The potential of migration for development in Afghanistan

By Nassim Majidi, Founder and Director, Samuel Hall

A family in Sheberghan, Afghanistan. Photo: Mustafa Olgun /

Countries in Asia are at different stages of harnessing the potential of migration for development. At one end, there is the case of the Philippines, where international migration is central to domestic social and economic development. At the other end of the spectrum is Afghanistan, where much of the conversation has narrowly focused on forced migration, return and reintegration, missing out on the potential of migration for development. Yet the migration and development dialogue in Afghanistan should be a priority, at a time when COVID-19 is leading the country into an economic recession. Experts have so far provided informal estimates that up to 80% of the Afghan population may end up under the poverty line due to COVID-19, with dire consequences for food security and overall wellbeing.

While Afghanistan is not a signatory of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (it is a signatory of the Global Compact for Refugees), it is committed to cooperating on migration and developing a migration policy framework. However, the discussion needs to expand to include stronger pathways for the regular migration of its citizens abroad, acknowledging that:

  • Migration is the main coping strategy for many Afghans who lack legal migration pathways.
  • The 6-7 million Afghans living in other countries can play a major role in Afghanistan’s development.
  • Development must be a central focus at both local and national levels during COVID-19, and beyond.

Last December, a range of migration and development opportunities for Afghanistan was discussed at the OECD’s Policy Dialogue on Migration and Development (PDMD), focusing on three main issues: 1) the state of labour migration from Afghanistan; 2) the potential of remittances for development; and 3) the need to support market systems.

First on labour migration, Afghanistan is a relative newcomer in Asia in terms of instituting a proper system of governance for sending its workers abroad through formal labour migration programmes. In that sense, it is years – if not decades – behind other South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. However, recent developments seem to be moving in the right direction, including the endorsement of its Comprehensive Migration Policy in June 2019 and its 2018-2022 National Labour Migration Strategy. The latter aims to transform what is largely an informal and irregular migration movement into a well-governed formal labour migration system based on norms, reforms, bilateral, regional and international co-operation, imparting workers with the skills and competencies they need to be competitive in the international labour market. The Comprehensive Migration Policy on the other hand recognises that that the Afghan government “does not currently possess a coherent framework to promote the regular migration of its citizens or to expand available avenues for regular migration”.

Indeed, major challenges remain. Afghanistan is competing with its Asian neighbours to send workers to many of the same few labour-receiving countries. The government of Afghanistan needs a proactive strategy to promote Afghan workers for overseas employment, by “marketing” them to destination countries, and designing and negotiating labour agreements to gain formal access to markets. While bilateral labour agreements exist – and have for years, for instance with Qatar – Afghanistan has not received any requests for its workers to effectively join these schemes. This is because of information gaps on skills and workforce profiles, a lack of regulation for private recruitment agencies to work in Afghanistan and a lack of dedicated labour attachés in Afghan Embassies in receiving countries. In 2019, the World Bank and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs began to work on a labour sending system for Afghan workers – however the promising Placing Labour Abroad and Connecting to Employment Domestically (PLACED) project, designed to address the challenges of un- and underemployment through regular migration abroad, has yet to be launched.

Second, on remittances, one of the key constraints for development work in Afghanistan is the lack of reliable data on remittances. Afghanistan needs a system to measure trends on remittances and their contributions to development. For now, there are only rough estimates: we know that Afghanistan is a net receiver of remittances. The World Bank provides data for Afghanistan from 2008-2017 which shows that in ten years, the value of remittances multiplied by 40 from 17.6 million US dollars in 2008 to 668.7 million US dollars in 2017. There are still questions on whether these remittances have an impact beyond the household level, at a community, regional or national level.  

Beyond their economic contributions and limitations, remittances from migrants have a social dimension. Remittances maintain social relations between sender and receiving members of households despite conflict, disasters, and now a global pandemic. The remittance receiving methods are primarily through cash and traditional trust-based systems, such as the hawala system (an informal value transfer system, existing outside the conventional banking sector). As early as 2012, scholars have called for this informal system to “be complemented by a banking system that contributes to the transformation of the money sent into a source of investment (…) In this way remittances could help finance the rehabilitation of infrastructure and participate in job creation”. It is time to invest in scaling up the potential of remittances for development and to strengthen the social protection system in Afghanistan, especially in times of COVID-19.

Third and last, markets in Afghanistan are fragmented, with a lack of thinking around how migration can help strengthen vital economic value chains, across provinces, and across borders. The country is divided into safe and unsafe pockets, with markets becoming increasingly divided at the sub national level for security reasons, and now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is essential for development actors to factor this fragmented reality in their interventions and strengthen the potential of migration in supporting cross-country and cross-border value chains, for instance in the agricultural sector. These efforts can ensure that the food needs of all communities – rural or urban – are met throughout and post-COVID-19, and that import and export channels are kept open with regional and international markets to continue sustaining the livelihoods of Afghan households (from agricultural products such as nuts, to the export of luxury items such as carpets and saffron).

Migration will have a key role to play to absorb the shock of the pandemic and progressively restart the economy. Stakeholders in Afghanistan can leverage the potential of migration to strengthen remittance channels, and address the growing issue of un- and underemployment of Afghan migrants. Specifically, development actors will need to focus on three key sectors to ensure sustainable livelihoods for Afghan migrants: agriculture, maintenance, and large-scale public works programmes. National authorities should plan for national-level statistics on migration and the impact of remittances on micro- and macro- economic development. Finally, local authorities should focus on the potential of migration for local economic development, maintaining cross-provincial and cross-border market systems and value chains.