Development Aid Alone Won’t Reduce Migration

How development in poor countries leads to more migration, not less

By Bavo Stevens,  Junior Research Fellow, United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility

In September 2016, the United Nations General Assembly convened a landmark summit on the large movements of refugees and migrants. The resulting New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants sought to address some of the major governance challenges in the area of migration, and set in motion negotiations for a global compact for safe, regular, and orderly migration.

One of the New York Declaration’s most notable features is its recognition that migrants make significant contributions to economic growth and development, both in destination countries and in countries of origin. The proposed global compact on migration similarly acknowledges the positive impact that migrants have on development.

But while the Declaration and compact indicate that governments are proactively engaging with this nexus, the link between migration and development remains deeply — even willfully — misunderstood. One of the main misconceptions is the assumption that underdevelopment is a primary driver of migration. Or, in other words, that poverty triggers mobility.

The reality is that development in poor countries leads to more migration, not less — in large part because development increases people’s capabilities and aspirations to move. Michael Clemens, in his study on global migration patterns, found that development goes hand-in-hand with migration: as poor countries become richer, emigration (people leaving their country) goes up. It is only when countries reach middle-income levels that further economic development results in less emigration. However, most of today’s poor countries are decades away from reaching that level.

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