Money across the miles

From 20 to 23 May 2013, Bangkok hosted The Global Forum on Remittances and became the centre of worldwide discussions on remittances and their impact on the economy of developing countries.The Global Forum on Remittances attracted hundreds of participants with different regional, professional and cultural backgrounds from all over the world.  

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I'm working flat out to get my organization ready and well represented at a big global forum on remittances here in Bangkok this week. And as I answered yet another email I got to thinking about the people who depend on remittances for their day-to-day expenses, the people who are behind this conference.

Here's the thing: Remittances are something that people in developed countries seldom think about, if they even know what they are. But it’s not that long since “money from America” was the lifeblood of communities across Europe. And if those of us from developed economies do think about remittances, we probably have a mental image of people toiling on building sites in the 1930s.

Well, not a lot has changed, apart from the calendar and the location of the migrants, and perhaps the work they do. Oh, and of course, that many more women are sending home money (which may mean that much more of it actually makes its way where it is intended).

A remittance can be a knock on the door with a bunch of banknotes, a check, a money order, or even a text message transferring money. And behind that remittance is a man or a woman missing their loved ones. There are kids, families, dreams and many other things behind each of the tens of millions of remittances sent every year.

People migrate to earn income. To make a better life. Many migrant workers work in dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs that people from developed countries do not want to do any more. Migrant workers send the money back to their families. The money is used in different ways, from buying an everyday meal, sending their kids to school, looking after their aging parents, marriage costs …. Some build a dream house. Some set up a business. Some pay off a debt.

I can’t forget a couple I met in the course of my research. Ahmad, a migrant worker from Nepal, who migrated to the Gulf told me “even my work is tough and being away from my family, I have to keep working abroad to support my family.” His wife was pragmatic: “We hope to have family reunited in the future. But for now, we need to find a way to get income.”

For many developing countries, a remittance is a critical contributor to the economic development of their countries. Countries encourage their labour force for overseas employment despite the negative impacts such as brain drain or the other social costs that are products of international labour migration. 

In 2012, according to the World Bank, six countries from Asia were in the top ten recipients of officially recorded remittances. They were India, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Viet Nam. As a percentage of GDP, the four countries from the region were recorded as top ten recipients of remittances in 2011: Tajikistan (47 per cent), Kyrgyz Republic (29 per cent), Nepal (22 per cent), and Samoa (21 per cent) (World Bank, 2012).

Despite the huge contribution of remittances to the region, Asia still faces challenges in facilitating remittances as well as ensuring good usage of it in order to maximize the potential development impact for countries of origin, destination and  for individual migrants themselves.

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Yuko Hamada is the Regional Technical Specialist for Labour Migration in IOM Bangkok