A number of aid advocates have started (re)using the fear of migration flows to drum up support for increased, or at least sustained, development and climate finance. Their argument is that such finance will reduce migration flows; that we should support and protect prosperous and sustainable economies over there so that people don’t want to come here.
These advocates include people I respect and admire. I’m convinced they’re making the argument with concern for the potential migrants and the places they come from as a foremost concern. But they really need to stop. The argument has no evidence basis and won’t work as an advocacy tactic. Feeding into a narrative of people in low- and middle-income countries as impoverished hordes only one failed rainy season away from sweeping into the civilizations of the West isn’t helping anyone.
Aid is unlikely to deter migration
One basis for their argument is that if we make countries more prosperous, people will be less likely to leave. Yet development is likely to increase migration, at least in the short-term. Migration costs money; getting richer means that more people can afford to do it (especially to destinations further away). Regarding the impact of climate change, we don’t know much about if, when, where, and how much climate-induced migration will happen, but the academic consensus can be summed up as “climate migration [is] a looming security crisis without an empirical scientific basis.” Climate factors are weak predictors of asylum migration, for example. And from what we do know, it appears climate migration is most likely to take place within middle-income countries from rural areas to towns and cities. The idea of a “vast remapping” of the global population is based on junk science. In addition, there isn’t a compounding effect of climate on poverty when it comes to migration for precisely the reason that poor people can’t afford to migrate.
But learning into the narrative, how large does your development or climate finance have to be to have a meaningful impact? To significantly and rapidly impact climate change by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions in low- and middle-income countries would cost somewhere around $2 trillion a year. To reach the kind of high income that is associated with comparatively low emigrant flows would require countries reaching a GDP PPP per capita of $50,000, near New Zealand’s or the UK’s. Until we see development or climate finance approaching the scale required to achieve these outcomes, they aren’t going to deter migration any time soon.
Migration is an opportunity, not a problem
The ‘problem’ framing also presents as a challenge what is in fact an opportunity for economic development in all countries.
Take the UK. Large parts of the British economy face worker shortages, from farming through construction to health care, transport, and warehousing. Immigrants already support the economy in these sectors, and many more. Absent migration, the working-age UK population is predicted to fall by 2 million by 2040, while the population over 65 climbs by nearly 6.5 million. Fewer workers and greater demand for care services will impose a massive burden on taxes, pensions, and the National Health Service. Meanwhile, migration certainly requires policy responses in areas from housing to education, but the evidence on the putative negative impacts of immigration—on employment or access to services of people already here, for example—is sparse. The real ‘problem’ with migration faced by the UK and other donor countries is that they aren’t attracting enough migrants to fill the jobs that need doing.
For migrants, moving presents the opportunity for a considerably higher quality of life. And for the countries they move from, emigration is associated with larger flows of remittances, trade, investment , and growth. Fears of brain drain are largely overblown: more opportunities to benefit from education and skills provides more incentives (and resources) to invest in them. That makes migration a powerful force for development. And given climate change is already hitting the poorest people worldwide the hardest, we ought to be supporting their adaptation using every tool possible, including migration. That’s the way to view movement: as part of the solution, not the problem.
The narrative is ineffective and toxic
Forget the truth of the argument or its framing issues, what about the politics? Leaning into migration fears is not an argument well-designed to appeal particularly strongly to the average voter in the UK, at least. That’s because those voters support current or increased migration flows and want an asylum system that is fair, even if that means allowing more asylum seekers in. And for most of the time since 2019, apart from a recent uptick, the average person in the UK has viewed the environment as a more important issue facing the country than immigration, suggesting the best way to gin up broad- based support for climate finance in particular is probably to argue that it will have positive impacts on the climate.
Similarly, ask UK voters across the political spectrum what is the strongest argument for the aid program, and they’ll suggest, first, the moral duty to help the poorest people and, second, that lifting up other nations creates global opportunity. These two arguments appeal far more than framing around national security or threat reduction. What evidence there is about migration and development finance seems more in line with reversing the entire approach: people who want more finance for development and climate should be actively supporting more immigration, because areas with more migrants support more generous aid programs.
Will the argument that international finance will deter migration work better on that subset of people who are likely to be most receptive to the idea that migration poses a growing threat in the future—the people already most concerned about it? British MP Enoch Powell weighed in on the subject in 1965, suggesting there was “nothing particularly novel” about suggesting aid could stop the threat that “poor nations will come here and overrun us” but “the reasoning behind its application to aid is very curious.” Surely it made more sense to keep them poor so they didn’t arrive, rather than paying bribes to them to stay away, suggested Powell. Regardless, he added, aid wouldn’t work to make low- and middle-income countries more prosperous: “nothing can be imagined less likely to stimulate and help them than the sham of international charity.” To this day, there is a strong overlap between opposing immigration and thinking aid doesn’t work—which helps explain why those who are pushing to ignore the human rights of asylum seekers also favor redirecting overseas development assistance to the UK.
But even if the argument was likely to work as an aid marketing tactic, it still wouldn’t be worth it. When not portrayed as swarms or marauders, migrants are portrayed as floods. This dehumanization of people trying to move to a better life justifies inhuman cruelty. And the risks of the approach should be clear from previous times it has been used. Population control advocates tried to raise funds for global family planning services in a very similar way and had to face an ugly reckoning with the results.
This isn’t about presenting a hard truth necessary for action. The argument that international finance will deter migration is empirically weak and morally ugly. That it is unlikely to work is the least of its problems. Especially for my friends and colleagues in rich countries who have the interests of people from low- and middle-income countries at heart, it is past time to cease using it.
Thanks to Helen Dempster, Ranil Dissanayake, and Ian Mitchell for very helpful comments and suggestions on a draft, with the usual disclaimer.
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.
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