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Migration for Development: Miracle or Mirage?

Disproportionate economic development and rapid globalization has altered labour systems across the globe—to the point that it has caused massive economic migrations and political displacements particularly in the global South.[i]

As such, migration is increasingly becoming an important concern for international development platforms that seek to understand the benefits and consequences of a globalizing labour system both for the sending and the receiving countries. However, various intergovernmental bodies and states are also eyeing international migration as a key ingredient in achieving the much sought after Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

While migration is generally understood as an efficient motor that fuels national development on the part of the sending country, this essay argues that rather than looking at migration as a factor for development, it must be considered that migration is first and foremost symptomatic of underdevelopment.

The Migration-Development Nexus

It was only in 2006, sparked by the first United Nations High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (UN HLD) that the issue of international migration became tantamount to talks on development.

In addition, the first UN HLD also inspired the creation of the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) in 2007 whose objective was to “enhance the positive impact of migration on development (and vice versa) by adopting a more consistent policy approach, identifying new instruments and best practices, exchanging know-how and experience about innovative tactics and methods, and, finally, establishing cooperative links between the various actors involved.”[ii]

These global platforms allowed policy space for migrants’ rights and the recognition of the vast contribution of remittance as a financial capital source that outperforms even the rate of official development assistance funds.

However, it must be noted that talks on migration only began because of the increasing pressure to achieve the MDGs and even to include it for the post-2015 development agenda. With consistent failures to achieve MDGs and only minor (but highly regionalized) gains, a number of international financial institutions, intergovernmental structures and some civil society representatives are pushing to maximize the benefits of remittances as a measure to mitigate poverty and ultimately, to achieve their MDGs.

To this end, multilateral bodies and nation-states aim to foster the potential of labor export as a tool for national economic prosperity with little recognition on its cause and effect to the global, regional and national levels.

Debunking the Myth of Migration for Development

Proponents of the migration-for-development argument point out two major premises to support their claim: 1) the remittances generated by migration can stimulate economic activities both at the individual and macroeconomic level; and 2) the potential transfer of skills among migrants from their countries of destination and upon return to their home countries.

First of all, remittances generated by migrant employees breed further income inequality at the local level and debilitates the economic capacity of non-recipients that still constitute a large part of the sending country’s population.[iii]

The increased inflow of remittances abroad stimulates household consumption, but it also reinforces inflation by way of the creation of demands for real estate and other economic goods. Once the demand for consumption goods increases, prices will naturally rocket upwards as well, but the problem arises when we consider non-recipient households who must depend on their meager employment opportunities to shoulder the effects of inflation.

Secondly, the perceived transfer of skills among migrants is rendered useless once contrasted the actual brain drain phenomenon that results from mass migration.

In 2002, 23% or 34,000 of academic employees working for higher education institutions in UK are foreign nationals. In contrast, a number of developing African countries are finding it difficult to accommodate students due to the emigration of academic professionals to other developed countries such as the UK whose migration policies aim to attract skilled migrants and academicians.

While the remittances of skilled migrants can greatly improve the sending country’s financial status, the entire situation deprives developing countries of skilled professionals to proactively contribute in strengthening the domestic capacity for health, education and research. Furthermore, the exodus of professionals and skilled labour force from the sending country weakens domestic economic fundamentals.[iv]

Also, it should be pointed out that overreliance on migrant remittances can lead to a case of economic complacency and a projection of economic growth while a significant number of citizens suffer from joblessness. Other studies point out the possibility of unproductive dependency on transfer income and laziness among other unprecedented hazards of remittance inflows.[v]

In addition, labor export-intensive countries such as the Philippines, are now seeing the social costs of migration as the Filipino family begins to experience changes in structure, roles, and processes. Parental absence and confusions on plural authority among children are just some of the issues raised in response to the government’s labor export intensification schemes.

While a huge source of financial capital is beneficial and a transfer of skills is sound, these points nonetheless fail to identify the very conditions that force migrants to leave their countries of birth in the first place.

According to economist J.K. Galbraith (1979), migration is the oldest known human response to mass poverty. When local economic conditions fail to accommodate the employment needs of its people, mass economic migration is most likely to occur.[vi] To this end, migration ceases to be a choice, as it is becoming an economic necessity for most and a life-or-death decision for some especially in the developing regions of the world.

Needless to say, international migration is a result of unsustainable living conditions in the sending country that drives migrants to seek greener pasture elsewhere. The myth of migration for development constitutes the perfect apologia of governments to systematically neglect development plans that rely on domestic capacity rather than its dependence on labor export gains.


Reinforcing the idea that migration is an essential tool for development debases the imperative to improve domestic conditions, as sending countries will increasingly become more reliant on migrant remittances as their primary source of financial capital.

In the coming UN HLD on international migration and development on October and succeeding GFMD proceedings thereafter, one can only hope that policymakers will allow sufficient policy space to debunk the migration-for-development myth, and accommodate the participation of grassroots organizations and other stakeholders on the matter. A paradigm shift is in order and it is high time that we seek alternative systems of sustainable country-level growth and rights-based approaches to development in relation to migration.

About the author

Mark Amiel Pascual (@makoypascual) is a frustrated writer and an eccentric researcher for the social sciences. He’s also a self-proclaimed poet and a certified movie geek. Mark has a penchant for underrated movies and actors that more often than not don’t make it to the limelight (just like himself). His dream is to laymanize the social sciences and bring it closer to the people.

[i] Munck, R. (2002). Globalisation and Labour: the new ‘Great Transformation,’ London (UK): Zed Books Ltd.

[ii] Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) website. Accessed in on 9 Aug 2013.

[iii] Amuedo-Dorantes, C. and Pozo, S. (2004). Workers’ remittances and the real exchange rate: A paradox of gifts. World Development, 32(8): 1407-1417.

[iv] Nunn, A. (2005). Brain Drain and Higher Education in the UK and Africa. Report to the AUT and NATFHE. UK: Policy Research Institute, Leeds Metropolitan University.

[v] Chami, R., Barajas A., Cosimano, T., Fullenkamp, C., Gapen, M., & Montiel, P. (2008). Macroeconomic consequences of remittances. IMF Occasional Paper 259. Washington, D.C.: IMF.

[vi] Galbraith, J.K. (1979). The Nature of Mass Poverty. Cambridge, Mass. (USA): Harvard University Press.