Lacomba, J./Boni, A.: Migration and Development Aid: Four Thesis and Four Proposals, 2012

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The weak link between migration and development aid

In the last few years, the debate about the link between migration and development has gained momentum and visibility in numerous political and academic media. Within this renewed debate on an already classical topic, the issue of the impact of official development aid (ODA) in relation to migration has had minor relevance. Both analysis and empirical evidence as to whether ODA contributes towards reducing migration, or increasing it, are rather scarce. Indeed, ethical reflections as to whether ODA should really serve this purpose have not been considered in depth, beyond isolated criticism. However, the doubts raised by the current attempts to link ODA with migration are many and force us to review inherent approaches and their potential consequences.

Does aid stop migration? Should it do so?

One of the most commonly accepted suppositions when considering the links between migration and development is that greater development leads to less migration. From this viewpoint, ODA might be expected to contribute towards this reducing effect on migration. The basic reasoning is that given that underdevelopment is one of the main causes of migration, and as developed countries are not willing to accept an unlimited number of immigrants, ODA is a suitable tool to increase development levels and so reduce migrant exits from developing countries.

Nevertheless, this “logical” way of understanding migration and development processes, disguises a much more complex link between them and that aid may have other, unexpected effects. Already in the 90’s, the European Commission (1996) warned about the complex nature of the phenomenon and that, in the short term, certain aid for poor countries may involve, under certain circumstances, an increase of migration flows. Likewise, the OECD (1993) recognised aid initiatives related to migration have generally been disappointing, both as regards rural development programs to prevent depopulation of the countryside and industrial development programs, which had not achieved a geographically equitable distribution of income, but rather had accelerated the migration of the people who were living in those areas.  Along the same lines, the United Nations also questioned resorting to official assistance for development in order to stop migration may not be efficient, because the level of aid required is usually very high and because isolated measures are hardly ever successful (United Nations, 1997: 25).

We may add other observations to these, such as those of Arango, who states that “the addressees of international aid rarely coincide with migration candidates, because the aggregated benefits of the former are hardly effective in deterring the latter. In addition, if cooperation programs generate, as is usually the case, regular connections with donor countries, they may play the role of migratory networks and, thereby, increase the possibilities of migration” (Arango, 1995: 60).

Nevertheless, there are numerous declarations and initiatives that still maintain that the reduction of migration depends on an increase in the development levels through ODA programs, as contended by the philosophy of “codevelopment”. The mantra of reducing migration through development aid still holds strong, even when we know many weaknesses in the link between the two. Indeed, even if we admitted that aid may be able to reduce migration –which does not seem to happen directly– we should consider whether this is really the role aid ought to play, and this becomes even more evident when speaking of remittances.

Thesis 1: Development aid couldn´t stop migration on its own; besides, in specific circumstances, migration could arise. Consequently, we can´t forget migration proposing aid as a single possibility.

Thesis 2: Usually, goals and targets of development aid and migration policies are different. Incoherencies between the two policies can restrict, specially, the effects of development aid.

Remittances and aid

If, as we have just seen, the relationship between migration and aid raises many doubts, the relationship between remittances and aid is also questionable. In parallel to the notable increase in the remittance figures on a world basis, in the last few years the remittances have become a source of development funding by international cooperation bodies. However, in the extensive literature on remittances and development (Ghosh, 2006), how to specifically manage the remittances with ODA and what mechanisms may be useful in this sense, are still questions to which there are not many answers. One of the few texts that explore these issues –Migrant remittances and development cooperation, by Jorgen Carling (2005)– sets forth a series of measures for facilitating shipments, reducing costs and promoting productive investments through the channels of development cooperation, but also warns of the risks and the contradiction involved in using it to benefit those who (as emigrants and their families) are surely not the most in need.

Also, the UNDP (2009), in its Human Development Report focused on mobility, warned that remittance-led development “would not appear to be a robust growth strategy. Like flows of foreign aid, remittances alone cannot remove the structural constraints to economic growth, social change and better governance”. Nevertheless, the idea that remittances may be a more effective way of promoting development than aid has gained strength, contending, for example, that in contrast to aid, the remittances are more stable and do not involve reimbursement, or that individuals may assign them better than the governments that manage the aid. On their part, authors like Xenogiani remind us that “aid is a public transfer, by definition absorbed by governments and thus invested and distributed as governments choose. In contrast, remittances are private flows whose use is at the discretion of receiving households and individuals. Thus the two may show differences in absorption capacity as well as their uses relative to welfare” (Xenogiani, 2006: 15-16). The reports by Xenogiani describe how Straubhaar and Vadean (2005) contend that remittances may have more beneficial effects than aid and direct foreign investment, as their use is not linked to specific investment projects, do not involve paying interests and need not be reimbursed; or how Cogneau and Gubert (2005) comment that remittances may be used to improve development perspectives because individuals are able to assign them better than the governments that manage the aid.

Certainly, we have two potential flows of development funding –the most important ones for many countries with lower development levels– of different characteristics and effects. As also contended by Kapur (2004), the aid has governments as direct receivers and civil society organisations as indirect ones, while remittances are directly received by households and have an immediate effect on the reduction of poverty and, therefore, should be perceived as complementary but not as alternative or replacement sources. As Ghosh warns, “It would be unfortunate if a gathering euphoria over the role of remittances in the development of poor countries serves as a distraction from the ODA commitments” (Ghosh, 2006: 97).

Beyond ethical considerations, as regards what this approach may imply as a transgression of ODA principles, both the channels and the places of arrival for remittances and ODA are notably different, as well as their impacts on reducing poverty and their relationship with welfare. Furthermore, even if remittances may have an effect of reducing poverty in receiver households, this does not mean that development standards are modified. As Kathleen  Newland comments, “a more nuanced understanding of remittances has developed as research and observation have revealed that remittances reduce poverty but not necessarily bring about more sustainable growth or development” (Newland, 2011: 2).

Finally, remittances hide another paradox in their relationship with aid and in the relationship of the latter with the attempts to reduce migrations, because remittances depend on migrant exits, while the political use of aid intends to limit them. It is usually forgotten that, although rich countries are the main source of both ODA and remittances, the basis of their immigration policy and development aid are surely not the same. Baimal Ghosh quotes the example of Japan, which has a restrictive immigration policy but, in absolute terms, is a major aid donor country (Ghosh, 2006: 24-25).

Thesis 3: Remittances can’t substitute aid, due to the distinctive nature of their issuers and receivers as due to the distinct effects on development. A good combination of aid and remittances, strategically oriented, would have a bigger impact on development.

Thesis 4: Aid donors, especially States, must not transfer their economic responsibilities to migrants established in their territories using remittances. Indeed, acknowledging possible virtues of remittances, these must not be used to justify a decrease of development aid.

Migration and aid: both are essential

Within the current context, migration and aid should not be understood as replacement factors, since both play a major, but limited, role in development in many countries. The United Nations acknowledged that “history shows that trying to keep people at home is not only costly, but futile. Increased population mobility is concomitant with economic success”. Furthermore, they recognise that under the current circumstances, “migration may be the most efficient response, provided its beneficial effects are supported” (United Nations, 2006: 68). Likewise, and although the contribution of aid remains the subject of notable disputes, the need for aid is not questioned as much as some of its uses and effects.

As we have seen, not only migration and aid have very different logics, but also their dimension and scope is different depending on the context. The UNDP 2009 Report clearly shows how in countries with a medium level of development, remittances exceed development aid, while in others with lower development levels it is exactly the opposite. It does not seem that the attempts to promote one in order to reduce the other –more migration (remittances) for less aid, or more aid for lower migration (flows)– have had the expected effects. Really, the attempts to link migration and aid seem to respond more to political needs than to results shown in the field up to now. The agendas of the most developed states in their bilateral relationships with migrant issuing countries have established the terms of the debate and have largely distorted the nature of the link. Regardless of whether a direct relationship between migration and aid may be established, bilateral policies have tended to take aid as a tool to exert pressure on the countries of origin, so that they have greater control on the exit of their citizens. The connection between development aid and policy strategies for regulating migration promote the risk to turn aid into a hostage of migratory policies, inverting the terms of the relationship. Nevertheless, development aid should be solely based on the needs of developing countries, and not on the migration policy of donor countries. As Jutta Aumüller contends, “the most promising approaches in guiding migration with development policies are not those that underline the return of migrants or attempt to make new migration difficult, but rather those based on supporting development” (Aumüller, 2004: 56).

In the beginning of the nineties, the OECD reminded us that the contribution of aid to reducing migrant pressures is essentially indirect, by improving the administrative, political, economic and social framework in order to reinforce the capability of the migrants’ countries of origin to fully use their potential. The most important contribution of  aid in reducing migrant pressures, according to this body, “should be found more on a policy level than in searching for magical formulae” (OECD, 1993). Years later this warning seems to have been forgotten. If we need to establish a link, it should be for aid needs to guide the type of migrant policies, and not the opposite.

Proposal 1: Aid policies shouldn’t be interfered by political concerns on migration. Development aid needs to be produced regardless of migrations flows from recipients to donor countries.

Proposal 2: To a larger extent, aid and migratory policies should focus on democratic improvements in developing countries. Aid conditionality must not be linked to migratory control but it need to be connected with political openness, including participation of migrant’s civil society in new forms of political governance.

Proposal 3: Migrant’s remittances shouldn’t be presented as an alternative tool of aid development, neither be linked with specific development goals. But a deeper research on their links and their mutual impacts need to be fostered.

Proposal 4: Fulfillment of migrant’s social and labor rights in hosting countries need to be assured; this is one of the most essential guarantees of their involvement as development actors in their home countries, something that will have a positive effect on remittances.


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Aumüller, J.: Migration and Development Aid Policy, in: J. Blaschke (ed.), Migration and Political Intervention. Theories and Debates. Vol I. (Berlin: Edition Parabolis, 2004).

Carlin, J.: Migrant remittances and development cooperation (Oslo: PRIO Report I/2005, 2005).

Comisión Europea: Conclusiones del Consejo del 28 de mayo de 1996. Recueil. Vol. 2. 06/95 – 11/97.

Ghosh, B.: Migrants’ Remittances and Development. Myths, rhetoric and realities (Geneva: IOM, 2006).

Kapur, D.: Remittances: The New Development Mantra, G-24 Discussion Paper Series 29 (Geneva: UNCTAD, 2004).

Naciones U.: Informe conciso sobre las tendencias demográficas internacionales, 1997: migración internacional y desarrollo (New York: Consejo Económico y Social de Naciones Unidas, 1997).  

Naciones U.: Migración Internacional y Desarrollo. Informe del Secretario General. (2006).

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PNUD: Informe sobre desarrollo humano. Movilidad y desarrollo humanos (2009).

Xenogiani, T.: Migration policy and its interactions with aid, trade and foreign direct investment policies: a background paper (Paris: OECD Development Centre Working Papers 249, 2006).

Joan Lacomba, Valencia University, Spain 2012

Alejandra Boni, Technical University of Valencia, Spain 2012




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