Mainstreaming Migration: The Merits and Potential of the Migration and Development Framework

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies of New York

Address delivered at the joint conference
“Mainstreaming Migration into Development Planning: Assessing the Evidence, Continuing the Dialogue”
May 7, 2012 | New York, NY

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Mainstreaming Migration: The Merits and Potential of the Migration and Development Framework

The theme of mainstreaming migration into development planning begs several larger questions. Does the migration and development rubric help to make sense of migration? Does it reflect the needs, interests and incentives of the participants in this process? Does it allow policymakers to address this issue effectively and persuasively? I come to this framework in mid-stream, and recognize many of its issues from older discussions. However, I see several potential advantages to the migration and development framework. Let me outline eleven of them by way of introduction to our gathering.

The first advantage is perhaps the most obvious: the frame joins the timeless phenomenon of migration, with the equally timeless (and elusive) aspiration to create conditions that allow human beings to flourish. It does so during an era in which people – for the first time — can simultaneously straddle two or more places and maintain strong ties to multiple communities. The frame fits the era well. Globalization enhances the potential of migration-related development. Conversely, barriers to migration for those compelled to move by economic necessity stymie development and offend the very logic of globalization.

Second, this discussion raises and tentatively answers the crucial issue of what we mean by development. The Brundtland Commission gave us the term sustainable development, the idea that we need to meet present human needs – particularly the needs of the poor – in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The familiar language of sustainability recognizes our inter-dependencechanneling Amartya Senover space (in its emphasis on equity among people) and time (between current and future generations).

It views development in both personal and social terms. By personal development, we mean economic development, but also a broader, more integrated or “integral” sense of well-being. We mean development that recognizes human beings in their full complexity and that expands people’s freedoms and capabilities. Gasper Lobiondo, S.J. recently spoke of the need for a development that is sustainable because it complements the values of those it benefits, including migrants. He meant ethical values, religious sensibilities, and the belief systems reflected in particular cultures: this aspect of the human person is crucial to development as well.

Robert Zoellick has urged the international community to consider jobs not as a “derivative of growth,” but as vehicle to contribute to higher living standards, increased productivity, social cohesion and positive social change. He argues that development can and should be democratized by:

  • Emulating the practices and ideas not just of the North, but of the South;
  • Recognizing the full range of players in the development process;
  • Giving voice to women who too often have been sidelined and silenced in these conversations.
  • Opening up all forms of development, including private investment, to developing countries.
  • Extending credit and saving systems, and sharing data and information with all.

To Zoellick, development is not about pursuing any one approach, but about creating and adapting different models for different conditions. An essential ingredient is local ownership: its potential beneficiaries must be able to identity their own needs and be vested in approaches to meeting them. Success in meeting one need invariably leads to identification and prioritization of different needs that require different solutions. This is how development works.

In short, a robust, holistic, and integrated sense of development emerges from this conversation, which speaks to sustainable development over time; rights-respecting and integral development on a personal level; and democratized development strategies, including local ownership (akin to “devolution” or “subsidiarity”).

Third, the migration and development frame prompts us to look for win-win scenarios among the diverse participants in this process, including receiving communities. For this reason, this approach may be a more fruitful way to discuss migration with a skeptical public than more traditional humanitarian and rights-based appeals. The human person should always be at the center of this debate, and states should be judged, in part, by how effectively they safeguard rights and promote the common good. However, there is an enduring public misconception that rights benefit some to the detriment of others. It may mitigate public concern and lessen opposition to migration if it is not viewed as a zero sum phenomenon.

The frame also points us to how interests can become imbalanced, and how relationships between stakeholders need to be recalibrated. We all know the different scenarios. Immigrant laborers, for example, may receive pay and remit monies home, but they may also be tied, indebted and beholden to certain employers to the point that they can even be loaned to others. States and corporations may benefit from immigrant labor, but local communities may bear the lion’s share of the public and private costs of these workers. In addition, family separation may undermine immigrant integration and diminish the potential multiplier effects of remittances.

The migration and development frame can also help to locate responsibility for addressing migration challenges, for maximizing development benefits, and for righting imbalances between participants in this process. The question becomes: among all the stakeholders, who is responsible for addressing what challenge? Which competent authority, group or individual is closest to a challenge, is most affected and knowledgeable about it, and can effectively address it? This frame can also point us to the ways that migration can undermine development — the win-lose or lose-lose scenarios.

Fourth, this rubric recognizes the authority of sovereign states to determine membership, to regulate migration, and to act in the best interests of its nationals. However, it also recognizes that the benefits of migration cannot be fully realized through unilateral action. It acknowledges the need for states (individually and collectively) to reach beyond borders to promote the well-being of their own nationals. It argues for broad engagement with other nations and stakeholders. It assumes that sovereignty means more than border control and national defense. Embedding migration into development planning serves the state’s interest in creating coherent development and anti-poverty strategies. By this view, migration does not subvert the legitimate authority of the state, but allows states to achieve their objectives.

Fifth, migration and development moves beyond an instrumental view of development as a tool to prevent migration, and conceives of migration as a potential benefit for migrants and others. The idea of creating the conditions (through development assistance and other means) to allow people to stay at home has merit, as far as it goes.

However, migration has too often been treated as a problem – both for the migrant, and for the receiving society – not as an opportunity. The migration and development discussion starts from a different point. It does not ask how to use development assistance in order to limit migration or to outsource immigration enforcement, but how to extend the development gains from migration to all the participants in this process. We typically think of these gains in terms of individual and collective remittances, and diaspora engagement in its many forms. However, the framework allows us to see even climate change as a potential development opportunity for persons living in inhospitable places.

Sixth, migration and development focuses us on the conditions that need to be in place to maximize the benefits of migration. These include a positive business environment, a robust and open educational system, the necessary physical infrastructure and information systems, and universal birth registration. The Millennium Development goals offer a good baseline of development fundamentals. The impact of migration-related inputs depends on conditions like universal primary education, gender equality, environmental sustainability and universal access to treatment for HIV-AIDS and other diseases. Migration-related development can, in turn, contribute to goals like reducing extreme poverty and hunger, and improving educational and health systems.

Circular migration emerges from this conversation as one of the immigration policies with the most potential to contribute to development. One can envision circular migration programs that prioritize education, job training, recognition of credentials, and portability of pensions, with the goal of increasing the benefits of migration and the well-being of migrants wherever they settle. Such programs could increase and spread development gains, provided that they avoid the well-documented problems of past temporary worker programs. Temporary protection programs can likewise contribute to development through remittances and fostering the stability of nations that cannot accommodate the return of large numbers of their own nationals.

The rule of law may be an under-appreciated development fundamental. In domestic immigration debates, this language is often misused to justify the denial of core rights and benefits to irregular migrants. However, according to an exhaustive index created by the American Bar Association, the concept covers a range of legal, civic, and economic conditions that are essential to realizing the development gains and harnessing the potential of migration. For example, it requires:

  • Government officials to be accountable to the law;
  • Clear, publicized, stable and fair laws that protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property;
  • Protection of commercial activity and property rights; 
  • Fair and efficient administration and enforcement of the law; 
  • Non-discrimination in granting or denying franchises, licenses, public contracts and other privileges or benefits; and
  • Competent, independent, and ethical law enforcement officials, attorneys, and judges.

These indices of a rule-of-law system ensure that lawlessness does not force persons to migrate; protect migrants (and natives) in destination countries; pave the way for diaspora investments; and increase the odds that these investments will be used as intended.

Seventh, the migration and development rubric gives pride of place to immigrant integration. As a growing body of research suggests, rights-respecting integration policies create a virtuous circle: they help to maximize migration-related development inputs in communities of origin and destination. Integration builds human capital, improves financial prospects, and allows immigrants to contribute more fully to their communities.

As a result, how to facilitate integration becomes a pressing concern. Early self-sufficiency through employment is one tested integration model. Family friendly immigration policies also contribute to integration. Legal status is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to integration. Community-based organizations (CBOs) and home-town associations (HTAs) help to integrate immigrants by offering linguistic, citizenship and other services, by serving as mediating institutions to the larger society, and by providing skill-building and leadership roles. They can also enhance the contributions of immigrants to their homelands through collective remittances and by addressing barriers to development. Beyond their contacts and knowledge of communities of origin, these agencies bring high expectations to the initiatives that they support.

Eighth, this framework builds on the desire of immigrants to lend their expertise, know-how and financial resources to support their communities of birth or ancestral homelands. Disaster relief is a common form of investment, which can lead to the creation and revitalization of diaspora agencies. As Kathleen Newland reminds us, disaster relief is often the first foray of immigrant groups into development-related activity. From this intervention, it is not a great leap to investment in more formal, state-centered development initiatives, including diaspora bonds.

Ninth, this frame encourages states to see migration as a bellwether for the need to establish conditions that will allow their nationals to flourish at home, and that will attract and enhance migration-related development inputs. The departure of skilled workers from developing countries, particularly health care workers, has garnered significant attention. Migration is often necessary for the personal and professional development of these workers. However, development in the sending state – securing power, providing better equipment, putting in place basic infrastructure and otherwise investing in the health care system – can prevent the loss of these workers, and can encourage skilled nationals to return in order to work, or to educate and to train their compatriots.

The frame has also led to clarity on the responsibilities of destination states in recruiting skilled workers. In May 2010, the World Health Assembly issued a code of practice for the international recruitment of health professionals. It speaks to fair recruitment practices, including refraining from recruitment in countries with shortages of these professionals. It also calls on donor countries to provide assistance to strengthen health-care systems in developing countries.

Tenth, this framework potentially builds on and aligns with what is already happening in the private sector and elsewhere. Last year, the World Bank reported that $77 billion had been invested in telecom networks in sub-Saharan Africa over the preceding decade. Over that time, the number of mobile subscribers increased from 10 to 400 million. This means that real progress is being made, and that public/private partnerships can potentially expand and expedite this progress. The potential of migration-related development can also be seen in the remarkable set of humanitarian, business, cultural, civic, professional, trade and other migration-related projects that have arisen in recent years. Diaspora philanthropy, volunteerism, and entrepreneurship offer particularly impressive models.

Eleventh, this conversation highlights the need for research and the continual evaluation of relevant programs and policies in order to manage migration to the greatest advantage. To engage diasporas effectively, for example, states must know where their nationals live, their socio-economic characteristics and their group commitments. Diasporas, in turn, need to understand the legal system and business opportunities in their communities of origin. States also need significant data to craft successful immigration and integration policies.

As this short review indicates, the migration and development frame has substantial potential as a policy and operational tool. It reflects the real benefits of migration, the promise that these benefits might be expanded, and the possibility that the hardships created by migration can be mitigated. It aligns with the interests of many of the stakeholders in this process, reflects a robust and balanced sense of sovereignty, and has led to significant investment and innovation. It serves as a valuable touchstone as we move towards the High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development in 2013.

Author Names

Donald Kerwin

Date of Publication May 7, 2012

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