Institute for Advanced Development Studies

- removing critical obstacles to sustainable development

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Monday Morning Development Newsletter:  

Treat Your Migrants Better!
By Lykke E. Andersen*, La Paz, 30 April 2007.

“Patriotism is your conviction that your country is superior
to all other countries because you were born in it.”
George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)

There are surprisingly few international migrants in the world. Only around 3% of the worlds population live in another country than the one where they were born (1).

Considering how many fantastic places there are in this world, it is quite surprising that most people are contented with staying all their lives in the place where they just happened to be born.

A small fraction of the population in each country are more open minded and imaginative that the rest, however. It does not matter how much or how little formal education they have, they are inevitably more dynamic, more resourceful and less prejudiced than the rest. They realize that there is no mechanism at work to secure that people are born in just the right place, which means that they could probably be much more useful and productive somewhere else. They don’t just passively accept what life throws at them, they actively try to improve their own lives, and with that the lives of others (2).

Loosing these persons to emigration can severely cripple the development opportunities of a country. These people are natural leaders creating jobs and opportunities for the rest. Without them a country’s development can grind to a halt, making it almost entirely dependent on foreign aid and remittances from migrants (Nicaragua is an unfortunate example of that).

In contrast, countries that are able to actively attract migrants – not just reluctantly accepting the refugees that they cannot avoid – will benefit greatly from harboring this crème de la crème of the worlds human capital. Migrants tend to complement rather than compete with the resident population. Many  migrants are willing to take on dirty, low prestige jobs that local residents shy away from, but which have to be done. Other migrants have unique skills and experiences which enrich local life (ethnic cuisine being the most obvious example) and yet others are hyper-mobile experts or scientists offering their services to the highest bidder, wherever the bidder might be located.

Even if migrants were just average people, the World would still greatly benefit from a freer movement of labor. Rich countries like Denmark are so short of un-skilled labor that even a Ph.D. has to spend many hours every day on cooking, cleaning, laundry and other trivial tasks that could be performed just as well, or better, by a non-skilled immigrant. In contrast, poor countries like Bolivia are so short of highly skilled labor that the few people with Ph.D.s are treated like nobility, and the abundant unskilled workers are little better off than slaves. If some people could move to even out these abysmal differences, everybody would be better off.

Contrary to popular perception, migrants are not the problem, they are the solution. The problem is the majority of the remaining 97% who tend to be narrow minded, prejudiced, racist, ignorant, and/or much less productive than they could be if they would just let the migrants help them.

If that sounded a little harsh, it may be because I just had to spend one months per capita GDP for a visa to visit my own family in my country of birth! Imagine if a Danish person would have to pay US$ 2,500 for a visa to visit Bolivia for a week.

I hope that some day free international mobility will be considered a human right. Discrimination based on birth-place is surely as wrong as discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic over which people have no control. But these days things are definitely going in the wrong direction.

Related articles:
- Migration and the 80/20 rule
Is International Migration Increasing?
- Reverse Psychology in Migration Policy
Bolivia in the Flat World

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail:
(1) International Organization of Migration.
(2) Examples of migrants who have vastly improved the World: Russian born migrant Sergey Brin, by founding Google Inc., has arguably “saved more time for more people than anything else in the world.” Scottish born migrant Alexander Fleming, by inventing penicillin, has saved and is still saving millions of lives. German born migrant Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientist and intellects of all time, renounced his German citizenship at age 17 to avoid military service and became Swiss instead. In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Ger
many, Einstein again renounced his German citizenship and became citizen of United States. Scottish born Alexander Graham Bell first migrated to Canada and then to United States, where he invented the telephone to the benefit of almost every person on the planet. Of the last 25 Nobel Peace Prize winners, more than half were migrants.

Institute for Advanced Development Studies 2007. The opinions expressed in this newsletter are those of the author and do not necessarily coincide with those of the Institute.

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