When Migrants are Seen as a Blessing not a Scourge

By Leonard Doyle

Lets face it, "migration is the original strategy for people seeking to escape poverty, mitigate risk, and build a better life. It has been with us since the dawn of mankind, and its economic impact today is massive."

That these words were published on the eve of St Patrick's Day, by an Irishman - a country with a long track record in migration - is not a surprise. Sutherland's words resonate in today's globalised world because migrants’ remittances are literally pulling the economies of countries of origin up by their bootstraps.

"Migrant remittances exceed the value of all overseas development aid combined, to say nothing of the taxes that migrants pay, the investments they make, and the trade they stimulate," he says in a keenly observed commentary article on Project Syndicate.

Peter Sutherland is the UN Special Representative for International Migration and Development and Chairman of Goldman Sachs International and the London School of Economics. He was the former Director General of the World Trade Organization, EU Commissioner for Competition, and Attorney General of Ireland.

His article draws attention to the simple elegance of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which expire in 2015, and which he says "triggered real progress in terms of lifting millions of people out of extreme poverty, improving health and access to education, and empowering women."

He points out that eight original MDGs, among them reducing child mortality and achieving universal primary education, were praised for their simplicity and transparency. Measurable ends were given to some large, abstract challenges.

But, quoting Albert Einstein – “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts" – he argues that the post-2015 agenda must break the mold to include a narrative that addresses complex issues like migration. 

"Otherwise, the global development agenda could lose its relevance, and thus its grip on stakeholders," Sutherland states.

The original MDGs did not mention either internal or international migration because these politically sensitive topics could have torpedoed the entire project by polarizing the international community. He also points out that "our empirical understanding of how migration interacts with development was limited at the time; there was little data with which to shape measurable goals."

Sutherland also points out that migration was a vital force in achieving the original MDGs: "There are an estimated 215 million international migrants today – a number expected to grow to 400 million by 2040 – and another 740 million internal migrants who have moved from rural to urban areas within countries. Each typically supports many family members back home, which also helps to lift entire communities."

He points out that in Bangladesh, just 13% of households that receive remittances from abroad are below the poverty line, compared to 34% of non-remittance-receiving households. The data from Latin America, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere tells a similar story of remittances reducing the severity of poverty. Moreover, the income earned overseas goes disportionately to education and health.

He notes that in rural Pakistan, there is greater enrollment in girls’ education, thanks to remittances.

If there is one unimpeachable symbol of the world’s growing interdependence, it is the movement of people. Sutherland suggests that our future progress depends on being being able to move more freely. “Advanced countries, with their adverse demographic trends, need migrants, as do developing countries – not only for migrants’ economic contributions, but also for the social and cultural diversity that they bring.”

While some may point to the downsides of migration, it's "here to stay, and it is growing...There can be no return to a monoethnic past, so successful societies will need to adapt to diversity," he writes.

If development experts have tended to regard migration as a sign of failure, a sign that development policies are not working, Sutherland suggests they are wrong. Migration should not be seen as a problem to be solved, he suggests, neither should it be considered good or bad; it is simply natural to the human condition.

"People migrate from poor countries, from middle-income countries, and from rich countries. They go from north to south, south to north, south to south, and north to north."

Sutherland predicts that the likeliest outcome of the debate on the post-2015 global development agenda will consist of "an MDG-style approach – concrete, measurable targets for reducing extreme poverty – and the emerging sustainable development narrative, which emphasizes the complex forces of interdependence, such as migration and climate change. In the imperfect world of politics, this middle ground would be a positive outcome."

The data driven approach of the MDGs is already being developed for migration with an aim of creating a roadmap "that can take us from today’s poorly managed, exploitative system of human mobility to one that is well managed, protects migrant rights, and plans for the consequences and opportunities of migration."

"The bottom line," says Sutherland, "is that making migration part of the world’s development strategy will have a meaningful impact on the lives of migrants, affording them greater access to rights and to the fruits of their labor. Perhaps even more important, it could change public perceptions of migrants, so that they are viewed as a blessing rather than a scourge."

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM