Ideas to Action:

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Yesterday I discovered a development organization so revolutionary, most people wouldn’t even call it a development organization. It’s a non-profit called the Independent Agricultural Worker Center (CITA).

CITA is a matchmaker between farms and seasonal agricultural workers. The farms are in the United States; almost all of the workers are in Mexico. CITA brings them together and unleashes the vast economic power of labor mobility for development.

I don’t use the word ‘vast’ lightly. CITA helps hard-working Mexican laborers legally raise their earnings by roughly 1,000%. (In Mexico they can make about US$10 per day; on U.S. farms they earn US$10 per hour.) There is no aid project I know of that can do that—not even close—in Mexico or anywhere else in the developing world.

Janine Duron and I at the CITA office in

San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico,

September 19.

CITA hopes to be self-financing soon, but its seed funding came from philanthropists. They’re getting a giant return on their investment. The roughly one thousand Mexican workers who come each year through CITA earn around $10,000 each more, over the growing season, than they would’ve earned in Mexico. That totals $10 million per year, every year, in new earnings. Critically, all of that goes directly into the pockets of workers and their families. Compare that to most aid!

That’s some of the highest-leverage development philanthropy out there. CITA’s budget is a few hundred thousand a year. The benefits to low-income Mexicans are $10 million a year. That’s 20- or 30-to-one leverage. Not maybe, someday—but certainly, today. CITA’s startup funders, Catholic Relief Services and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, deserve a standing ovation.

CITA’s founder and head is Janine Duron. She’s doing it out of love for farmers and farm workers. She’s doing it with integrity because she knows she’s directly competing with human traffickers. She understands that these workers are not displacing American labor; she served unemployed Americans for years in a prior career at Arizona’s workforce bureau.

Some questions about CITA’s work:

  • Is this really development? Yes. As top migration scholar David McKenzie has pointed out, guestwork is one of the most effective development interventions we have evidence for. I am currently evaluating guest-work programs in the Philippines and India, which massively benefit their participants.
  • Is it sustainable? Yes. Seasonal migration in the Southwest is a generations-old tradition, and employers establish lasting relationships with migrants.
  • Does it take jobs that would have been filled by American workers? No. Each year CITA’s roughly 1,000 manual farm jobs, which pay about $3 above minimum wage, receive just 3 to 5 applications from Americans.
  • Does it help the U.S. economy? Yes. There’s a reason these American farms will endure the painful H-2 visa certification process, pay well above minimum wage, and pay many other fees like housing and transportation. They pay because the workers’ labor benefits U.S. farms more than those costs. And each manual farmworker generates complementary jobs often filled by Americans, including equipment operators, supervisors, and providers of business services like accounting.
  • Does it benefit U.S. consumers? No doubt. Available farm labor means affordable U.S.-grown produce and food security for people all over America.
  • Does it protect migrants’ rights? Absolutely. The legal jobs CITA offers  are a direct substitute for the black-market enganchadores who recruit for outlawed jobs in the US with exploitative practices and broken promises.

I was moved to learn that CITA’s 1,000 jobs have a 7,000-person waiting list. Mexicans who work in the black market for farm labor don’t do so because they don’t care about U.S. law. Mexicans want legal opportunities to build the U.S. economy with their labor. They resort to the black market because U.S. immigration laws, designed more around family ties and populist politics than around economic sanity, leave them few alternatives.