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What is the biggest distortion in the world economy? A forty-percent price gap for identical widgets traded in two different markets is considered large these days. In capital markets, investors would be shocked by a price difference of one percent for the same security in two different exchanges. But in the global labor market, wage gaps for equivalent workers differ between countries by one thousand percent or more in some cases.

Barriers to worker movement apparently have greater effects on the welfare and productivity of people from poor countries than other types of global barriers, as has been shown by Alan Winters among others (see his "Relaxing the Restrictions on the Temporary Movements of Natural Persons: A Simulation Analysis"). It's bizarre then that the most important global flows are the least studied and the worst understood. While dazzlingly detailed trade and investment statistics are at the fingertips of researchers and managers, even the most rudimentary data on migration are very hard to find.

There have been recent advances. The OECD has developed a useful and important Database on Immigrants in OECD Countries; researchers based at the University of Sussex have produced a groundbreaking global matrix of migrant stocks, and the UN has done a very useful compilation of flow statistics -- among other valuable efforts. But these tabulations are aggregated and infrequent, making them of limited use for important research questions. If you want to know how many doctors moved from France to Senegal last year, or how frequently Ecuadorians move back and forth between Ecuador and the United States, or how many Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa, your only recourse is guesstimates that don't permit rigorous research.

We're working to change that. Larry Summers, Patricia Santo-Thomas & Dennis DeTray at CGD Migration Data Commission MeetingLast week Dennis de Tray and I convened the first meeting of CGD's Commission on Migration Data for Development Research, co-chaired by CGD board member Larry Summers and Patricia Santo-Tomas, the chairman of the board of the Development Bank of the Philippines. The Commission comprises some of the world's top experts on migration data from the OECD, UN, Eurostat, the World Bank, and top academic institutions. During its deliberations and at a series of high-level UN meetings on migration and development in late 2008, the Commission will identify a small set of actionable recommendations; the Commission will release a report on its findings at the end of the year. This work is made possible in part by support from the MacArthur Foundation.

Will the Commission make a difference? In years past, many international meetings offered recommendations that went unheeded and left us with today's sad state of migration data. But this Commission has no patience for platitudes. At the first meeting the commissioners focused on recommending a small number of specific actions that could be taken by named individuals over the next two years to compile existing data in a form that would spark a quantum leap in the quantity and quality of careful research on migration and development. Improvements in the data are central to the arguments I put forth in a new essay with Sami Bazzi, "Don’t Close the Golden Door: Our Noisy Debate on Immigration and Its Deathly Silence on Development". The essay will also be published as a chapter in the forthcoming CGD book, The White House and the World: A Global Development Agenda for the Next U.S. President.

As a commissioner myself and co-head of CGD's Migration and Development Initiative, I welcome comments and suggestions about how we can increase the Commission's likelihood of success.

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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.