Development and Migration

In Bhutan, I often hear people attribute social ills to migration. Now that I’m working on a project addressing youth suicide, I hear about this even more.

Migration here tends to go from rural to urban and from Bhutan to other countries (for education usually). People say that it leads to the breakdown of the family and community, to a loss of identity, to exposure to toxic stressors, and a lot of other things.

I’m not sure if all that is true.

But I do know that, in the context of international development, migration is seen as bad.

It’s baaaad for the developed countries and the villages that people leave behind. The cheeseclothing of families and communities, the drained brains.

And it’s baaaad for the developed counties to which they move. They bring all their strange and scary ways and take jobs away from everybody. (Yea, I’m talking to you Donald Drumpf.)

But I’m not sure I believe all that.

Then I read this article Keeping Them in Their Place: the ambivalent relationship between development and migration in Africa by Oliver Bakewell.

The author looks critically at many of the assumptions surrounding migration. Reading this helped me further explore my own thoughts about migration and my own migratory tendencies.

Migration and Colonialism

The history of and continued influence of colonialism should not and cannot be underestimated.

During the days of active colonialism, settlers controlled where indigenous populations lived because 1) they wanted their land, or 2) they wanted an available workforce. Other benefits to keeping indigenous people in rural areas was that they were “over there,” away from centers of power, and living traditional lives.

All this benefited the colonizers who could move freely, enjoying the pleasures of progress and privilege. Not much has changed.

The point here is that we should quit trying to so hard to control where people live.

Migration and Family

Once I was in Nicaragua taking Spanish lessons. We were talking about our families. My young teacher explained that someone from her family had moved to the US to work. As a result of this one person’s remittances, the family was able to afford running water in their home and everyone in her generation (including the girls) had gone to school.

There is so much money flowing through development channels. Much of this does reach the people it’s intended for, but a lot gets pinched by the international development bureaucracy along the way. Remittance money goes directly to communities and families to spend how they choose.

Many assume that migration is an individual choice reflecting a breakdown in the family. Often, the opposite is true. Migration is often a family decision and may, in fact, be a reflection of the strength of the family.

Migration and Motivation

When you choose to live away from your country of origin, people talk. They analyze. Why would someone do such a thing?

I have been the subject of such analysis. Most people think that I’m adventurous and big-hearted. Some think that I must’ve been dissatisfied with my life at home, and this was the consolation prize. A few think I’m a selfish colonizer.

Migrants from the developing world are also the subject of such analysis. But for them, it goes the other way. Most assume that people from the developing world migrate because they are leaving a bad scene.

Sure, this is the case sometimes. But some people choose to leave because they want to. They got a great job or educational opportunity. Or they just want to explore.

Those working in international development often assume that if a program is working, migration will decrease. This assumption is grounded in the belief that people migrate due to negative conditions at home. But the opposite can be true, too. Some people migrate because they now have greater access to opportunities and the global community.

Migration and Morals

Migrants get moralized.

They left their families. The remittance gets spent on big TV’s. The educated ones should’ve stayed home to help their own countries.*

This is all nonsense and very similar to the judgments that get put on poor people in the developed countries. These same behaviors, when by a person from a developed country, are adventurous and brave and a sign of the good life. When a migrant does it, it’s wasteful and self-ish.

What’s the point?

Migration is a complex issue and can neither be categorized as “good” or “bad.” And, it’s not something that will stop. We assume (wrongly) that humans are sedentary, and so we then assume migration is a symptom of a problem. But the whole of human history is about migration and exploration. It’s a strength, not a pathology.


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