shores. Quite the contrary: anti-immigrant tensions run high all across the Global North, and we're still figuring out how to build truly multiethnic 21st century communities. (I personally believe that our ability to truly embrace multicultural, global identities is right up there with spreading transparency as one of the forces that will decide the fate of our democracies.)

But even if we can live up to our ideals here in the North, much work remains to be done to both protect the rights of migrants while they're abroad and make sure that the money they send home creates as much positive change as possible.

The Philippines, for instance, has created an Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, a government agency which advocates for and promotes participation in the global migrant workforce. But this may be a place where distributed, collaborative approaches, like that of Witness, tempered by the lessons learned blogging under oppression, might make a huge difference. (Facilitating the activism of expatriates -- though far riskier -- might make even more of a difference: after all, a great number of revolutionary democrats (e.g., Gandhi) cut their teeth and built their movements while living as expatriates, and a great much of the world desperately needs both civic reform and better reform tools)

With the right incentives, expatriate workers are much more likely to send more money home, and to use official means for doing so, reducing the drain of corruption and organized crime. They may even be more likely to voluntarily contribute to public works and community projects -- indeed, expatriate philanthropy has become a huge force for change in countries like India and Nigeria.

But finding better ways to connect migrants with the financial services they and their families and business partners back home need is key as well, many experts say. Particularly promising is the idea of productizing remittances -- sending goods instead of money.

But a whole host of other innovative financial services might make migrants' checks home both more effective and more frequent, from micro-finance banks to micro-insurance, even meso-financial investment opportunities. Creating such new services will require a pretty rapid case of redistributing the future, helping nations to develop not only the proper laws and proper policies, but even the proper software.

Now, imagine this: imagine all these enterprising, ambitious people, and all the money they send home (and all the institutions with which they interact to send it) being bent towards even more beneficial ends, becoming better, longer levers for really remaking the nations from which they're traveled into places of prosperity and sustainability. Imagine deciding to make migrant labor truly worldchanging.

Maybe we need to start to rethink migration, not in the light of the discussions we've had in the past (huddled masses and all), but in the light of a 21st Century, globally-intertwined society. Migrants, though they may be looking to better themselves, ought perhaps to be seen (here in the Global North) as our partners in creating the prosperity we expect; and we ought to perhaps regard our interactions with them as the best opportunity we have for global diplomacy and sustainable development. Indeed, I wonder if what we need most of all isn't a new social compact -- one which recognizes the necessity of migrant labor in maintaining the economic prosperity of the North, and seeks to directly and explicitly make the exchange a fair one, useful to both sides. That kind of honesty and fairness seems pretty far off today, I'll admit, but I think it's ultimately a pretty essential component of a world that works, and perhaps it's time that we started advocating for it.

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This is an interesting perspective. I like the idea but it would be hard for many cultures to conform to such lifestyles.
Great post

Posted by: Paul M. Wolfe III on 24 Apr 07

I was in the Philippines in 1995 and tried to help some recruitment services setup an assistance service for Philippine overseas workers. There was some lip service towards this but actually getting anything implemented was actually bogged down in a mass of bureaucracy, infighting and corruption.

Here is some info that the government aid for the welfare of workers is lacking.

the Philippine target and use of several overlapping government agencies to process and get filipinos out and working overseas. The reason is the dependence on the remittances and the long time stagnation of the economy. The economy has recently improved some with some higher GDP growth since 2004.

the Philippines (37th richest in 1950) was wealthier per capita than Taiwan back in the 1950s and its per capita income was higher than it is today.

26th in 1900

Details on the overseas workers

Although Filipinos have a longstanding tradition of migration to the United States and elsewhere, government activism to promote labor migration from the Philippines began in the mid-1970s, when rising oil prices caused a boom in contract migrant labor in the Middle East. The government of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, saw an opportunity to export young men left unemployed by the stagnant economy and established a system to regulate and encourage labor outflows.

More on the history

Posted by: Brian Wang on 24 Apr 07


Seems to me like you join the ranks of all those supposedly "well-intentioned" people in the global North. Can you defend this? " which recognizes the necessity of migrant labor in maintaining the economic prosperity of the North, and seeks to directly and explicitly make the exchange a fair one, useful to both sides"... Have you ever asked a migrant what should come first: the economic prosperity of the North or the desire to stay closer to ones family, society, nation, culture etc... What you seem to be saying is that "we" can't live without 'em so we might as well try some sort of friendlier form of peonage. It strikes me as what you're saying is that "we" have a certain idea of prosperity and they have two choices: join us in "our" idea of prosperity or pay the consequences of being a perpetual underclass. Excuse me for being offended... but in this "globally-intertwined" society you imagine here, there still is an us and them. Don't count me in your way of changing the world.

Posted by: Javier Arbona on 24 Apr 07

I agree with Alex, Javier, that migration is a good thing. Especially in these days where "Free Trade" agreements allow the movement of capital across borders, but don't allow the movement of labor. I figure, if we have free trade, we might as well have free movement of workers.

I don't think Alex is advocating a "friendlier form of peonage", either, but a FAIR exchange. You can build a maquila in Nicaragua, or you could allow Nicaraguans to come and work in the U.S. In either case, they should be paid fairly and treated fairly.

It's true that nearly all migrants would prefer to have the opportunity to stay home, if only they could enjoy a fraction of the economic, educational, and political opportunities they can pursue in the global "north". My husband is from Guatemala. He misses his country intensely--and then he goes back and has to deal with corrupt police, stolen property, and the lack of good job prospects. His country needs fixing.

His remittances to his family are a kind of "economic development". They money permits his younger brother to continue school rather than work, has helped them purchase a computer and become connected to the internet, and ensure that his sister can pay for medicine for his nieces and nephews when they fall ill.

Other than cheap labor, immigrants also bring a "microenterprise" mindset to the communities they settle in. Many migrants are willing to risk opening up small businesses such as bakeries and fruit markets. Thanks to the entrepreneurship of latino and greek immigrants in my small city, I can go downtown for grocery shopping, instead of driving 15 minutes out to the urban fringe.

Also, if and when migrants DO return home, they do so with new ideas about how to improve their communities (as anyone who has traveled can attest, travel opens your mind). For example, National Public Radio did a piece of radio reporting a couple years ago about how remittances had helped fund infrastructure projects in many Mexican towns.

Posted by: Sonia_D on 25 Apr 07

Alex, as always it's a pleasure to read your writings. While you do have several potential concepts regarding migration, you left out another heated side to the migration debate. Illegal immigrants.

"A new study from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) examines the costs of education, health care and incarceration of illegal aliens, and concludes that the costs to Californians is $10.5 billion per year." -Robert Longley

I have absolutely no problem with integrating new culture into a society. More often than not, this actually improves multi-variable financial problems throughout the classes. But, like I quoted above, what about the illegal populous? This is primarily what governor Schwarzenegger has been fighting about, and the same goes with many of the official migration debates. To say the least, illegal mass migration has the potential to slowly cripple our economy.

So Alex, what say you?

Posted by: Jonathan B. on 25 Apr 07

You address the usual issues: remittances, migrant integration and even suggest a few novel ideas such as micro-financing which is proving to be quite effective for certain type of action. Allow me to share what I've learned after almost a year of editing the Global Culture blog:

To talk about the North and the South as if each belongs to different kinds of people is an outdated view. Look around, wherever you live and realize the South IS in the North. While migration waves are not as strong as they were at the beginning of the XX century, they are close to those numbers and modern globalization is just getting warmed up. So, there is no point in talking about policies to manage migrants as within a generation they will be well rooted into whichever destination they pick.

Instead, we must emphasize on an education that promotes global awareness, that embraces the fact that there is a profound connection between almost any two cities, because this will be true in the not-too-distant future. We must learn from the cities that have thrived as a result of their numerous migrant populations because these social experiments are the most likely scenario for all others (London, New York, Toronto).

In a true Global Culture, empowered global citizens can embrace their new identity as cultural ambassadors, finding ways to create links with their places of origin. There is very strong evidence that second-generations to the current wave of migrants will produce masses of Third Culture Kids with ample sense of tolerance for other cultures, allowing more profound integration.

For further insight into the idea of a Global Culture:

Posted by: Juan Gonzalez on 25 Apr 07

Jonathan - the cost of the health services, incarcerations, and K-12 education in the Gov.'s proposed budget is approx $80.4 billion. If the number you float is accurate, you're concerned for some reason about 1/8th of that spending. Why aren't you worried about the other 7/8th?

What makes that spending sacrosanct in comparison to the "spending on illegals?" Don't illegals pay sales tax? If they rent, aren't their landlords paying property tax? And if they own, aren't they paying property tax? How about state income tax? I've been seeing reports that the IRS and many state agencies are seeking an increase in the income tax filings by illegal immigrants. So that problem is solving itself as well.

Of course we'll do even better if we setup a system of better legal migration, so that 100% are paying taxes _and_ receiving the benefits they deserve.

Without changing that system, take away illegal immigrants you'll see not a slow crippling, but a swift collapse of our economy. I suspect (but don't have time to lookup evidence).

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 26 Apr 07

While I agree that it does help financially I feel sad for the broken families left behind, the children growing up with grandparents, with no parents at home. It is a horrifying choice for any parent to make. I would expect a wave of violence to come from a generation of abandoned children.

Posted by: Susan K on 26 Apr 07

I think that you have brought up some good points here. Migration/Immigration is a very,very complex subject and remittances are just one tiny aspect of it. There are as many people who want Americans out of South America as there are ones who want South Americans out of America. Those are the one that you need to talk to. I came across this site this weekend and they are stating their position rather clearly.

Posted by: pam on 30 Apr 07

Indeed even the illegal immigrants who pay rent are confronted with taxes as well. However, they too are indirectly contributing to the increasing tax adjustments. While 80 billion is a large figure can you sit there and say that you wouldn't want California expense to be cut by $10 billion in frivolous claims? (Frivolous and illegal being the key terms here)

Posted by: Jonathan Brambles on 4 May 07



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