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Migration 2.0
Alex Steffen, 12 Jun 07
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Is migration the key to breaking the stranglehold of global poverty?

I raised that possibility here in April in a piece Can Migration Change the World?. But Lant Pritchett -- the former World Bank official who has just been tapped to help plan its philanthropic approach to alleviating poverty -- goes a lot farther. As a NYT profile this Sunday put it:

He wants a giant guest-worker program that would put millions of the world’s poorest people to work in its richest economies. ... The basics are simple: The rich world has lots of well-paying jobs and an aging population that cannot fill them. The poor world has desperate workers. But while goods and capital can easily cross borders, modern labor cannot. This strikes Pritchett as bad economics and worse social justice. He likens the limits on labor mobility to “apartheid on a global scale.”

Pritchett, in his book Let Their People Come (most of which is available for free download), argues that the only way to effectively deal with global poverty is to add to the standard approach (of trade, aid and debt relief) work mobility for at least a portion of the world's unskilled laborers.

The rich countries of the world should actively look for ways to increase the mobility of unskilled labor across their national boundaries. They should do this primarily because it is the right thing to do, because of the enormous potential benefits to people who are allowed to move.The rich countries can allow labor mobility that is both consistent with their own economic interests and “development friendly”; that is, labor mobility benefiting not only the nationals but nations. The economics of labor mobility are simple: Because gains from exchange depend on differences and, in today’s economy, the same worker can make enormously higher wages in one location than in another, the gains from moving are obvious.The difficult part is political: How can development-friendly labor mobility policies that are politically acceptable to voters in rich countries be devised?

He then lays out the economic argument: the Global North currently spends about $70 billion a year to fight poverty in the developing world. Much of that aid and assistance is wasted, misspent or stolen, but let's generously assume that it actually does produce about $70 billion is benefits for people in the Global South. The potential for labor mobility to help fight poverty dwarfs that figure, Pritchett says, pointing to a recent World Bank study that found that rich counties allowing just three percent more workers from the Global South would not only deliver $300 billion in benefits to the poor, it would generate $51 billion worth of benefit for citizens of the developed nations. It's a win-win, he argues.

Those workers are coming no matter what: the nearly 50:1 disparity in wages between the richest nations and the poorest nearly guarantees that. But it's possible to separate labor mobility -- temporary migration to do needed jobs, with an emphasis on the need for these guest workers to return to their own countries -- from immigration, which involves staking a claim to citizenship and voting rights. It's even possible to set up temporary guest-worker programs that do not welcome extended families (thus relieving the host country of the increase in social services large influxes of new arrivals often require) while being safer, fairer and more beneficial for the workers themselves. It's possible, Pritchett says, to set up a globally mobile labor market which benefits many, many more people -- so why not do it?

Some serious questions remain here, and I am deeply skeptical of Pritchett's anti-nation-state sentiments (he calls, for instance, the distinction between citizens and non-citizens in nation states -- indeed, the whole idea of nationality -- "discrimination." However, the reality is that in the absence of effective, transparent and powerful international governing bodies in which we can all hold citizenship -- and their arrival doesn't seem imminent -- the nation-state (and its spin-offs in the forms of autonomous regions, free cities and the like) is the only realistic and meaningful seat of democratic authority. Without nation-states, there simply is no democracy.

But what if we could create guest-worker programs that not only fought poverty, but preserved national identities and actually promoted democracy, both at home and abroad? And what if, in so doing, we could help address two of the world's largest demographically-driven problems?

The simultaneous emergence of the youth bulges of the Global South and aging populations in the Global North seem to be situations made for one another. As Robert Ayres says in his Worldwatch paper The Economic Conundrum of an Aging Population (free registration needed):

To an environmentalist, an aging population might seem a good thing—proof that birthrates have fallen and that overall population will stabilize or decline. But a small aging population like that of Italy, in a world of huge younger populations like those of China or Brazil, may not be sustainable.

Over one billion people in the world are between the ages of 15 and 24, and, according to the UN, they are not only a quarter of the world's working population: they are also half of the planet's unemployed. Currently, that unemployment is more crisis than opportunity, especially as rising educational levels and expectations confront limited opportunities:

“We have a large number of youth between 18 and 35 who are properly educated, but have nothing to do,” lamented William Ochieng, a former government official, in Kenya’s The Daily Nation in January 2002. ... Studies show that the risks of instability among youth may increase when skilled members of elite classes are marginalized by a lack of opportunity. In the short term, governments will need to tackle the underlying factors contributing to discontent among young people, including poverty and the lack of economic opportunity. And governments can address part of the risk associated with youth unemployment by investing in job creation and training, boosting access to credit, and promoting entrepreneurship.

To which one might add create more democratic and transparent societies, where corruption is curtailed and the rule of law respected.

But the larger point remains, that an enormous number of reasonably educated, ambitious, hard-working young people in the developing world not only lack jobs, they currently lack much of an opportunity to even find a job. Clearly, the long-term solution must be the creation in these countries of thriving, sustainable economies driven by entrepreneurial zeal, innovative approaches and societal reform. But it also seems clear that essentially everyone agrees that the successes we've seen so far in poverty reduction are eclipsed by the growth in unemployment and need, and here, too, we face the hard reality of a planetary deadline, and the need to create one-planet communities all over the Earth within decades.

Fighting climate change and ecosystem disruption, retooling our industrial base, retrofitting our cities and rebuilding our transportation and energy systems: these are epic undertakings, bound to demand the labor -- skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled -- of scores of millions of people in the developed world alone. I suspect that the domestic labor supply will be insufficient to meet that demand, just as we already expect it to be insufficient to meet the demand in everything from healthcare to agriculture to construction work.

So what if we tried not to reform the entire field of labor mobility and immigration law, but started small and focused, and created a large pilot project aimed at encouraging young guest workers in sustainability-related industries?

As an American, I'll speak for my own nation. We have more work to do than many nations in rebuilding our economy along more sustainable lines, and we need to do that work quickly. Imagine we opened the doors to 100,000 guest workers every year, allowing them to stay for three to five years, provided they met basic health and education standards, worked in certified sustainability-related organizations (the nature of such a certification raises interesting questions itself, though) and followed some basic rules (paid their taxes, etc.). (As the program developed, the quotas could be increased, of course, but you'd want to start small enough to both learn from mistakes and avoid immediate political gridlock).

So far, so good: vitally important businesses get access to less expensive young workers; young people get access to jobs which pay far better than any they could find at home (well enough to give them a ladder out of poverty when they return home); and the country gets a jump-start towards a sustainable economy. But we can do better.

One of the defining attributes of the current, largely illegal labor market is that it shames and humiliates and victimizes those who come to work in the Global North. Their journeys here are expensive and dangerous, their powerlessness makes them subject to all manner of abuse (from wage extortion to unsafe working conditions to sexual victimization) and their every encounter with official society is disrespectful and humiliating.

In a similar way, one of the hallmarks of good governance is that governments don't just welcome transparency, they support it. The most democratic nations in the world actively fund and support watchdog groups and transparency projects, including those who monitor workplace conditions.

If we could remove the shame from being a guest worker, while simultaneously increasing the transparency of the system, not only those workers but society as a whole would benefit. We have the tools. We know a lot about how to redistribute access to communications technologies to low-income people. We're learning how to help whistle-blowers stay safe and protect critics through exposure. We know more and more about how networks of NGOs can use transparency activism and public opinion to pressure corporations and governments to make changes. And the tools for doing this are getting cheap enough for anyone to afford.

What if part of the bargain we struck with arriving guest workers was that we would give them the tools to keep their own workplaces and living conditions transparent? What if we empowered NGOs could work with them to create networks and community spaces where both positive and critical communication could happen free from the intervention of authorities? Job skills could be shared, say, or cross-cultural communication skills or tips on the best ways to send money home -- but users could also share access to legal services, connections with activist groups and a means of airing grievances.

Think of it as Migrant Labor 2.0, using crowdsourcing to make transparent what are supposed to be some of the most ethical workplaces in America, the fields, windfarms and green developments where sustainability is unfolding.

But it might be that such a scheme would end up serving other ends as well. It might provide a laboratory for new models of improving the fairness and transparency of workplaces in other arenas of endeavor, for instance. More importantly, it might be that in learning these skills, sharing their ideas, evolving tools online together and creating resources that can be used by people anywhere in the world (or at least anywhere with free access to the Net), these young guest workers could become the thin edge of the wedge for solving what is one of our biggest challenges: how do we diffuse information about better ways of doing things to nations which are desperately poor?

There are a dozen reasons I can think of immediately why such a plan would be politically impossible at the moment, but the politics of these issues are changing quickly. And the idea that we might craft a win-win-win solution here is still compelling (at least to me). Change the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people working away from their homes, remove the shame and danger, make them welcome and proud -- and send them back home happy to have made money, learned skills and helped do something meaningful -- and you might just help supercharge positive change in thousands of unpredictable ways.

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What is the carbon footprint of Migration 2.0? Could we tolerate it?

Could we find a system to substitute legitimate migration travel for frivolous vacation travel? Is there a way to offer people acceptable transport to job opportunities outside their home countries or regions? Or does the climate crisis doom us to the steady creep of ugly nativism masquerading as carbon-constrained "duty" (to limit international mobility)?

Posted by: Ted on 12 Jun 07

Forget it. Guest worker policies simply don't work, because they systematically treat ALL foreign-born individuals as disposable and they operate on the false premise that labor won't settle down.

Study the case of most European countries and you'll find that people who bother with leaving it all behind to come and work in an other country, pay taxes without being able to claim any of the benefits or services that tax money has paid for, all end up wanting their taxpayer's money's worth and that requires becoming a full-standing citizen. A famous German quote that is highly relevant: "We thought that we were getting foreign labor but then came all those PEOPLE."

Besides, stay somewhere long enough and, soon enough, you will consider the new place as your home, so going back is not even an option.

Posted by: Martin-Éric on 13 Jun 07

If most educated people leave the Global South for better opportunities in the Global North what happens to the local development? Who will advance the economies of Global South when the brains drain away?

Posted by: Minni on 13 Jun 07


That, I believe, is the entire point of separating labor mobility from citizenship: guest workers are not allowed to stay, so most will return home. Ideally, it's more a brain loan than a brain drain, and the guest workers come home with more skills and resources to invest than they could have gotten by staying at home.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 Jun 07

Hey Alex - I'm a bit 'fused on who is the qualifying migrating/laborer in the scheme you propose: first you describe them as having a universal education standard - I get this one. Then you describe the hardships this present bird-laborer goes through to physically arrive and stay in the States - here I sense a different group, those that are not well educated and of a lower social class. Can you clarify?

Though I do see the place of coming up with new models of migration across the board. Did you know that England offers an entrepreneur visa? That's pretty damn progressive in my view [though I'm not fully informed of the details, it's intellectual and creative capital that let's you in & what I'm impressed by]

Also, how about actually going a bit beyond and something in the spirit of a Free Trade agreement [setting aside criticism of this system], as in providing more than tools for learning and dissemination of knowledge within the host country. How about like sending professionals in the areas that country may need or even help out with infrastructure? Have it be a dynamic exchange, real lively and two-way

Posted by: M. Katz on 14 Jun 07



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