Cultivating a New Bargain on Migration: Three Recommendations for the Global Compact

February 12, 2018

Migration is a volatile political issue worldwide. It will become explosive in decades to come, as demographic change raises pressure on the traditional ways of regulating migration. Right now there is a window of opportunity for countries to agree on how to manage migration better. That window will close in July.

A New Bargain

The Global Compact on Migration is a non-binding agreement expected to be signed by most countries on earth near the end of 2018. They are negotiating the text now. This Compact is a once-in-a-generation chance for the world to strike a new bargain on migration. There will not be another chance soon to get this bargain right.

As it stands, the Zero Draft of the Global Compact is mostly not a bargain. It is mostly a detailed and inspirational list of general ways that countries can coordinate to advance their shared interests: Everyone wants migration to be safe and orderly. Everyone wants to share information and reduce racismEveryone wants to collect better statistics and promote sustainable development. Let’s work together.

But the final draft of the Global Compact needs something else.

It must be a bargain. In a bargain, people don’t pretend their interests are aligned. They admit conflicting interests. And they partially concede, in order to come out better than they could by going it alone.

Right now, vast numbers of people have deep concerns about migration. That includes people in the countries that migrants leave. Politicians cannot go to them with a document touting the shared interests of all. Many see real conflicts in the interests of more developed and less-developed countries, and conflicts between migrants and non-migrants.

A core conflicting interest, to put it roughly and bluntly, is that many in richer countries want less low-skill migration, but many in poorer countries want less high-skill migration. This is a crack in the heart of the negotiations on the Global Compact.

A Compact that simply proposes “more” low-skill or “more” high-skill migration does not address these concerns. It is not a bargain. On the other hand, a compact that does not explore new lawful channels for migration—of some kind—ignores overwhelming demographic, economic, and geographic realities.

So the Compact needs three things:

  • Bargains—with concessions.
  • Specific innovations—because proposing “more” migration cannot rise to this challenge.
  • And small step commitments—not committing to some “answer”. No one knows what the “answer” is, but countries can learn more by committing to pilot a range of approaches testing what can create tangible, visible, mutual benefits.

A Way Forward: Global Skill Partnerships

There are seeds for a bargain in the draft Compact already. Negotiators can cultivate them.

I was delighted to see, named in the Zero Draft of the Compact, one proposal that does rise to this challenge: a commitment to pilot Global Skill Partnerships. (It’s in part 32(e) of the Zero Draft.) I was involved in designing the Global Skill Partnership proposal. Today this proposal has worldwide momentum—last year it was a focus of the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Berlin, and this year was endorsed by the UN Secretary General.

Global Skill Partnership is a bilateral agreement in which a migrant destination country gets directly involved in creating human capital among potential migrants in a country of origin—before they migrate—and non-migrants. Destination-country employers and governments provide technology and finance for vocational training inside the country of origin, and job placement at the destination—critically, paired with the training of other workers who remain in the origin country.

For example, think of a nursing school in central Banjul, in West Africa. The EU and European employers transfer finance and technology to support that school’s training of two kinds of people: specialized nurse assistants to work in Europe, and nurses to work in the Gambia. Migrants coming from such a program would have precisely the skills they need to integrate quickly and contribute maximally when they get to Europe. European governments would save money, not spend money: they need nurse assistants regardless, and training them the Gambia is enormously cheaper. The Gambian government gets more nurses, not fewer, and can cooperate as an equal partner without fears of “brain drain.” Young girls in Banjul could walk past that school and see that, growing up, they’d have concrete options other than risking their lives to migrate unlawfully as a sub-minimum wage maid or sex worker.

A Global Skill Partnership is a bargain because it means concessions. Richer countries concede to support origin-country training centers and offer labor-market access, but in return they get precisely the kind of immigrants they want. Poorer countries concede to more skilled migration, but in return they get support for training at home. This is a bargain. If either acts alone, they those.

It’s a wonderful sign that the specific bargain of Global Skill Partnerships is endorsed in the Zero Draft. It’s one of the best tools we have to mend the crack at the heart of the negotiations. The Compact needs this and other bargains if it is to address real and widespread concerns about migration.

As you think through what should be defended in the Zero Draft, and what should change, please push for the final draft to contain bargains with concessions to real concerns of conflicting interest, commit to specifically-named innovations, and commit to testing those innovations, not prematurely embracing them. Don’t describe trees; plant seeds.

One way to do all this is to insist that the final draft of the Compact retain the Zero Draft’s commitment to test out Global Skill Partnerships at a small scale. That’s just the beginning.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.