Migration Promises and Challenges in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

In 2015, the adoption by member states of the United Nations of a new development agenda to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will  likely include a clear role for international migration. As the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development, Peter Sutherland, recently indicated, the sheer volume of remittances (estimated at $414 billion in 2013) should be convincing proof that migration is an important factor in development.

For different reasons, governments of receiving and sending countries have so far been very reluctant to adopt common definitions and solutions to migration-related problems.

As Peter Faist has noted, positive relationship between migration and development is particularly important to foster in a context where most traditional approaches based on official development aid and foreign direct investments have failed. But making migration a solution to, rather than considering it as a consequence of, poverty is not without challenges. For example, numerous documented cases of abuse in the recruitment and treatment of foreign workers have shed light on risks for migrants. As well, problems of reverse remittances—whereby more money is sent to migrants from the home country than go the other way—raise concerns about the feasibility of a positive migration-development relationship.

In preparing for the 2015 UN Development Agenda, many stakeholders, including the International Organization for Migration and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for International Migration and Development, have formulated objectives that should address some of these issues. They propose that migrants become stakeholders in sustainable development by recognizing the central role of migration flows and remittances for development purposes and by improving the conditions for migration. Three domains of action should be targeted: improving sustainable financing, addressing recruitment abuses, and tackling discrimination in receiving countries’ labour markets.

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Whether these objectives and related policy priorities are realistic and desirable is debatable, however. Four concerns should be considered.

1.  At the political level, migration is for many governments a toxic issue they prefer to tackle nationally or bilaterally with a given country of origin. For different reasons, governments of receiving and sending countries have so far been very reluctant to adopt common definitions and solutions to migration-related problems. There is no reason to think this time would be different (as shown by the complex negotiations around the General Agreement on Trade in Services’ Mode 4 about the mobility of service suppliers).

2. The better regulation of remittance flows might be a less ambitious and therefore more feasible goal—but that goal tends to overlook issues of market controls and to assume too much loyalty by migrants toward their home country. The coordination of financial services between sending, transit and receiving countries involves complex negotiations and trade-offs, in which large global market players such as Western Union and Moneygram are likely to gain at the expense of smaller players and sending states.

Moreover, remittances alone cannot substitute for collective investment in development. Remittances impact mostly life conditions of migrant relatives and their close communities. In aggregate terms, remittances can help reduce balance of payment deficits ; but their use for social and economic development goals in sending countries would require a very high level of convergence in development goals, trust, and collaboration between migrants and governments of countries of origin. Such a level of trust between sending countries and their diasporas and nationals is more an exception than the norm.


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3. There is also an ethical issue related to a solution that rests on specific migration patterns. The notion of remittance and migration benefiting sustainable development rests to a large extent on patterns of temporary migration flows—as opposed to permanent settlement—that profit governments more than migrants. Indeed, in the last 15 years, most high-income countries have adopted temporary migrant workers’ programs, often at the expense of permanent settlement options. While many sending states may also share this view, it is not necessarily the case for migrants. The human and social costs associated with migration (such as family separation, job insecurity, and economic uncertainty) are borne by migrants themselves. They are not addressed in this view of the migration-development nexus, which is based on a continuous flow of people and money back and forth.

4. There is a risk that as migration gets formally included in the post-2015 development goals, a re-definition of the latter would be at the expense of local populations. Promoters of development through international migration privilege the role of specific groups of individuals as key actors of development. Hence, migrants who have acquired human and financial capital are seen as solution to development problems in their country of origin. As Faist has suggested, the modernization conception of development is back, this time with the notion of return migrants acting as brokers of work ethics and ideas about gender equality and democratic reforms that they acquired in receiving countries.

These political, economic and social concerns point to important challenges in implementing migration-oriented development policies. Let’s hope those stakeholders raising them will be heard in the process.

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