Migration’s uncertain place post-2015

14 February 2013

Portrait of Dr Oliver Bakewell

by Dr Oliver Bakewell
Co-Director and James Martin Fellow, International Migration Institute

Research interests include the changing patterns of migration within Africa; the relationship between migration and development; the interface between migration policy and migrants’ behaviour, in particular the attitudes towards and use of papers (pa...

I Remit Singapore
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For nearly fifteen years the Millennium Development Goals have helped to shape the global development agenda, setting targets against which global development success has been measured. Migration was not included in the MDGs when they were launched in 2000; in fact the environment only just made it. However, in the last decade there has been growing interest in the links between migration and development – the so called migration-development nexus.

As the MDGs approach their expiry date in 2015, what should replace them? For those working on migration issues, this seems to be a chance to ensure that migration takes its place in the emerging global development agenda. 2013 will be a critical year as the UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda publishes its recommendations in May, and the second High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development is held at the UN in October. This has stimulated a flurry of round-tables and debates about whether migration should be integrated into the future development agenda, and if so, how? Can migration be incorporated into global development goals? Should linkages be made between migration and specific development targets or should it be ‘mainstreamed’? Should we focus on reducing the negative aspects of migration (e.g. migrant smuggling) or the positive aspects (e.g. maximising remittances)?

These are some of the many questions frequently being asked at the moment. However, I think that there are some more fundamental points that need to be considered first:

  • The danger of the nexus – the ‘migration-development nexus’ (or the ‘development-migration nexus’) is concerned with connecting public policy arenas. We can expend lots of effort drawing together officials interested in migration policy and those working in development, and look at their areas of common interest: how they can establish policy that best serves each other’s purposes, or at least is cognisant of each other’s priorities and interests. However, development and migration are intertwined social processes that reach beyond public policy. We need to start by looking more broadly at the complex relationship between development and migration. There is far too little analysis of the implications of development initiatives on mobility: whether it demands (or even forces) mobility – as labouring jobs are destroyed by mechanised agriculture so people have to search elsewhere for income; whether it enables mobility – as people gain new opportunities and seek fortunes elsewhere; or whether it inhibits movement. Only once we understand this better, we can narrow the view to the strategic linkages between development and migration policies.
  • What do we mean by ‘mainstreaming’ migration into development strategies? On one hand, it could be about including an analysis of the likely impact of development on mobility patterns – scale, direction, quality, composition – perhaps in a similar way to how we might consider the impact on gender relations or the environment. However, it runs the danger of falling into a second way of approaching mainstreaming: to begin including desired migration outcomes in development programming such as levels of emigration of graduates, levels of rural-urban migration, desired use of remittances, and so forth. This moves us into dangerous territory that is likely introduce ideas of development, which will rapidly be divorced from the interests of those subjected to them.
  • Conflating indicators and targets: there has been some discussion about the importance of developing indicators and targets that clearly show the impact of migration on development – such as demonstrating how remittances have contributed to reducing poverty in different contexts. Building up this evidence base, particularly if it can be quantitatively (and thereby in many people’s minds more authoritatively) expressed, has been identified as way of enhancing the case for including migration in the post 2015 development agenda. This may be true; however, it does not create any case for thinking such indicators of impact should become targets for development progress. There are two reasons for this. First, any indicators of change are almost invariably proxies for the change itself: our focus should be on the desirable change not the indicator. Second, while we may be able to show migration has had some impact, for example on incomes, there are also many other factors that will change incomes. The complex inter-relationship between development and migration makes it difficult, if not impossible, to tease out any causal links that will be reliably replicated in other contexts.

Until such fundamental questions are resolved, the place of migration in any post-2015 development goals can only be an uncertain one.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.