The Migration and Development Pendulum: A Critical View on Research and Policy



At the dawn of the new millennium, international development agencies and governments have “discovered” the potential of migration and remittances to stimulate development in poor countries. However, migration and development is anything but a new topic. The debate about migration and development has swung back and forth like a pendulum, from optimism in the postwar period to deep “brain drain” pessimism since the 1970s towards neo-optimistic “brain gain” since 2000. Influenced by growing policy disappointment, we might now be at the beginning of a backswing towards more pessimistic views. While these shifts are rooted in deeper ideological and paradigmatic shifts, a review of empirical evidence yields a much more nuanced picture. Despite the often considerable benefits of migration and remittances for individuals and communities involved, migrants alone can generally not remove more structural development constraints and migration may actually contribute to development stagnation and reinforce the political status quo. Despite their development potential, migrants and remittances can therefore neither be blamed for a lack of development nor be expected to trigger take-off development in generally unattractive investment environments. Recent views celebrating migration as self-help development “from below” are partly driven by neoliberal ideologies that shift the attention away from structural development constraints and, hence, the responsibility of migrant-sending states to pursue political and economic reform. Immigrant-receiving countries can increase the development potential of migration by creating legal channels for high- and lower-skilled migration and integration policies that favour socio-economic mobility of migrants and avoid their marginalization.