Linking development and migration: Michael Clemens, Hein de Haas and the Migration Hump

Michael Clemens recently wrote about the nexus between development and migration. He finds:

The unmistakable pattern is that, for countries below something like $6,000–8,000 GDP per capita (at US prices), countries that get richer have more emigration. The threshold arrives at roughly the income per capita of Albania, Algeria, or El Salvador. But roughly half the countries on earth, and all the poorest ones, are below the threshold.

This is known as the ‘mobility transition’, or migration hump. Writing in 2008, Hein de Haas outlined previous literature in this working paper on migration and development and included this instructive graph:

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 3.18.17 pm

While immigration for a country has a steady rate of increase, emigration is shaped differently. Emigration increases, peaks, and then descends as economic growth proceeds. Clemens is right to identify this as counter-intuitive. It’s baffling at first, but makes sense when we think about barriers of labour supply and labour demand. These barriers are eroded via wealth, creating resources to facilitate movements. At a certain point, the economic benefits of moving slow down and then decrease, driving lower emigration rates.

Clemens empirical work finds the same pattern as de Haas’ theoretical overview (noting de Haas also includes an empirical test):

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 3.41.56 pm

This is important. And, the shape is becoming more pronounced, as shown by the right hand side above. When we think about which countries are poor in the world today, this likely means migration in the 21st century will be very different to previous migrant trends, based on country of origin flows. How people move has a strong impact on their wellbeing and financial situation. In Australia we see established ethnic populations from the Philippines and Malaysia yet relatively few people from Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Closer to home, this literature has implications for our relationship with our largest aid recipient, Papua New Guinea, which has never seen high levels of emigration. The evidence says this should not be surprising but also to be aware of the possibilities in the future.

In my view, Clemens most helpful part of his paper is putting some additional empirical grunt into this historically theoretical discussion. Further, the following five questions drawn from his paper about future questions to answer, summarise what a long way there is to go:

  • Will the same relationship continue in the future?
  • Is the mobility transition shaped primarily by supply or by demand?
  • Is there a micro-macro conundrum?
  • What determines the relative importance of different mechanisms in different settings?
  • What are welfare-optimal policy responses to the mobility transition?

In terms of development, the question of economic welfare is most pertinent but unfortunately, one of the least recognised within the development agenda (it must be said the interest in migration and development has grown strongly in the past decade).

Of course, there are other impacts on emigration as well as economic factors. Vipul Naik, of the Open Borders website, asks:

What I’d like to know: to what extent does it reflect immigration *policy* discriminating against poor people and/or poor countries, and to what extent does it reflect differences that would continue under open borders?

Perhaps people can afford to emigrate more heavily even in very poor countries yet policy decisions stymie this as opposed to resource constraints. Naik raises the parallels with internal migration, where barriers are not related to immigration policy, particularly rural to urban migration.

This is a good question. In the Pacific, we know many people want to work in Australia under the seasonal work program but settle for New Zealand because the immigration policy is more functional (although this may be slowly changing). Presumably the resource constraint is similar for Australia and New Zealand (although airfares are more expensive to Australia). Both societies have existing diaspora. Yet we see very different immigrant flows with an unknown effect on emigration patterns.

Clemens addresses this issue as one of the ‘theories of mobility transition’. However labour demand in the destination country gets tangled up in immigration policy settings and is difficult to quantify relative to labour supply from the destination country (to be fair, his paper is also about economic forces, as opposed to political or policy concerns). This is perhaps the main reason why labour supply theory dominates much of the migration literature. Immigration policy undoubtedly plays a role but distinguishing policy from economic forces is hard.

Both Clemens and de Haas seek to highlight how initial thoughts can be very misleading. This is vital work for improving the migration/development nexus, an approach with massive potential and the central message is clear:

This suggests that for most poor countries, most of the time, an assistance policy that seeks to deter migration will fail. People who are serious about development in the poorest countries—such as Haiti, Ethiopia, or Cambodia—need to include migration in their strategies. Successful migration and development policy, in the broadest sense, means planning for a mobile world.

For Australian development policy, while some positive steps have been taken in better integrating migration and development, there is much still to do.

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