Doing research on migration and development is tough. Some of the most basic questions can't even get off the whiteboard because data on migration are so limited. If the government of Kenya wants to know how many doctors went last year from Nairobi to London, or vice versa, no one can tell. If a hard-working economist wants to know how many Pakistanis have temporary labor contracts in the Gulf countries, good luck.
Migration is shaping global development, but much of it is inscrutable. Even legal movements occur in the shadows.
Right now I'm in Helsinki, at a preparatory meeting for the Global Forum on Migration and Development later this month. In addition to dining on reindeer steak with a port wine glaze, I spent part of this week listening to some of the best proposals to improve migration data. The attendees here include technical experts from important migrant-origin countries like Ghana and Moldova, and data gurus from the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations, the Institute for Public Policy Research, and many others.
Now, even talking about this subject is a triumph of hope over experience. Since 1922 and before, international agencies have been making unheeded recommendations to improve migration data. But I heard some great ideas this week that gave me more faith than ever that there are concrete ways forward. Here are three among many:
- Point out the policy question. If you exhort the U.S. government to do more to track the international movements of skilled workers, you might get a yawn. Suppose you instead said, "Because the United States strictly limited its skilled H-1B visas to 85,000 last year, and demand for them is enormously higher, how many of the world's best and brightest are we losing to Canada and Europe?” No one really knows. Now the value of data becomes more distinct.
- Produce estimates to elicit reaction. Most countries on earth don't even publicly count how many people from each other country are within their borders. What would make them care about doing so? When an independent agency produces their own numbers using indirect estimation methods, government might have an incentive to collect and publish the real numbers to set the record straight.
- There's great stuff in the pipeline. I'm continually amazed by the major advances being made in this area. The UN is now beta-testing an amazing new public database, for example, that compiles all of its data on migrant stocks all over the world. Compiling what we have is important, and free public dissemination even more so.
I will be there in Manila at the Global Forum, discussing the draft recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission on migration data that CGD has convened with the help of the MacArthur Foundation. (The Commission's recommendations aren't finalized yet, but watch this space for more on that.)