What Could the World Bank Do in the Climate-Migration Nexus?

The World Bank’s evolution roadmap calls for the institution to reform and grow in response to global challenges and in particular climate change. But if the World Bank wants to do more on climate, it will also need to do more on migration–a topic only mentioned in passing. Successive briefings to the World Bank’s Board have argued that the institution could do more on international migration. It is time to deliver on that promise in the context of the climate challenge.  

With regard to adaptation to climate change, movement is a powerful tool. Most migration by climate-affected populations will not cross borders, but will travel from rural to urban areas within countries. That movement can act as a form of insurance, providing funds needed for adaptation for those who stay behind. In an experiment in Bangladesh, rural households were given money for a return bus journey to a nearby urban area on the condition that they sent a migrant. Migrants left during the ‘lean season’ before harvest. Their remittances had a striking effect: caloric intake in treatment households increased by 550-700 calories per person per day. The Bank could usefully support similar programs in other settings. 

That said, rural-urban migration is not always so successful. In India, for example, millions of moved laterally from rural to urban poverty due in part to a lack of skills. The World Bank could help countries map common or potential migration pathways and train potential migrants for skills needed at the destination, providing certifications to assist with the job search–something it has already done in a project in China. Again, populations most affected by climate change, seeking to escape destitution and with few options, may be more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation in the area of destination. Social protection schemes will need to better incorporate migration patterns. The Bank could provide support here as well. 

Some migration for adaptation will be international, especially from small island states. As World Bank research has shown, migrants’ incomes can increase by three to six times when moving from lower- to higher-income countries. That income can help sending countries recover after natural disasters: a visa allowing a small number of Haitians access to the US after the 2010 earthquake increased wages by around 1,400 percent, allowing migrant households to help rebuild in Haiti. The Bank could support programmes targeting labour migration access to climate-vulnerable populations. This could be through the provision of technical assistance in specific areas–such as in regulating and monitoring recruitment agents, or brokering and enforcing job contracts, or by supporting pilot projects. Sending and receiving countries may also benefit from assistance in identifying and accessing vulnerable populations. 

To support mitigation efforts, the Bank could facilitate green-skilled international migration. For the net zero transition to succeed, major global workforce shortages have to be alleviated. Domestic reskilling will be crucial to a just transition, but will often need to be complemented by labour migration. Some countries are already recognising this. Germany has agreed a deal with India to import solar technicians, and Denmark is exploring a similar agreement. Addressing global skill gaps is one of India’s G20 priorities, and it is pushing for a global skill partnership for the green transition.  

The Bank could support training efforts in green skills such as heat pump or solar panel installation, and provide technical assistance with regard to design and function of skills partnerships. Global skill gaps will need to be monitored in real-time, for example, and accreditation systems will need to be aligned. Governments may need assistance in brokering migration agreements and regulating intermediaries. These projects would be a quadruple win: for migrants, sending countries, receiving countries, and everyone worldwide who benefits from a stable climate. 

In some cases, migration is simply vital to survival. But in the great majority of cases, migration considerably improves lives for sending and receiving communities as well as the migrants themselves. It is not a sign of failure; much more often, it is an investment. Migration is one of the most powerful options for adaptation, and will be increasingly vital to mitigation. If the Bank wants to do more on climate, it should support people on the move. 


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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