A provocative new paper http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1423717/ by researcher Michael Clemens of the Washington-based think tank Center for Global Development argues that advanced economies should consider relaxing immigration policies considerably, based on the fact that migration to rich countries has been remarkably successful at raising the living standards of the world’s poor. Clemens, who has most recently applied his ideas about labor mobility to the Haitian crisis, forces us to question some of our firmly-held assumptions about development process(es) and migration.
Clemens begins by critiquing narrow “place-based” approaches to development- he argues that the field is preoccupied with the idea of poor countries as potential sites of development. Instead, by focusing on statistics such as the average income gains of poor migrant moving to wealthy countries, Clemens says, we can see migration as an effective and efficient mode of development. After citing a number of impressive statistics about the income gains of migrants who move to wealthier countries, Clemens concludes that “No known schooling intervention, road project, anti-sweatshop campaign, microcredit program, investment facility, export promotion agency, or any other in situ development program can surely and immediately raise the earning power of a large group of very poor people to anywhere near this degree.”
There are a number of questions that the article raises for me with respect to the Middle East:
Can migration to wealthier countries in Europe and North America raise the living standards of people in the poorest countries of the region (Yemen, etc)? I assume that this would be the case given the enormous wage and standard of living disparities between the poorest countries of the Middle East and OECD countries. Unfortunately, concerns about terrorism are likely to poison any effort to introduce a policy that would allow large numbers of Yemenis to migrate to France, Germany and England (for example).
Given the documented abuse of expatriate workers in the Gulf, can increased labor mobility within the region enhance the livelihoods of the poor when destination countries (Saudi, Kuwait, etc) do not have a protective legal and political infrastructure? This is a complex issue given the fact that laborers experience an increase in wages but not necessarily in living standards. In this respect, Clemens argument seems more applicable to Western European and North American countries which allow for a more sustainable rise in income and living standards.
It is certainly important for people and organizations concerned with economic development in the Middle East to consider innovative recommendations such as the ones outlined in A Labor Mobility for Development when formulating policy. For example, with respect to the situation in Afghanistan, there may be a strong argument to allowing Afghans to migrate to wealthier countries such as Iran (and perhaps compensating those countries directly for the burden imposed on infrastructure) rather than implementing top-down development programs within Afghanistan at a large cost. Evidence-based, innovative arguments like the one made by Clemens are desperately needed in policy circles where discussions of global development are based on ossified thinking and antiquated ideas about what works.