Migration and Development

downloadA very interesting interview with Michael Clemens, migration expert from the Centre for Global Development, a US think thank.  What would happen if Europe (quite utopically) would decide to open up its borders?  Some key extracts:

On why people migrate:

Safety and opportunity depend mostly on what country you live in, and 97 percent of humanity lives in the country they were born in. For those of us born in safe, prosperous countries, such a random lottery seems quite satisfactory. Most migrants are people who have simply decided that they will not let lottery results enforced by others determine the course of their lives.

On the impact of migration on the host country:

I would go as far as to say that this is a consensus opinion among economists. That is saying a lot, because economists are known for putting caveats on everything. But all the serious evidence we have points to large gains in overall economic activity from reduced barriers to labor mobility. Ninety-six percent of American labor economists agree that the economic benefits of US immigration exceed the losses.

Unfortunately, this research is rarely used as the basis for a debate.  Instead, nasty arguments like ” if we allow them, many more will come”, tend to be accepted as truth.  What I didn’t know, is that research shows that immigration increases wages for low-skilled labour, rather than depressing them:

Research has shown that natives acquire more skill when immigration rises [by specializing in occupations requiring more complex tasks and less manual labor]. And firms adjust their investments when immigrants are present, shifting away from technologies that eliminate low-skill jobs for both low-skill immigrants and low-skill natives. Most simply of all, foreign workers are not just workers, they are also consumers. Immigrants at low wages tend to consume products, like fast food and budget clothing, that are made and sold by other low-wage workers.

This relates to the work of Ricardo on comparative advantages in trade. Countries with a lot of labor relative to capital, for example, will tend to have a comparative advantage in labor intensive goods production. Apart from human rights and social justice arguments, letting in more migrants makes economic sense, in particular in greying Europe.  Rather than fearing that immigrants will plunder social security coffers, the question is whether European welfare systems will collapse without immigrants:

A comprehensive review by the independent OECD in 2013 found that the average immigrant household in Europe contributed over £2,000 [$3,000] more in taxes than it took in benefits.

The most interesting argument in my eyes, is how often a mindset that considers migrants as people who somehow not belong where they are, is used in case of cultural tensions.  The tensions are explained as a result of migration, rather than as a responsibility of the host country.  The mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Clemens clarifies the point with a good analogy:

Suppose a woman is attacked by men on the street, as she walks to work. What caused the attack? It depends on your assumptions. Many people in the world do not believe that women have the unqualified right to work or to walk down any street. These people might say that the cause of the attack was that the woman’s family allowed her to take a job and walk around unguarded. If you believe that women’s rights to work and travel are beyond question, you might identify a different cause of the attack: The cause of the attack was that men decided to attack her.

Likewise, when activists hold rallies to unmistakably threaten immigrants with violence, many might describe this as social conflict “arising” from immigration. This view requires you to already have decided that migrants don’t have the right to be there—for the same reasons that saying attacks against women arise from their presence on the sidewalk requires you to have already decided that women don’t have the right to walk on the sidewalk.

Finally, how about the effects on the origin countries?  Brain drains leaving countries with few qualified doctors and engineers.  Or, the important role of remittances, many times bigger than aid, on development? Clemens underlines that immigration is different from actively recruiting people in developing countries:

So if we’re talking about immigration policy, the question “Does migration substantially harm low-income countries?” is the same as the question, “Does forcibly stopping people from leaving low income countries substantially help those countries?” To put it mildly, social science has absolutely no evidence of such a effect.

People in developed countries often see the wealth and opportunities in their country as a right, rather than as a stroke of luck, as if they have any credit in being born in a rich country.  Given the fact that countries such as Lebanon (4 million people) and Jordan (6,5 million people) each can take one million Syrian refugees, a good starting point for European countries would be to increase the numbers they’re willing to accept each year.  Articles and arguments such as this deserve to be widely read.

Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa

Our rainbow nation that so filled the world with hope is being reduced to a grubby shadow of itself.
(Desmond Tutu)

South Africa has been in the grip recently of xenophobic violence, notably against Mozambicans, Somalis and Pakistanis, fuelled by remarks from the traditional leader of the Zulus and the son of President Zuma. The army and massive publication campaigns are being rolled out to quell the unrest.  However, the experience after the previous xenophobic attacks, in 2008, show that the underlying smoldering fire is unlikely to be extinguished soon.

The attacks show South African people’s frustration with perennial shortfalls of services, dwellings and jobs.  Moreover, they illustrate the failure of the South African education system to equip its citizens with the skills to function in society.  Dramatic learning outcomes leave South Africans unable to compete with people from poorer nations in Southern Africa.  Additionally, foreigners and the past are used as a scapegoat to hide their own failing.   The Economist writes:

The government’s response has often been to describe incidents as “criminality” rather than admit to a specific problem with violence against foreigners. Recent policies have, moreover, fostered a negative view of foreigners, such as the debate over proposals to prevent them from buying land. South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think-tank, points to the “absolute failure” of government policy to deal with unemployment and with deficiencies in the education system. It warns that xenophobic attacks may well increase as the economy weakens.

Time To Listen (3): Donor Policies and Agendas

ImageThis is the third post on the Time to Listen report, that aims at giving a voice to those on the receiving end of development assistance.  Earlier posts can be found here and here.

Donors usually have external interests and agendas that influence international aid.  These agendas are not always shared by the recipients and have negative effects on their societies.

A grandmother who was caring for her orphaned grandchildren explained that a decision to provide aid only to people who tested positive for HIV/AIDS meant she got food to feed only one granddaughter, who was infected, while her other grandchildren were also hungry. She was amazed that donors set a political policy that forced her to choose among her hungry grandchildren. Others noted that the focus on humanitarian aid only for those affected by HIV/AIDs left able-bodied children and children who had living parents without any support. This neglect of healthy children and families was, they felt, short-sighted because it could undermine the country’s future development.

“It appears there is a need to be in a war situation before we can get assistance. We have to risk our lives in order to get development aid.” – Community members, Philippines

Procedures intended to make aid more transparent and consistent have often the side effect of being complicated, rigid, and counter-productive  reducing efficiency and effectiveness and wasting both time and money.

Western concepts of vulnerability and worthiness do not always match local concepts. For minority ethnic groups in Cambodia, who stated that they believe everyone is equal and deserves the same aid, foreign concepts of vulnerability clashed with local concepts of fairness. “They come and ask about our needs and then come with district officials to distribute…. We don’t agree with the selection. Poverty assessment is based on whether or not the family owns a motorbike or a wooden house (richer) or no motorbike and bamboo house (poorer).” People were angered by the selection criteria and stormed out of the community meeting. (Listening Project Report, Cambodia).

There is wide agreement that outside aid providers should work through existing institutions where they are strong and support them, if weak, to help them gain experience and resources for bettering their societies. Receivers and providers of aid together recognize that international donors are only temporary actors in recipient societies and that governments and local organizations know their contexts better than outsiders do.  However, local institutions may have their own motives for selecting activities or target groups.

“If you are from the opposite party, you will get no aid to develop your area. And the ruling party will accuse the other parties of not helping people. Aid is manipulated for political favor and to disfavor other political parties. Foreign assistance is used to show that the ruling party is generous.” – Local NGO staff, Cambodia

Corruption is a daily concern of many involved in development work.  Beyond the unambiguous manifestations of corruption through theft, diversion, and unfair distribution, people often raise three other issues. These are aspects of international assistance that they see as “corrupting influences”. These include what people see as extravagant spending or needless waste by international aid agencies and their staff, the delivery of too much aid (too quickly), and the absence of serious or effective accountability in aid efforts.

When sizeable resources come into otherwise poor communities with the message that these must be spent quickly to comply with donor guidelines, it is not surprising that this prompts abuse. A number of people are surprised that international aid providers continue to make this mistake, which leads, they say, to misuse.

Some principles should guide the development of an alternative funding system: “Enough, but not too much”; “Available, but not necessarily spent”; “Steady, but no burn-rate requirement”—such funding principles would connect resource flows to a mutually developed strategy and to a given context.

Donors need to be honest and forthright about what they really mean by ‘participation.’ Is it simply a consultation with communities to get approval or support for a project that has already been pre-determined, or really to decide jointly and to work together?

An aid worker in Senegal admitted, “It is true that an obstacle to getting real involvement of local populations may be the cost and time commitment that it entails. With the emphasis on speed and efficiency, there is little time for true community involvement.”

“Not until I spent three weeks staying in a village did I feel like I was getting truthful information about what the community really needed and wanted. Only after they knew me and trusted me, did this frank exchange became possible.” (Aid worker, Lebanon)

“Presence takes time and money. Presence requires openness and humility. Presence involves prioritizing time and resources and delineating roles and responsibilities between levels (outsider, insider, stakeholders of various sorts).” (International Aid Worker, Denmark)

Opinions on paying people to participate are divided.  Many practitioners observe that such payments can undermine the principle of participation, influence the quality of relationships, raise expectations, and create perverse incentives for people to “participate” in aid processes. Some aid providers and recipients believe that paying people to participate erodes the traditions of mutual self-help in communities. Others argue that aid agencies should not expect local people to contribute their time, input, and efforts without being compensated. Some feel that giving people money or other forms of payment constitutes a gesture of appreciation and respect for people’s effort to spend a away from their regular duties. Others feel that payments for involvement feed into a monetization of what should be community-based or volunteer activities.

Local organizations report that when wealthier aid providers pay higher participation fees, recipients will sometimes refuse to engage in activities that do not pay as well. Local NGOs can rarely compete with international agencies’ larger budgets and find it challenging to work with the “professional workshop-goers” that this precedent has created.  The latter is certainly relevant in donor-darling Cambodia.  There are guidelines issued by the government on the amount of per diem fees, curbing some of the misuses of ‘per diem collection’.

Time To Listen (2): Introduction of Business Principles in Aid

ImageThis is the second post on the Time to Listen report, a book focusing on giving a voice to those on the receiving end of development aid.  You can find the first post here.

The adoption of business principles and practices is a strong trend in many aid providers, illustrated by focus on ‘value for money’ and ‘evidence-based’ programmes.  Information such as the number of people that have been reached, or the amount invested per child to reach a certain outcome are important criteria for success.  It is primarily motivated by the aid providers’ desire to be more accountable both for funds spent and results achieved.

However, this adoption has been markedly selective. While corporations depend on the satisfaction of the end users of their products and services for survival, aid agencies depend on donors to whom they “sell” their projects and programs to provide aid to recipients.  The main concern of aid providers is the satisfaction of donors, rather than the poor receiving the aid. 

Aid agency field directors say that they are promoted and respected if they “grow” their portfolios or budget every year and gain little recognition when they manage to save money for their agencies. Aid donors urge implementing agencies to monitor and maintain the “burn rate” of funds to keep on schedule. When aid budgets are under-spent, donors consider this practice “bad management” and often cut future funding. By contrast, in many businesses, cost savings can be rewarded by bonuses.

“We need strategic, long-term partnerships with donors. The impact doesn’t come overnight. We need to know that we can rely on their support not only tomorrow. If they want to make a change that lasts, they need to start taking longer breaths.” (Coordinator of local NGO in Lebanon)

“Donors only look at the ratio of expenditure to number of beneficiaries, so several of our proposals were not funded by donors. I suggest that donors should adjust selection criteria … donor interests and needs of people do not always align…. Even if the number of people is small, they still need aid as they are very poor.” (Secretary of a community council, Cambodia)

Attitudes and actions of aid recipients are affected by a focus on delivery. To many, this is one of the most disturbing results of the delivery system.  Even though most are clear that they do not want to need aid, they tell how—as aid recipients—they develop skills focused on getting the most aid they can, rather than on developing without assistance. Entrepreneurs become experts in proposal writing, not in running businesses; others become good at manipulating the system by appearing to meet the poverty or other criteria they know will “qualify” them for aid.

Many feel that the delivery system objectifies them. Some feel that international actors use their poverty to raise funds, and many say that more precise policies and standardized procedures among aid providers have reduced the space for them, as recipients, to be involved in considering options, weighing alternatives, and developing strategies for their own development.

People in recipient communities in every location said that, instead of being in the business of delivery, aid providers should be “present.” Many ascribe great and positive changes to the single idea of presence, noting that if “donors spent time with us,” they would “understand our realities,” “provide appropriate things,” “reduce corruption,” and be able to develop respectful, trusting relationships. Listening Teams were struck by the universal and repeated call for aid providers to be “present.”

International and local staff of assistance agencies (and their bosses!) frequently say that they “do not have time” to simply listen to and talk with people because their agencies expect them to focus on “project activities,” programmed around delivering aid on time and on budget.

“Local NGO staff suggested that it is important not to come into a community offering goods but to spend significant time building a relationship.” (Listening Project Report, Cambodia)

This is one of the determining advantages of having one’s office with the partner (in my case a teacher training institute). Contact with the teacher trainers is frequent and gradually, I believe, we have managed to build trust and a respectful relationship, in which they can express their concerns and frustrations, and we can communicate our limitations and donor needs.  I do agree though that building such a relationship takes time, requires knowledge of the local language and is under pressure of needs for reporting and (increasingly) communicating (with the donor public).

Time To Listen (1): Hearing the Voices from People Receiving International Aid

time-to-listen-cover1-218x300  I recently spent time reading Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of   International Aid, by Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean. It’s published by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, a non-profit organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is a distillation of 6000 interviews carried out from 2005-9 with people who have received or been involved in aid – individuals, local NGOs, international NGOs, bilateral aid agencies etc.

The methodology of doing the interviews and distilling the findings is valuable and the subject of another post. I’ve selected the main findings and quotes I found relevant.  The book is certainly worth reading in full though and can be freely downloaded. Many of the findings are not new for people active in development cooperation. However, it’s convincing and often uncomfortable to read them from people on the receiving end from many different countries.

Most people feel that international aid is a good thing. They are glad it exists and want it to continue. Many tell positive stories about specific projects, individual staff, or special planning or decision making processes that they credit with achieving what they hoped for. Some of the positive impacts are lasting, such as when a road improves access to a market or women develop skills that they feel improve their families’ lives.

People often distinguish between the beneficial short-term impacts of certain projects and the cumulative negative long-term impact of aid.  This focus on the cumulative impact of aid on poor people is really valuable, because it contrasts with most interviews that intend to get feedback on the results of a specific programme.

The interviews lay bare some of the weaknesses and perverse incentives that aid generates, often remarkably consistent among countries.  Everywhere people described markedly similar experiences with the processes of assistance and explained how these processes undermined the very goals of the assistance.

A main side-effect of much aid is that it increases dependency and powerlessness.  The “Message” of Aid extends beyond ‘we care’ to  ‘you don’t have to worry, we will take care’.

“By giving out so easily, you are turning them into beggars. Some villages received too much to stop and think of the value of all the things they have been given.” (Policeman, Thailand)

“It’s important not to get things for free so that people are not programmed to get aid. If you give it for free, you take away the sense of responsibility they had.”  (Karen leader, Thai-Burma border)

“One truth about external aid that occasionally presents itself is a double dependency … whereas grassroots people can develop a dependency on NGOs and other supportive entities, the NGOs in turn become dependent on grassroots leaders and groups. They need them to launch their projects, bring out the people, generate enthusiasm in the participants, and finally, to demonstrate to supervisors, donors, and visitors their achievements, or at least that the projects are underway. Their positions, salaries, and sense of efficiency are all linked to the cooperation and conformity of the aid recipients.” (Listening Project Report, Ecuador).

A recurrent them in the book is that the selection of beneficiaries is often not transparent or perceived as unfair. Criteria for disadvantaged groups are arbitrary, selection of target areas is based on political criteria or  external priorities.  In all but one country, international aid over time had introduced or reinforced tensions among groups and that, cumulatively, it had increased the potential for violence and/or fundamental divisions within their societies.

“I feel jealous. I don’t know why NGOs help [the refugee village] and not our village. The refugee village has electricity; the road is better there, and here it is muddy. It makes me feel they are better than us.”  (A male in a village next to refugee returnees, Cambodia)

Poor Education

I’ve been reading Poor Economics, from Abhisit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  The book that has been raking up awards and recommendations in 2011 (The Economist, Financial Times & Goldman Sachs, The Guardian, De Tijd).  It’s an engrossing read that contains loads of interesting information making you want to read it again as soon as you put it down, for fear of losing all the interesting insights the book contains.

The authors, affiliated to MIT and its impact evaluation spin-off J-PAL, take an evidence-based approach to poverty reduction, providing an overview of recent research in various domains of development economics (health, demography, finance, food, entrepreneurship…).  There’s a separate chapter on education.

The book highlights the frequent disagreement with “supply wallahs”, experts who focus on supplying goods and services to combat poverty, versus “demand wallahs”, who favour creating demands for goods and services by the poor themselves and creating free-market conditions.  These two viewpoints are highlighted for different topics of the book.  In education, for example, the supply wallahs focus on providing financial support to build schools, pay teachers and provide conditional cash transfers to parents to send their children to school.  Conversely demand wallahs see more benefit in increasing the (perceived) benefit for parents of sending their children to school by providing relevant skills, informing parents or increasing job opportunities.  When the benefits of education become high enough, enrolment will rise without the state having to push it.  People will send their children to cut-throat private schools (like in Cambodia), or if that is too expensive, they will demand that local governments set up schools.

The authors refer to the 3 I’s as the enemy of an evidence-based approach.  Many policies are driven by ideology, often clash with ignorance of ground-level realities and inertia at the level of the implementer.  Instead of starting from a grand vision to poverty reduction, they focus on evidence collected from (but not exclusively) randomized-trials in developing countries.  This evidence forms pieces of a puzzle that can inform us in designing sensitive development policies and creating incremental improvement in poor people’s lives.

“it is possible to make very significant progress against the biggest problem in the world through the accumulation of a set of small steps, each well thought out, carefully tested, and judiciously implemented…The political constraints are real, and they make it difficult to find big solutions to big problems. But there is considerable slack to improve institutions and policy at the margin…These changes will be incremental, but they will sustain and build on themselves. They can be the start of a quiet revolution”.

Often interventions are based on the intuition and experience of local aid workers, accepted wisdom and (cherry-picked) academic research.  A monitoring & evaluation programme is set in place, but is often more geared towards satisfying donors’ reporting needs than towards creating sound evidence for making informed changes to the project design.

Could we use randomized trials in our education programme in Cambodia?  Our main objective is to reduce the number of drop-outs from primary and lower secondary schools.  For example, we could try out various strategies and measure the effect on the drop-out rate in similar school clusters in the country:

  • School cluster 1: We provide cash to parents who keep their children at school
  • School cluster 2: We train teachers in using student-centred pedagogies to make lessons more relevant and interactive.
  • School cluster 3: We provide schools with ICT and multimedia
  • School cluster 4: We give teachers a topping-up to their salaries if a certain percentage of students pass their exams at the end of the year and enrol for the next one.
  • School cluster 5: We focus on outreach activities to parents and mass organisations to make them aware of the benefits of education.
  • School cluster 6: This is our control group, where no measures are taken.
Cambodian teacher trainers measuring

the Sun’s apparent movement

This kind of programme design would allow us to compare various measures to address high drop-out rates.  After a few years we could compare results in an objective way and scale up the most successful solution.  Or not?

When I think about the potential for applying similar rigorous testing in the education programme in Cambodia I see some obstacles:

  1. The field of development partners is very crowded in ‘donor darling’ Cambodia. This makes it difficult to create a level playing field in which measures can be compared with each other and with the status quo.
  2. Interventions in education aim at mid and long term effects. Some strategies such as focusing on teachers’ or teacher trainers’ teaching skills might take year to resort effects. Other policies, like building more schools may create immediate effects, making strategies hard to compare within the limited lifetime of most development programmes.
  3. Response and culture bias are important challenges in Cambodia, characterised by high power distance and the importance of avoid ‘losing face’. Honest evaluations of a programme are hard to achieve and require trust and strong facilitating skills. Often people say, write or do what they think you want to hear or what they think would yield them most benefit, ready to switch back to old habits as soon as the intervention stops.
  4. Even if an randomized trial that takes into account long-term effects, culture and response bias and the crowded development field would point out that conditional cash transfer is more effective than improving teachers’ pedagogical skills, would that then imply that we – as VVOB – would better switch our attention to conditional cash transfer programmes? Various strategies can be complementary. Results from randomized trials illustrate a measurable correlation at a given time and place in a particular culture, but do not necessarily proof causation. In other words, they don’t always have much predictive value in other contexts.

I find Poor Economics an invitation to look more closely at development interventions and try to avoid the lazy thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of principles.  Details matter.  The poor seem to be trapped by the same kinds of problems that afflict the rest of us – lack of information, weak beliefs, and procrastination.  We need to force ourselves to understand the logic of people’s choices, tailor interventions and be prepared to learn.

Some interesting (development economics) concepts from the book with relevance for education

Time inconsistency

 “In the present we are impulsive, governed in large part by emotions and immediate desire: Small losses of time or petty discomforts that have to be endured right now feel much more unpleasant in the moment than when we think about them without a sense of immediacy.  The reverse, of course, goes for small rewards that we really crave in the present; when we plan for the future, the pleasure for these treats seems less important.” (p. 65)


The use of incentives to give people a reason to act today, instead of convincing them first that the action is the ‘right thing to do’.  The key challenge is to design nudges tailored to the environment of developing countries.

Elite bias among teachers and parents

Teachers tend to pay only attention to their best students.  They ignore children who have fallen behind and focus on preparing the best students on the final exam.  Education systems in developing countries fail generally in their two basic tasks: providing children with a sound basic set of skills and identifying talent.  As a consequence, many parents stop taking interest in their children’s education. This behaviour creates a poverty trap even where none exists in the first place.  Many parents believe the returns to education are low at low levels and only high at higher levels, and that it is unlikely they will ever get to the higher levels, they may not want to make the effort to invest in the lower levels or hedge all their bets on one child. Parents seem to see education primarily as a way for their children to acquire wealth.  They see education as a lottery ticket, not as a safe investment.  Research indicates that each year of education has a similar value.  The combination of lack of information and incorrect expectations create an illusory poverty trap.

On Technology in education

“The current view of the use of technology in teaching in the education community is, however, not particularly positive. But this is based mainly on experience from rich countries, where the alternative to being taught by a computer is, to a large extent, being taught by a well-trained and motivated teacher.  This is not always the case in poor countries.  And the evidence from the developing world, though sparse, is quite positive.” (p. 100) 

This highlights what is particularly good about the computer as a learning tool: each child is able to set his or her own pace through the program.

On the poor as so-called natural entrepreneurs

Enterprises of the poor often seem more a way to buy a job when a more conventional employment opportunity is not available than a reflection of a particular entrepreneurial urge.  The emphasis on government jobs suggests a desire for stability, which brings a transformational effect: access to loans, higher value assigned to education, ‘mental space’ by reduced uncertainty.

PS The Economist has run a discussion on Poor Economics on its “Free Exchange” blog.