Migration is a force for development (and vice versa): it’s time we tell this story right

By Gonzalo Fanjul, Co-founder and Head of Research at por Causa Foundation

There is a dangerous contradiction in the prevailing narrative on migration and development. Despite the fact that international labour mobility has proven to be one of the most effective and powerful levers for individual and collective progress, many development co-operation actors treat migration as a problem that must be solved. This logic responds to the myth of ‘root causes’: human mobility as a mere escape from poverty and the lack of opportunities, rather than as an effective strategy against them. Migrants are victims who must be rescued from their own decisions, and aid is an adequate tool to do so.

The political advantage of this narrative is unbeatable. A wide part of the more centered ideological spectrum – from social democracy to liberals to the moderate right – can take refuge in it to whitewash a model obsessed with border impermeability, which too often violates the boundaries of a liberal democracy. The proposal for the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, presented by the European Commission last September, is one of the most recent and worrying examples in this regard.

“The vector of this transformation is not solidarity or grief, but shared interests and the realisation that our societies are not viable without migrants.” #DevMatters

The problem is not merely rhetorical. In the field of co-operation policies, the direct costs of this approach can be measured in the form of aid wasted in programmes “to help” people to not have to emigrate. The most famous example of this approach is perhaps the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, approved at the Valletta summit in November 2015, in the midst of the hosting crisis of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other regions. As the EU failed to put in place a coordinated internal solidarity mechanism and accelerated the shielding of its external borders, its leaders diverted attention with a programme designed to defy the law of gravity.

Because aid to the poorest countries does not stop international labour mobility. As research by the OECD Development Centre, and more recently, the economist Michael Clemens have shown, emigration flows tend to intensify as the GDP of low-income countries grows, slowing down once they acquire medium-income status (about $10,000 per person/year). In other words, in its most successful version, European co-operation would have pushed more Africans up to the departure point, rather than the opposite.

But, without a doubt, the main cost of this deceptive approach is one of opportunity. The obsession with ‘root causes’ prevents development agencies from concentrating their efforts on building a more open, orderly and safe model of human mobility. An effort whose potential contribution to the reduction of poverty and global inequalities has few parallels in the field of development policies. From a poverty reduction perspective, the narrative underpinning this system is not only immoral, it is proving to be self-defeating.

Believers, realists and the confounded: perpetuators of a wrong narrative

If the above is true, why do so many official and non-governmental development agencies cling to this idea?

The reasons are diverse. While some sincerely believe it (the Kafkaesque debates to introduce impact indicators of voluntary return were an example), most adopt a practical scepticism. Certain co-operation agencies, for instance, will sign whatever is necessary to secure European funds on which they depend. Others – like a good number of large and small NGOs – remain trapped in a dangerous combination of protectionist melancholy and a strict interpretation of the geographic limits of their mandate. As if the purpose of development were territories and not people, migrant workers and their families disappear from their radar the moment they cross the borders of a high-income country. Only the refugees have managed to break free from these mental bonds, little by little.

The substitutive narratives

We need to change the conversation. We have an obligation to activate the reformist potential of our base. But more importantly, we have the opportunity to attract a much larger part of the audience to our field; a group that organisations like More in Common have called the anxious or conflicted middle. It is a majority portion of the audiences that does not correspond to our base, but that does not identify with isolationist or anti-immigration positions either. Part of this diverse group, on which the possibility of reform in the system ultimately depends, might be willing to accept poverty and inequality reduction as added reasons for reconsidering the status quo.

“Doing the right thing at home –that is, more safe migration and not less– is a way to expand the opportunities and well-being of others at origin.” #DevMatters

The organisation to which I belong – por Causa, a Spanish foundation that works to raise the quality of public debate on these issues – has been fighting along with others in this trench for years and we have reached some interesting conclusions. The main one is that this debate must be won in the field of emotions and values, rather than in that of data and rational arguments. Research such as that recently published by the Overseas Development Institute – one of the most lucid organisations in this field – shows that it is necessary to work on concepts that question the ‘They-Us’ logic: we are all migrants, or could be; our shared prosperity is based on the work of those who have emigrated; we all deserve a chance in life, even if it is beyond our borders of origin.

In a tragic but effective way, COVID-19 has opened an opportunity to reform the international migration regime. The vector of this transformation is not solidarity or grief, but shared interests and the realisation that our societies are not viable without migrants. Throughout the pandemic, foreign workers have proven to be essential at very different levels of qualification, from specialised health care to home delivery or fruit and vegetable picking. This is a logic that has been extended even to undocumented workers, as demonstrated by por Causa in a recent campaign for the regularisation of nearly half a million irregular workers living in Spain.

Let’s activate the reform potential of the development community

If the international co-operation sector decided to join efforts for the reform of this broken migration model, society would receive one critical message: doing the right thing at home –that is, more safe migration and not less– is a way to expand the opportunities and well-being of others at origin. We must activate the reform potential of the development community. This implies working along the lines proposed by the Global Compact, promoting more flexible and safe mobility programmes, optimising the impact on development, and taking advantage of the capacities of co-operation to introduce policy innovations that follow the climber’s strategy: test, consolidate and move along.