Sunday, May 20, 2018

African migration and brain drain

This article from the Atlantic discusses the positive aspects of out-migration for source countries.  Its argument rests heavily on a recent World Bank study finding that each migrant who leaves an African country equates to an additional $2100 in exports per year from that country, in addition to the remittances they send home.

This is fair to point out, and the article's point is well taken that sometimes we in the development sector are too dead-set on having people stay put where they are, and that we thus don't acknowledge the very positive contributions that out-migration can make to a country.  Likewise I agree that developed countries should allow freer movement of people into and out of our countries if we are really serious about equality, fairness, and above all free markets.  Why should financial capital be ever-freer to move around the world, when people are constricted in their movements to seek a better life?

But let's at least point out some holes in the logic and make some counterarguments.  Nobody can deny that the desire to migrate is a powerful force for a lot of people, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of people who do migrate.  But we also can't deny that most people don't migrate, due not only to restrictions on their ability to do so, but often because they simply don't want to.  (This alone would seem to justify development agencies' focus on making life better "at home", since most people in any community will stay there, not migrate).  Even those who do migrate often feel ambiguous about their decision, and many migrants return home (or plan to) as soon as they can, whether that's after three years working hard and saving, or after a long career abroad so they can retire in comfort in their home village.  I've been flabbergasted recently that a number of my friends' immigrant parents, people who I'd placed unambiguously in the ranks of die-hard, lifelong Chicagoans, have returned to their countries of origin to retire.  It reminded me at a very visceral level of how strong a pull is exerted by home.  I'm feeling it too, as I seek ways to start a life in Chicago after more than a decade living abroad.

I also think the Atlantic article cited above is too blithe about the reasons for migrating, making migrants out as unhurried Homo economicus making a cold monetary calculus.  But as profiled by a recent NYT article, many Central American migrants are not so much making a carefully pondered choice to seek economic opportunity elsewhere, but rather are desperately fleeing gang violence in their home countries.  Such situations are common as push factors for migrants throughout the world (usually also mixed with an economic impetus), but the Atlantic article doesn't consider this angle at all.  (Side note:  up until reading this NYT article, I was appalled to see that news coverage of the Central American migrant caravan, which is a public protest staged annually to draw attention to the plight of migrants, focused so much on President Trump's framing of it as a sort of military assault on the border that they missed the whole moral and religious theme that the organizers are trying to evoke.)

Again, this is not to diminish the agency of migrants, and the very real economic choices they make and real benefits they and their communities reap by their migrating.  But it is to say that the decision to migrate is often not purely economic, and migrants often have mixed feelings of elation to discover a new reality and seek new opportunities, tempered by nostalgia at leaving their homes and fear of the very real dangers they'll face abroad.

Okay, let's deal with the other, and in my view the bigger, problem with the Atlantic article.  $2100 a year is not much, even in most poor countries.  If an educated, motivated person stays in his or her country of origin and invests their time, effort, and money in their own business, or as part of the qualified workforce for someone else's business or working in government, then the value this person contributes to the economy will almost always be superior to $2100, and even to the remittances they might have sent home otherwise. 

I understand the Atlantic article's skepticism vis-a-vis "keeping people put" in a given place (they drive home their point with a straw-man argument tying such community development efforts to the slave trade and colonial corvee labor).  No one should oblige anyone else to remain in an intolerable stagnation, just to satisfy some utopic ideal of local development.  But at the same time, all successful countries do in fact implement policies precisely to keep their people put.  City governments like Columbus, Ohio or Palo Alto, CA or Naperville, IL do their best to attract and hold onto highly-qualified people and families, because they recognize that attracting human capital is always better than letting it go, even if those who leave were to send back a bit of money from time to time to their relatives back in Naperville.  I guess my point is that any place should seek a balance between getting people to stay put and hence develop that place, and of course offering people the freedom to move away.  In fact, many countries that have greatly benefited from migration seem to have done so by holding on to professionals and higher-income people who "contribute" more to the country, while allowing and even encouraging the poorer, less-qualified people to migrate away.  For Mexico in the 1990s, losing a doctor would be bad, but having a subsistence farmer send some of his sons to the US to work construction would decrease pressure on land in Michoacan, while increasing earnings beyond what those farmers'  sons could have gotten back home.  For Sweden or Sicily in the 1880s the calculus would have been similar. 

This has its limits though; at some point you want your country to develop, not just to send people abroad to prosper.  Let's think in concrete terms.  If a doctor from Niger migrates to France and makes a lot of money curing the ills of French people instead of curing Nigerien ills, then the improvement in health and wellbeing accruing to the French will be at the expense of the improvement to Nigerien health.  In this case, children and adults in Niger may die for lack of that doctor's care.  In the short term the deal may still come out in favor of migration to France, since the lives improved in France are "worth" more in terms of earning potential than those in Niger, and the doctor can capture some of this value added and even send it back home.  The problem is that, unless that doctor begins to act as if the Nigerien lives are worth just as much as the French lives, they never will be.  The Nigerien economy will continue to value French wellbeing more than Nigerien wellbeing, which means that the gap in productivity between the two countries will never be closed.  It's like when countries try to "develop" by attracting low-wage industries like apparel.  If their prime selling point is the low cost of their labor, then this model will never result in improved wages (and thus wellbeing) for the people of that country, because the only development occurring depends on wages remaining low.

To tie all this up, I'm going to bring the economic point back to the issue of violence and the not-so-rosy motives for migrating.  In Central America we see a very perverse dynamic, in which parents migrate to the US in order to make more money, send money back to their children, and thus "improve" their children's lives.  But right now what is happening a lot is that those kids remain in the care of doting, doddering, or overworked grandparents who for whatever reason can't provide them the structure they need for a healthy upbringing.  Or even worse, they stay with uncles or older siblings who may abuse them, throw them out, or feel resentful either at the imposition of more mouths to feed, or at their economic dependency on the kids' parents and their remittances.  Either way, you find kids who have a weak family structure, which in turn opens them up to all sorts of social ills--sexual promiscuity, drug use, violence, and gang membership.  The fact that they have more money thanks to the remittances only worsens their vices.  I'm not just making this up, doing a conservative diatribe yearning for simpler times.  No, these are trends that we see happening at a massive scale in Central America, which then fuel the conditions of generalized violence that push even more migrants out. 

I'm not saying that the particular dystopia that we've seen in Central America is happening or will happen in every poor country or every country that sends out migrants.  But it is another reminder that the Atlantic shouldn't be so flippant in its blanket endorsement of migration as a way to improve life in Africa.

In summary, I like the Atlantic's reminder that migration isn't always a bad thing for countries that send people abroad (and is certainly a boon for the recipient countries).  But let's not exaggerate.  Every place in every time needs to balance the need to relieve pressure on land and the job market, with the need to expand the opportunities that people themselves create by staying put.  That mix of how many people should migrate and how many should stay put will vary by country and by time period.  But let's not pretend it's an all-or-nothing question.

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