Remittances Dominate Aid Yet Remain Unspoken

The underappreciated thread that ties the global economy together is remittances – the money sent by migrants back to their home countries.

Remittances are the silent player in the immigration debate. They’re almost never referred to in our domestic politics or press.

The news monitoring site Factiva records just two mentions of remittances in Australian newspapers over the past two years.

Compare that to the reams of copy filed about foreign aid – 706 newspaper articles in the same period. Then add all the vox pops, chat shows, and talkback calls. Recall the hand-wringing which greeted Wayne Swan’s announcement that foreign aid growth would be modest in this budget. Yes, both left and right positively obsess about the cash the government gives to the third world.
But, even though we’re also constantly yabbering about immigrants, the vast sums of money foreign workers privately send home themselves goes entirely unnoticed.

So a new World Bank report, Migration and Remittances during the Global Financial Crisis and Beyond, released last week is all but guaranteed to be ignored. This is a shame.

The report underlines that the amount of money migrants send home far, far exceeds the amount of money the West spends on foreign aid. Remittances are a big deal.

And they’re an increasingly big deal. Total remittances used to be double the total amount of aid, which was impressive enough. But now, after the financial crisis, they are more than triple.
This is not because foreign aid has declined – official development assistance has continued to grow during the economic downturn. It’s because remittances have shot up further. While the developed world spends roughly $US100 billion on aid every year, migrants now send more than $300 billion home. And as remittances are extremely hard to measure (not all of it is sent through formal channels) it is likely to be much more.

This is a good thing. The financial crisis demonstrated that remittance income is stable income. Foreign direct investment in the developing world has wildly fluctuated since 2008 and has not yet returned to pre-crisis levels. By contrast, remittance flows have remained relatively steady. They dipped slightly in 2009 but quickly popped up again; in two years, the World Bank believes global remittances will be close to $600 billion a year.

We’re all familiar with the long-running “trade versus aid” debate. Which is the most effective development policy? There’s an increasing consensus that the actual winner is remittances.
So the significance of the global remittance economy ought to dominate the immigration debate.

But it doesn’t. Understandably, Australians look at immigration through Australian eyes. The emphasis is on us: how will migration programs affect domestic employment? How will migrants culturally integrate?

Barely do the fortunes of the migrants themselves figure. Working in the rich world, whether temporarily or permanently, is extraordinarily beneficial for people born in poor countries. The opportunities are much greater, and the prevailing salary for equivalent work much higher.

This simple and obvious fact is virtually absent from discussions about immigration. Perhaps it is an unstated assumption shared by all participants. But as the development economist Michael Clemens has pointed out, the benefits which are conferred on the migrants and their countries of origin are almost uniformly neglected by all sides of the debate.

No more so than with remittances. The flow of money from migrants helps fund investment and grow capital in the world’s poorest countries. It keeps families above the poverty line. It goes directly to households.

And as a form of third world development, remittances put no pressure on taxpayers in the first world. They are not planned by clever development economists or policymakers. They have not been coordinated by an international bureaucracy. Indeed, remittances are nothing but the result of the hard work of migrants.

That might sound hard-hearted but it helps keep the flow of money stable and targeted – certainly more stable and targeted than foreign aid, which is highly influenced by political decisions, and subject to the budget planning of treasurers for whom third world development is not an urgent priority.

But there’s also a political reason that remittances don’t get talked about. It’s in nobody’s interest to do so.

They don’t fit the left’s vision of economic development. Foreign aid is grand and interventionist and state-driven. Remittances are earned by individuals and spent in ways the migrants and their families choose. One small, pathetic, but indicative criticism of remittances from the left says they encourage “conspicuous consumption” in the developing world. It’s a common complaint and a bizarre one. Is the third world’s problem really not poverty but consumerism?

And it’s clear that many calls for foreign aid are driven by a belief in distributive justice – that foreign aid should be a penance for first world wealth. Certainly this is the message broadcast by the fashionable anti-poverty causes marketed to young people.

Nor do remittances appeal to conservative populists. Remittances offer one of the most compelling utilitarian arguments for importing foreign workers from the developing world – not only is immigration good for our economy and the migrants themselves, it’s also good for the countries the migrants come from. This is not a story that those sceptical of immigration want to tell.

But it is one we’ll have to start recognising if we want to understand our place in the global age of migration.