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Can Development Aid Reduce International Migration?

October 16, 2018

Can Development Aid Reduce International Migration?In response to concerns about immigration, Western governments are increasingly turning to foreign aid as a solution, reasoning that aid addresses root causes, deterring migration by encouraging economic growth and employment. New research by Thunderbird Professor Jonas Gamso has found that aid doesn't always work like that, yet one type of aid does have a deterring effect on immigration.

Migration is a sensitive personal and political issue – a hot button if there ever was one. Whether we are talking about what drives people to leave one place or what lures them to another, migration is tied closely to national, cultural, and individual identities. And it is deeply intertwined with global policies on economics, trade, education, and employment.

Most all of us have some sort of migration story. Either our ancestors have crossed borders for a better life or we’ve done so ourselves. Yet, as common as it is, migration remains one of the most complicated and urgent issues that global policymakers are trying to tackle.

“Human mobility will increasingly define the 21st century”  – Click to tweet

The need for policies that help facilitate positive outcomes from migration is only going to grow. United Nations predictions indicate by 2040 the number of working-age people in low-income countries will expand by 91 percent, or over 330 million. In middle-income countries, the number is predicted to expand by 625 million. In 2050, sub-Saharan Africa will have 2.1 billion people, up from 1 billion today.

“Human mobility will increasingly define the 21st century,” says Dimitris Avramopoulos, a Greek politician and European commissioner for migration, home affairs, and citizenship. “If we want to be ready for it, we need to start preparing now.”

What does the immigration research say?

It’s long been thought that if migration can’t be stopped, maybe it can be managed. New research into the impact of foreign aid on migration by Thunderbird Professor Jonas Gamso and Farhod Yuldashev from the University of Pittsburgh indicates that targeting aid may curtail some migration – from rural areas. 

For decades, scholars have investigated this aid-migration nexus, but results have been mixed and questions remain. 

Gamso and Yuldashev aimed to answer some of those questions by comparing the effects of rural and urban development aid on international migration. Increasing rural aid, they concluded, should be in the interests of both the recipient country and donor countries hoping to inhibit immigration. 

New research into the impact of global aid on migration by Thunderbird Professor Jonas Gamso indicates that targeting aid may curtail some migration – from rural areas.– Click to tweet

Refugees, huddled masses, and the Trump administration

During the past several years, Europe has been tackling the urgent issues related to the global migration and refugee crisis. The United Nations estimates that there are now 68.5 million people worldwide who have been displaced by violence or persecution. More than 33,700 refugees arriving through Greece and Italy have been relocated within Europe. Another 50,000 are expected to arrive in the next two years. Asylum seekers, mainly from Iraq and Syria, number in the millions. 

European Union countries have struggled to come up with plans for taking care of refugees without putting a grossly unfair burden on Greece, Italy, and Spain–which are the primary points of entry, or frontline receiving states. 

In the United States, the idea of welcoming immigrants is woven deeply into the fabric of the country. Yet duringits first year, the Trump administration methodically put in place a series of bureaucratic barriers that could significantly reduce opportunities for foreigners to come to the United States legally. 

As common as it is, migration is one of the most complicated and urgent issues that global policymakers are trying to tackle.– Click to tweet

Governmental attempts to control or halt migration

The United States is not alone in attempting to reduce or limit immigration. Amid growing public concern and political debate, governments around the world are enhancing borders, intensifying migrant and tourist screenings, and doubling down on current immigration laws. And some of the wealthier nations are exploring how to adjust international aid in ways that will ultimately discourage migration.

Gamso and Yuldashev began looking into the idea that aid can help reduce migration as a result of President Trump’s simultaneous calls to reduce immigration and cut foreign aid. “We wondered if those two goals were compatible,” Gamso says. Their results have been published in the October 2018 issue of World Development, “Does Rural Development Aid Reduce International Migration?” 

“Public officials in the U.S. and Europe had seized on this idea that aid could simultaneously help develop poor countries and reduce immigration, and aid agencies were increasingly being pushed to use aid in this manner,” Gamso says. 

“Policymakers in many Western countries are eager to reduce immigration, but the actual impacts of migration on most societies are largely positive.”– Click to tweet

Advocates of aid-based immigration policy believe this approach is more effective than creating barriers to entry, because it addresses root causes of emigration such as poverty and underdevelopment. “However, despite the enthusiasm from public officials, earlier studies on this topic had produced mixed results. Some even showed evidence that aid actually leads to more migration,” Gamso says.

Policymakers urged to wade slowly into aid-migration solutions 

Gamso says that the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission have both released documents over the last few years explicitly stating their intent to use aid in order to address the root causes of migration. His research indicates they should strategically target aid to geographic areas and (perhaps) sectors. 

Gamso offers three cautions:  

  1. “Migration is a complicated issue and migration policy must be sufficiently multifaceted to account for the complex nature of the topic. Aid can be a component of a holistic policy approach, but just one component among several.”
  2. “Aid is complex as well.  Governments in donor countries may give aid for any number of reasons.  Migration appears to be one of those reasons, but it is one of several.”  
  3. “Policymakers in many Western countries are eager to reduce immigration, but the actual impacts of migration on most societies are largely positive.  Many policymakers seem to be driven by political calculations, as opposed to making data driven assessments.” 

Impact of rural vs. urban aid on migration

In this recent study, Gamso and Yuldashevspecifically looked at country-level data to compare aid given to urban and rural areas and emigration rates from countries. Using data from 103 aid recipient countries, spanning 15 years, they assessed the emigration trends that accompany aid projects designed to promote rural and urban development.

Initially, they believed that aid to rural areas would provide jobs and in effect inhibit migration while urban development money would encourage people from cities to expand their horizons and look for opportunities abroad.   

Policymakers should consider increasing rural aid to boost far and non-farm activities in rural areas of developing countries and possibly reduce migration.” – Click to tweet

The result of their study supports the notion that some foreign aid does reduce outward migration from developing countries.Some forms of aid act quite differently than others in terms of their effects on emigration rates. In fact, they did find that as aid aimed at rural areas increases, migration decreases. But they found no significant correlation between aid to urban areas and migration. 

Since international migration has reached unprecedented levels, Gamso and Yuldashev conclude, policymakers should consider increasing rural aid to boost farm and non-farm activities in rural areas of developing countries. Increasing rural aid will not only help the receiving country, but “should also be in the interests of donor countries that wish to reduce migrant inflows.”

Getting ahead of migration and population growth 

Gamso and Yuldashev have added to the overall discussion about how different migration policies will work in different settings. The current political climate, with its focus on stopping rather than shaping migration, belies the fact that discussions about what works and what doesn't are very complex. What is certain is that people will continue to migrate, they will continue to look elsewhere for a better life. And likely in increasing numbers.

Even if migration rates remain constant, the projections for global population growth would imply a large absolute growth in migration.

Gamso and Yuldashev contribute to these policy debates by pointing out that some forms of aid act quite differently from others in terms of their impact on emigration rates. Next,they plan to fine-tune their data analysis using geo-coded data. They hope to drill down further into survey data in order to better inform policymakers looking for development-friendly policies to control migrant inflows[RJP6] .

In mid-September, they published another article on this topic. The International Studies Quarterly pubished “Targeted Foreign Aid and International Migration: Is Development-Promotion an Effective Immigration Policy?”, which shows that aid for governance-oriented projects is accompanied by reduction in emigration rates as well. This is not true for economic or social projects. 

As European commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos concludes, “We may not be able to stop migration. But we can be better, smarter and more proactive at managing this phenomenon.” 

 

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