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Leveraging migration for progress towards the 2030 Agenda


Suttie, D. and R. Vargas-Lundius . Leveraging migration for progress towards the 2030 Agenda. GREAT Insights Magazine - Volume 7, Issue 1. Winter 2018.

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Migration and mobility provide a real opportunity to unlock progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For this, policies and investments need to be adapted to the realities of populations that are on the move.

Debates on migration are seldom grounded in the real complexities that shape the phenomenon. Even conceptually, useful typologies and distinctions are hard to find. Rarely are the motivations that underlie mobility clear-cut. Analysts generally distinguish two main categories: displacement as a result of an immediate hazard or danger and mobility to pursue livelihood strategies. Even here, however, oversimplification is all too easy. For instance, while sudden-onset events may force relatively short-distance movements (Drabo & Mbaye, 2011), these are often a precursor to subsequent longer term and more voluntary movements. On the flip side, slower-onset events, like environmental degradation and social and political unrest, can encourage rural farm households to pursue new economic strategies outside of agriculture. These many times involve migration. Overall, migration and mobility tend to be the result of multiple factors. It is this complexity that makes definition, classification, and generalisation extremely difficult.

Lack of data is another problem, especially regarding internal migration (Vargas-Lundius, forthcoming). Mobility within national borders is much more prevalent than international migration. Generally this means migrating from a rural area to a larger town or city. People are drawn to city life by economic, social, and environmental factors. Primary among these are the non-agricultural opportunities created by increasingly diversified national economies, improved connectivity and information flows, and the rise of intermediate towns that serve as stepping stones (Suttie & Vargas-Lundius, 2016; IFAD & FAO, 2008; Ratha, 2013; Hussein & Suttie, 2016). Conflict and fragility can play a role in mobility too. If institutions, policies, investment frameworks, and norms give rise to economic processes that are neither inclusive nor sustainable, the outcome may be civil strife, social and political instability, and conflicts over natural resources (in some places exacerbated by climate change). These all can provide a trigger for population movements.

Push and pull factors intersect in mobility decisions

Some of these dynamics are “pull” factors, as they provide a potential path for accessing better and more diversified livelihood opportunities. Others are “push” factors, such as when lack of viable living conditions in an area drives people to move. Yet, in reality, different “push” and “pull” factors often overlap in influencing people’s mobility decisions.

Given this complexity, attempts to frame debates on migration in terms of any imperative to “address root causes” is unlikely be realistic or productive. Particularly, the assumption that migration can be stemmed by economic development is generally not borne out by reality (Laborde et al., 2017). Evidence suggests in fact that development may increase migration, at least in the short term (De Haas, 2011). This is not entirely unsurprising considering the human and financial resources needed to migrate. The poverty-reduction impact of mobility is well documented, and often especially evident in connection with internal movements (Ferré, 2011; Oucho, Oucho and Ochieng, 2014; McKay and Deshingkar, 2014; Vargas-Lundius and Suttie, 2016; Vargas-Lundius, forthcoming).

Embracing mobility for inclusive development

A more constructive approach is possible. First, however, we have to abandon the faulty assumption that sedentary livelihoods are the norm — especially in rural areas. Mobility has long been a key livelihood strategy, and it will continue to be so (Krätli & Swift, 2014; Catley, Lind & Scoones, 2014). Moreover, under the right conditions, mobility could strengthen advancement towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, it could provide greater access to employment, markets, and education. Second, support is needed for livelihood strategies that involve mobility – the goal being to improve migration’s social and economic returns to the communities of origin and destination, and to the migrants themselves.

We still have very little understanding of the needs and realities of migrant workers and the challenges they face. What we do have is an abundance of poorly informed and polarised political debates, which not infrequently end in proposals that ultimately undermine the opportunities and general living conditions of mobile workers. Barriers to mobility are erected, for instance, in the form of policies that discriminate against migrants’ access to social services, employment, and housing.

It is important to note that such barriers have an especially stark impact on women. Not least, barred access to social services and infrastructure affect women disproportionately because of their duties in the household. Gender discrimination in the labour market is also persistent (Chant, 2013).

Giving migrants a voice and building policies to support their choices

Development agencies, supported by governments, have a constructive role to play in facilitating migrant organisation. Collectively, migrants could have a stronger voice and ability to represent their interests in political fora. With the right training and organisations, mobile workers could develop the capacity to articulate their needs and to link up with institutional structures that allow their political voice to be heard. Supported by civil society, they could advocate for policies that open doors to opportunities or, at least, remove rules and regulations that discriminate against their interests (Suttie, forthcoming). Country case studies show that where human capital development and mobility intersect, enhanced national productivity and well-being can result (Vargas-Lundius, forthcoming).

Mobile services for mobile people

When it comes to serving migrants, advisory and support services adapted to contexts of mobility offer particular scope, though this has been underused thus far. To share knowledge and information, mobile people need access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). ICT-related applications and tools – including mobile phones, social media, e-learning platforms, web portals, and community radio – could provide a growing spectrum of services to migrants (Suttie, forthcoming). Already, mobile money transfer tools are increasing efficiency and reducing the costs associated with remittance transfers (IFAD, 2017). Such technologies could also play a role in facilitating investment in both rural and urban areas. This could help stimulate economic activity outside the big cities, in turn helping rural households overcome the financial constraints associated with the seasonality of rural and especially agricultural incomes.

Mobile technology has developed rapidly in recent years. Subscription rates in developing countries increased from 22 per 100 inhabitants in 2005 to 91.8 per 100 inhabitants in 2015 (Saravanan & Suchiradipta, 2015). Crucially, mobile technology breaks down barriers, offering a compelling platform for expanded services to people on the move at a relatively low cost. To further expand these services’ reach and interactivity, awareness-raising programmes are needed. They also need to be adapted to the requirements of mobile populations – especially those coming from remote rural areas. For this, public and private actors will need to be brought on board and partnerships developed between service providers, migrant organisations, and telecommunication companies (Suttie, forthcoming).

Targeted support for young migrants

Focusing on the needs of heterogeneous sub-groups is important to ensure inclusive outcomes. Evidence shows that youths are more likely to migrate than older adults (UN-Habitat, 2010; World Bank, 2006). This fact becomes particularly relevant in light of the expanding shares of people under the age of 25 in many regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and, to a lesser extent, South Asia (Filmer & Fox, 2014; cited in World Bank & IFAD, 2017: pp. 5-6). Migrant youths therefore need to be included in relevant dialogues and institutions, and training and service provision needs to be linked to the aspirations of the modern youth. This could be done in various ways, for example, through engagement with entrepreneurship-related forums, secondary and higher education events, and mentorship programmes.

Adapting approaches to the gendered realities of mobility

Women too are becoming ever more prevalent among those migrating (Tacoli & Mabala, 2010). Nonetheless, access to services and training is generally skewed towards men (Colverson, 2015; Petrics et al, 2015). Flexible ICT-based modalities of service delivery can help respond to this reality. To serve women effectively, services have to be sensitive to the different workloads of household members, including the extent that some are engaged in different forms of mobility. In addition to women who themselves migrate, rural women whose husbands migrate need targeted support, as they have an added workload to manage (FAO, IFAD & ILO, 2010).

Changing mind-sets for a brighter future

Overall, there is a strong need for policies, institutions, and investments that respond to and enable people’s mobility – rather than erect barriers. Certainly there is scope for policies aiming to enhance communities’ resilience and foster inclusive and shared prosperity. Furthermore, efforts are doubtless needed to reduce social instability and the drivers of the conflicts that fuel displacement. At the same time, however, mobility needs to be recognised as a legitimate household strategy. With the support of governments, development agencies, and civil society, as well as private actors, migration and mobility can be leveraged for progress towards the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda.


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About the authors

David Suttie works for the Global Engagement, Knowledge and Strategy Division of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), where he is active in research and policy advice, focusing on the themes of rural youth employment, migration, rural urban linkages, and family farming. David is also a lecturer in rural development at the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

Rosemary Vargas-Lundius holds a doctorate in development economics from Lund University, Sweden, and has carried out research on rural poverty and unemployment, gender, and migration. She was a staff member of IFAD for two decades, where she worked as the Senior Research Coordinator in the Office of Strategy and Knowledge Management and as Country Programme Manager in the Latin America and Caribbean Division.

Photo:  Displaced Darfuris Farm in Rainy Season. Credit: UN Photo/ Albert Gonzalez Farran

This article was published in Great Insights Volume 7, Issue 1. Winter 2018

MigrationMigrationSustainable Development Goals

External authors

David Suttie

Rosemary Vargas-Lundius