Migration and developmentMigrants are individuals with rights, not ‘agents’ or ‘tools’ for economic growth or poverty reduction
Recently, when Baburam Bhattarai unveiled his five-point agenda for Naya Shakti, I was struck by the fact that his address was to “all the brothers and sisters and friends living within and outside of Nepal.” Besides the aspiration to achieve five “S’s,”namely, shanti (peace), sambidhan (constitution), sushasan (good governance), samriddhi (prosperity) and samajbad (socialism), encapsulated in the agenda, his message also conveys considerable expectations on the millions of Nepalis who have left their homes in search of better livelihood opportunities abroad.
That Bhattarai would like Nepali migrants alongside other youths of Nepal to be at the forefront of Nepal’s future development is nothing new. In fact, there is a general tendency within development discourses as well as in policy prescriptions to stress the migration-development nexus. Accordingly, recent discussions in national, regional and international forums have been replete with recommendations focusing on harnessing the development potential of migration not only for the benefit of the migrants but also for society at large in terms of poverty reduction and sustainable development.
Costs and benefits
However, except for the often-cited facts about remittances constituting almost 30 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and laments about the over 79 percent of remittances being used for ‘unproductive’ purposes, a more robust discussion as well as policy measures on the linkages between migration and development are hard to come by. And, perhaps this is understandable since there are no clear-cut answers—migration has benefits but the costs are equally significant. According to a World Bank report, poverty reduction in Nepal by a full quarter that occurred between 1995/96 and 2003/04 can be attributed to increased levels of work-related migration and remittances sent home, and the same can probably be extrapolated for the decrease in poverty rates from 31 percent in 2003/04 to 25 percent in 2010/11. However, such gains have come at a cost of an average of three dead bodies of Nepali workers arriving in Nepal on a daily basis.
As one of the highest remittance-receiving countries in the world (in terms of remittances as a percentage of the GDP, how should Nepal position itself in the migration-development debate? Before drawing conclusions on whether migration is good or bad, it is important to first recognise that discussions on the impact of migration are usually based on aggregates—drawn from household-level data or comparisons made on the basis of country-level aggregations. To a certain extent, there is a logical fallacy in these inferences because information at the country level, or at best the household level, is used to deduce conclusions about individual migrants and their welfare. Hence, rather than asking whether or not migration is good for Nepal at the aggregate level, there is a need to reframe the same question at the individual level and seek answers to those such as: For whom migration is good, under what circumstances is migration beneficial, and what types of migration flows lead to maximum welfare impacts.
Second, in most of the discussions on migration and development, there seems to be a level of discomfort, almost an apologetic tone, and conveners unfailingly make it a point to state at some stage that their purpose is not to support or oppose migration. Rather, their intention is to simply support individual workers and their families when they do choose to migrate. Such caution is perhaps no longer warranted in an era of globalisation where population movements within and outside borders are the norm, and Nepal is not really an exception. Only by acknowledging both the ubiquity of migration as well as its permanence can one begin to discuss more sincerely the development impacts of migration.
A quick scan of recent interventions suggests that most of the attempts to maximise the benefits of migration are limited to improving the skills of migrant workers, providing trainings to migrant returnees, and supporting entrepreneurship amongst returnees or the families of the workers. In a context where, according to the 2010/11 Nepal Living Standards Survey, 53 percent of households have a member who is a ‘migrant’ living away from home, either inside or outside the country, these interventions which are carried out on a piecemeal basis can be inconsequential and fail to bring about transformative changes. Instead, there is a clear need to mainstream migration in the country’s development agenda and think about how to conduct development differently. This will mean reconfiguring development pathways and also making the requisite investments by the government as well as its development partners.
Presently, there is a significant mismatch between investments in migration and returns to migration—on the one hand, Nepal extols the fact that the remittances from migrant workers account for 29 percent of the GDP but the resources that the government has allocated to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, the nodal government agency responsible for overseeing issues of labour and migration, were less than 0.5 percent of the national budget in 2015/16 (and the trend has been the same in the past). There is also a need to rethink development and reconcile between the ideals of development as growth and accumulation of capital, and development that signifies equality and distribution, community development and social justice.
The last point is particularly important because there currently seems to be a real or perceived trade-off between migrant rights and the economic benefits of migration. Citing the weak bargaining position of Nepal, policy-makers have often shied from making strong claims on the governments of destination countries to secure the rights and welfare of workers. But policy-making is not always derived from rational decision-making. Instead, policies are outcomes of negotiations, power struggles and compromises made by different actors. In this regard, rather than looking inward, there is a need to understand the position of host countries that Nepalis are migrating to. While it is clearly in the interest of destination countries to limit the rights of migrant workers because of the associated fiscal costs, recent developments such as the increasing international scrutiny on Qatar following reports of abuse of migrant workers in the run up to World Cup 2022, the over-reliance of some of the countries like the UAE and even Malaysia on foreign workers to achieve their development goals, global attention on international normative frameworks such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, are important in that they provide space for Nepal to leverage the development potential of migration.
Simply calling on migrants to don the mantle of development like Bhattarai
and many others before him have done is neither adequate nor appropriate. Instead, the onus is on the state to develop the country, protect its citizens and ensure their welfare within Nepal and beyond. After all, migrants are individuals with rights. They are neither ‘agents’ nor ‘tools’ for development, economic growth or for that matter, poverty reduction.
Sijapati is Research Director at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, Social Science Baha, Kathmandu