About 300 million people, or 3.5% of the world’s population, have settled outside of their countries of birth. From community projects in Guatemala to changing landscapes of gender norms within Polish households, debates on human mobility assume that migration is the primary driving force behind societal and economic development of the sending countries. I believe that it is time to explore the nuanced correlation between migration, the impact of remittances and development. To understand patterns of development in most sending countries, either to the EU, Canada, or the United States, transnational migration should not be considered as the sole factor leading to structural changes.

There is an urgent need to understand the discrepancy between discourse and practice in the relationship between migration and development. Policy assumptions and lived reality are different. Policies put in place often follow an optimistic mantra: “When migrants, especially the high-skilled ones, return to their country of origin, they will contribute to development.” However,  it is necessary to understand that it takes a significant amount of time for countries to grow economically into middle and upper-middle income brackets. Let’s take a look at the Global South. Africa has the world’s fastest-growing labour force. The demographic dividend suggests that by 2050 a quarter of the world’s population will be on the continent. In the absence of the basic foundations of welfare, financial and collective social remittances cannot entirely solve the growing waves of youth unemployment.

Many governments in Africa, like Mali and Senegal for example, have been open to submerge into co-development policies in collaboration with the EU by assisting with return migrants. In Senegal, the “return-and stay home” policy assisted Senegalese migrants living in France to return and invest in their country. The de facto of this policy is that it often depended on which category the migrant belonged to, and whether he or she had legal documents or not. This differentiation between who to assist financially suggests the exclusion of many undocumented migrants during their voluntary or nonvoluntary return to Senegal. This leads us to indeed question the levels in which African countries, such as the case of Senegal, are ready to welcome their returning diaspora and benefit from their know-how and human capital.

A study conducted by Senegal’s National Strategy for Economic and Social Developmentestimated that about 90% of remittances were often used for consumption purposes. Moreover, it argued that returnees’ lack of information about attractive investment sectors was a barrier to their involvement in social and economic market flows.

Often, migration is not an enriching experience, and a direct causal relationship between migration and development must not be unquestionably assumed. Cultural capital transfers through Senegal’s educated and intellectual migrants, for instance, were scarce. Their return was rare. The non-existing professional environments compared to that of the northern countries were a major cause. In addition to that,  there seemed to be a misconception about the Senegalese diaspora’s willingness to “help” their “homeland” and the presumed advantageous socio-economic positions of Senegalese migrants. Sometimes, they do not carry congruent ways of thinking about what they ought to contribute to their communities. This is why central to the study of remittances, a holistic understanding of the changing relationship between migrants and their communities of origin, gender relationships, cultural stratification, among other factors must be taken into account. In the Egyptian scenario, an individual's’ decision to move abroad can be perceived as a violation of the traditional social arrangements of the family. The “luggage” that Egyptian migrants, in this case, either send or bring back home may or may not be appreciated.

The case of Senegal is but one example of how the “euphoric” impact of social and financial remittances is cancelled out due to the sending countries’ non-existing opportunities. The limiting constraints for a triumphant return remain dependent on the returnees’ capacities to transform their “migration capital” into substantial and practical ways of living and doing, which can be difficult in the absence of formal structural support.

Marrakech - Morocco, credits to David Ruiz Luna on Flickr

Exploring the complementary dimensions of migration and remittances in national development “efforts”
The truth that one can discern through this migration-development nexus debate is that contemporary neo-liberal understanding of development puts the responsibility on individuals instead of politics and its puppeteers. While the development discourse values capital investment as the necessary route to modernity, migrants are caricatured as rational actors of income gaps.

As a Moroccan citizen living abroad, I am arguing that in the absence of domestic and national policies, as well as the presence of antagonistic development conditions, the role of remittances would be minimal.

Another example that illustrates national development “efforts” is Turkey. With an estimated migrant population of 3.5 million, the government has created a favourable economic setting for its returning diaspora, and not the other way around. It must be understood that any form of development initiated in the migrants’ home countries is the sole driver that enables a positive proliferation of remittances. However, Turkey's “New Diaspora Policy” is an example of an implicit geopolitical strategy that reinforces forms of nation-building. By establishing ties with its diaspora through education programs, Turkey is able to secure the flow of remittances towards its economic investments.

On another note, similar to Turkey, other sending countries such as China, South Africa, and Brazil are on the path of developing a sensitivity towards meeting their diasporas’ demands. China’s diaspora policies are a new mode of transnational governance in this development era. Started in the early 1990s, programs such as the Changjiang Scholars Programmes or the Hundreds Talent Programs offered high salaries and multiple funding opportunities for research. The policy even included a change in the official slogan from “returning to serve the country” to “serving the country” from a financial standpoint without necessarily having to return physically to China. China’s 2010-2020 national development plan offers an avenue for professional organizations and government agencies to tailor their programs or job openings to the returning migrants to help maintain the Chinese growth locomotive.

Africa has many opportunities for us — opportunities we are yet to create and develop. African governments must reconsider how to effectively put into place co-creation systems that are not duplicated from the West. African governments must recognise the relevance of their returning diaspora, not only for the financial remittances but for the social changes this diaspora can put in place.
As an economic migrant myself, seeking to come back to Morocco and contribute to social and community development, I believe that our government must be ready to:

  1. Create a space for constructive dialogue and co-creation between returning graduates and governmental parliamentarians, to not only reorganise but re-orient the current policies put in place for young individuals like myself.
  2. Reinforce institutional capacities with young and experienced leadership, and provide us with a voice in all spaces where decisions are being put into place. This, in addition to the establishment of evidence-based return migration policies.
  3. Create regional hubs that would enable return migrants to network with one another, and expand, as well as facilitate ease of doing business and provide funds for entrepreneurial projects.

I believe that it is important to remember that national development programs and diaspora targeted policies are not one-sided; they are in engagement and in dialogue with migrants who have the agency to choose whether or not to affiliate themselves with the programs their nation-states put in place to attract them back into the development pattern. The only proven way for migration to play a positive role in origin societies’ development is if fundamental political reform occurs, trust in government grows, and economic growth starts.

Remittances—whether social or financial—play a complementary role in the development pendulum. I am convinced that both pessimists and optimists thinkers of migration must create a middle ground to enlarge their discourse beyond binary and ethnocentric lenses. While migration “raises high hopes and deep fears,” we ought to understand that there is not only a need for understanding migration through an intersectional and nuanced lens but for also taking into account that development efforts must be considered as preconditions to witness an impact of remittances at a larger scope.