“Ask not what you can do for your country…”

Does this matter? Or just the people that live there?

Does this matter? Or just the people that live there?

When you think about the reduction in poverty, do you think about the number of people who are living in poverty or the number of countries that are characterized by a high proportion of people living in poverty? And on reflection, if you haven’t thought about this before, which do you think is more important?

When I first thought about this, many years ago, my answer was immediate and absolute: the number of people in poverty. Of course: as a humanist, all lives are important and whatever actions will do the most the help the most lives must be the best. I remember reading with satisfaction a paper about growth convergence about 8 years ago, which made this very point: weighting for population, because of India and China, growth rates of the poor and the rich have been converging, in contrast to the conclusion if one takes nations as the unit of analysis (I think it was by Lant Pritchett. If anyone can confirm or correct this, I’d be very grateful).

Now I’m not so sure, and part of the reason is the (marginally) increasing debate around migration-as-development. Many, though by no means all, debates about migration and development take an almost apocalyptic tone in decrying a country as doomed or destined to suffer, and present migration as a cure for the ills of the inhabitants of these countries. (Others like Owen Barder present the migration debate as an essentially moral issue about freedom of movement and ability for individuals to improve their circumstances without getting into the prospects of long term development for the country – this closely matches my own opinions on the issue).

The response to the Haiti quake has been characterized by this kind of pessimism. On these very pages, we asked “What are the chances that Haiti is ever going to grow or develop?”; the Roving Bandit calculated how long it would take to drain Haiti of all of its inhabitants and resettle them in the US; the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Waye suggested he could give Haitians a region to make their own in Senegal; Alex Tabarrok suggested Port-au-Prince as a Charter City, which would essentially constitute an admission of the failure of Haiti as a sovereign state (by the by: great idea! Let’s tell the descendents of the only successful slave rebellion in history, a people who fought for 12 years against Napoleonic forces *and won* that they’ve had their chance and they’ve failed. Step aside and let the foreigners do it right; after all, we all know the rules that will work in Haiti, don’t we? This does nothing to change my opinion on Charter Cities as an approach to development).

What’s wrong with this kind of approach? Quite a few things, though it’s difficult to unpack them neatly for argument. Firstly, it undermines is the role of identity in determining the best paths for development, which requires us to recognize that different ways of escaping poverty are not equal and should not be judged on the same terms; secondly, it implies that the nation-state is an anachronistic organizing concept for policy purposes; and thirdly, it may have implications for paths of development in the future.

It’s necessary to start with a disclaimer that I’m looking at extreme expressions of migration arguments in order to make related points about how we should conceive development paths and why countries still matter as the unit of development. The aim is not to dismiss arguments in favour of migration.

The first issue that the migration-for-development lobby argument raises for me is the forms of identity that migrants hold. Economic migrants (who include vast numbers from developed countries) are normally people escaping poverty, or simply looking for higher incomes of different job opportunities. Most, though not all, eventually intend on returning home. Using the word ‘home’ here is of huge importance. Economic migrants have roots, identities and networks which they intend on returning to. Very few sever their ties with their home countries entirely. For most people living in poor countries, the best option in development is not to cease to be Haitian or Sri Lankan or Zanzibari or Malawian and to become an American or a Brit, but for their own country to develop to the point where they can be wealthy or at least not-in-poverty. Pro migration commentators spend a great deal of time talking about why recipient countries shouldn’t worry about more migration. They rarely think about how migrants see and wish to see their country of origin.

This argument becomes complex when we introduce an element of time passing, though. Economic migrants will normally intend to return home at the end of their careers or when they see a viable opportunity at home – but this many not happen, for example if they start a family in the place they migrate to, or no such opportunity ever arises. Their children will likely have nothing like the same strong roots in their ancestral home, and as time goes on, families and individuals identify in new and complex ways; legally, they will be British or American, and culturally will identify as British-Asian or British-Caribbean and so on. This is simply part of the way that identities evolve, and make any argument about how migrants conceive themselves very complex (and I speak partly from experience, as a Hong Kong born Sri Lankan with a British education working in Africa). It does not undermine the original point that developing the countries within which poor people live is the preferred mode of escaping poverty for such people.

It’s legitimate to ask if we should care about this. If it’s much more difficult than opening borders, why should we bother? There are three responses. Just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. It’s just as difficult to open borders, politically. And the third response relates to my next point, the role of the nation-state.

Arguing that individual-level poverty reduction is more important than the economic development of nations is also tricky when we start to consider what states do. Arguing that we can subsume all of Haiti’s population into that of the United States implies that Haiti has no importance beyond the 10 million people who live in it. Does this hold water there, or for other small, impoverished nations? Put simply, no. I don’t know much about the Caribbean, but I would guess that Haiti has a role to play in regional politics. As much as we might all like to be post-nationalists, the world we live in is most decidedly not a post-nationalist world. In the United Nations, individual Security Council members have veto powers, utilized based largely on national self-interest. The UN itself has no power of compulsion over its constituent nation states. We are miles away from a situation where we can dissolve statehood for a geographical area and simply disperse its people elsewhere.

This is more important if we move away from the extreme case of total depopulation. While counting development success and poverty can very well be weighted by head of population and ignoring nations, the actual process of removing people from poverty depends on the nation-state level. Migrants who emerge from poverty do so due to the economy and social services in their new host country. Those remaining can only do so if the economy and social services in the home country are strengthened. This requires that national-level development policies be the focus of development work.

This brings us to a final and to my mind, most important, point in this argument for keeping nation-states at the centre of development discourse: Conceiving the reduction of poverty at the individual level underplays the central importance of structural determinants of poverty. Except in the extreme case where all inhabitants of poor countries migrate to rich countries, poverty reduction depends on improvements in the economic conditions that obtain within specific geographical borders. One major argument in favour of easier migration is that it will allow increased remittances back to home countries. The problem is that this argument basically operates on the assumption that what hampers development at ‘home’ is money, not institutions, economic structures, or quality of and forms of governance.

In a comment on a previous post, Matt noted that there is an argument that increased migration may exacerbate the poverty of the poorest, by leaving behind only those with the least means to escape. Economic migration is the prerogative of the relatively well off within a poor country: people who can raise money to travel across the world to try and set up a household somewhere else, and find a job. Those that remain will be the least educated, poorest and most at the mercy of whatever bad governance or poor economic conditions obtain. Remittances will alleviate immediate poverty, but there is no reason to assume that they will have any affect on the way in which a country is governed, or on the likelihood of a capitalism emerging. This requires a focus on structural considerations, as well as individual poverty.

Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that no-one really wants to empty poor countries of their people. No-one is seriously claiming that all 10 million people in Haiti should move to Miami. However, there are people who argue that migration is a key policy for development. The point of this argument is to show that the presence or absence of free migration does nothing to change the fundamental realities and challenges that exist in the developing world. The things development policy needs to address do not change with migration, and we should not let the just and important battle for more open borders distract us. What this discussion shows is that migration is not a policy for development, but a basic issue about morality and global openness.

5 thoughts on ““Ask not what you can do for your country…”

  1. Matt

    January 18, 2010 at 1:45pm

    The competitive pressure argument is quite a big “if.” It depends on your risk assessment: if you think that the government is moderately capable at competing for its people, then it is a good thing.

    If you think that the country’s institutions are so underdeveloped that this won’t happen at all, then you’d prefer to make it harder for people to leave (this is the ‘children left behind at a failing school argument’). I’ve heard someone make the case that the reason Somalia is as crazy as it is today is because 99% of the rational population left a long time ago. The same case could be made for Zimbabwe.

    If you move into extreme pessimism, and assume that the country is never going to improve – or that the time it will take to improve is too long to bear, then you revert back to “let people get out of here.”

  2. bsanchez

    January 18, 2010 at 3:58pm

    Despite my ideological afinity to it I have never followed the migration-for-development literature in any detail. But I think it would be dishonest to make the argument that (many) people in rich countries would be able to continue living in their suburban utopia without being affected negatively.

    I have always thought about it as a two way process: if we in rich countries open the borders to 5 billion people that are poorer than us it is likely that our lives will became messier and a little more chaotic. Solution? Sell up and take your capital (the equity on your home, whatever) to a poorer country where you will get higher returns for it.

    More labour flowing one way, more capital the other – everyone and everywhere eventually better off, none of this pessimistic stuff about Malawi being left just with the poorest of the poor …

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 19, 2010 at 5:18am

    Thanks for the link, RB – but my problem with Charter Cities is not where he wants to use it, but his ahistorical approach and attempt to run causality from ‘rules’ to everything else. Not apparent that he even has a basic reading of legal history and theory among other things.

    Also, I’m deeply skeptical about the value of such competition. For one, people migrate from very poor to rich countries – they are not close substitutes, so there is little implicit competition that they shoud even be able to provide similar levels of service.

    More importantly, through what mechanism would such competitive impulse be transmitted to the host country? Emigres don’t vote nearly as much; they don’t pay tax, so they have little direct voice; their lost tax revenue is mitigated by remittances, so the Government isn’t unduly inconvenienced by their absence. Also, the worst governments, as I pointed out in my post about cities and insurrections, don’t have a legitimate threat to their power, via elections or violence and so don’t need to respond to competitive impulses.

    It’s also contraindicated by experience. It’s not like Malawi’s health workers fleeing en masse to England has led to Malawi providing a better managed, better remunerated health service, is it?

  4. D. Watson

    January 19, 2010 at 10:27pm

    Your last point seems particularly important to me. I’ve been playing around with the importance of a nation-state for understanding inequality for a paper. I think there’s a debate that ought to be had here.

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