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In today's Financial Times, Martin Wolf explains why international labor movement is "hard to tackle". He starts from the premise that free, open migration is off the table:

Analyses of free migration in the presence of huge real wage differentials suggest that we would end up with vast informal sectors and shanty towns. That is what happens within poor countries. Why should it not happen across the globe? I cannot see how one would persuade a host population that this outcome would be in their interests.

This is a good question. Another good question is whether vaster and even poorer shanty towns in developing countries are even further from our best interests. South Africa collectively decided in the early 1990s that allowing free movement only to rich people, thereby caging the poorest people in pockets of desperation with the Orwellian name of "homelands", was even less in their interests than the large shantytowns one sees there today in areas once forcibly reserved for the richest. Careful observers of the world like Mr. Wolf understand, I am sure, the threats to our interests posed by laws that deny mobility and opportunity to trapped and desperate people. I think more and more people understand this.

Mr. Wolf also points out that another reason labor movement is so hard to tackle is that we know so little about it. For decades, anyone wanting to measure flows of trade or investment between any pair of countries on earth has had ready access to minutely detailed statistics in large international databases. There is no such luck for migration researchers. How many highly-skilled foreign-born professionals residing in the United States left for other countries last year? No one knows; even the countries with the largest migrant populations and the best statistics--the US, UK, and France--do not carefully track departures. This is like collecting statistics on exports, but not on imports. How many temporary workers moved back and forth between rich and poor countries in 2003? No one can tell you, because there is no standard international definition of what constitutes "temporary" migration. This is like every country on earth using irreconcilable definitions of "goods" and "services" in their trade statistics.

This is a scandal. Some of the most important contributions of the US to global development have been to give tens of millions of people born in poor countries new opportunity here, to thereby generate about one quarter of official global remittance flows, and to provide higher education to public- and private-sector leaders in developing countries all over the globe. Understanding the full impacts of labor mobility is impossible without the facts. Mr. Wolf calls for a blue-ribbon commission to analyze the state of our knowledge on migration, modeled on the prestigious Stern Review of climate change. It would indeed be a great idea to put together a similarly credible, synoptic view of the migration issue. But there would be limits to what it could say with our current data. High on the agenda of any such commission would be to suggest short- and long-term steps to greatly improve our knowledge of the fundamental facts. In 2008, the Center for Global Development will convene an experts' group on migration statistics to undertake part of this crucial task.

CGD is hosting a discussion on "Internal Migration and Poverty Reduction in Tanzania: Evidence from a Long-Term Tracking Survey" with Kathleen Beegle from the World Bank on Tuesday, November 6th.

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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.