Migration, the Millennium Development Goals, and Post-2015 Development

As the world approaches its 2015 deadline to achieve the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals, a variety of voices are beginning to assess and comment upon what progress has been made on reaching each goal, and how much further we have to go. The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a set of targets that world leaders and leading development institutions agreed to in 2000. Goals include: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development. As the 2015 deadline approaches, the United Nations is working with civil society, governments, and other partners worldwide to build on the momentum the MDGs generated and to carry on this momentum with an ambitious post-2015 development agenda.

Regarding migration, the original MDGs states the following goal within a section on promoting human rights, democracy, and good governance: “To take measures to ensure respect for and the protection of the human rights of migrants, migrant workers and their families, to eliminate the increasing acts of racism and xenophobia in many societies, and to promote greater harmony and tolerance in all societies.”

Although briefly mentioning protecting migrants as a component of human rights, the original MDGs ignored the benefits of migration for development across issues areas. Involuntary or forced migration is indeed a grave concern worldwide, and migration’s role in development cannot be fully achieved without attention to protecting the human rights of migrants and working to curtail forces of xenophobia and racism in societies.

However, it is clear that voluntary migration plays an integral role in development throughout the world. Migration is one vehicle through which the world’s poor can strive for a higher income. Annual remittances sent home by migrants are now several times greater than all official foreign aid, according to estimates by the World Bank. Knowledge transfers among nations occur through circular migration and mobility. Unmistakably, migration and migration policy can have a large impact on processes of development at different scales.

The geography of migration is also linked to development at multiple scales as people in different places engage in different forms of migration. The movement of people from place to place is one of several key influencers on population. People may simply move from one neighborhood to another within a city, or from one city to another city, from a rural area to a city, all within the same country. Or someone may make more far-reaching intraregional or international moves. In many countries, particularly developing countries, rural-to-urban migration is one way in which a person can drastically increase his or her income, often sending earnings to families back home. International migration from less developed to more developed countries due to a variety of push and pull factors, labor demand, and the opportunity for higher earnings, is common.

The relationship between migration and cities and urban regions is also important. The world has been rapidly urbanizing in recent decades. Today, over half of the world’s population resides in urban areas. And the most rapid rates of urbanization—the growth and expansion of urban development and urban areas, and the movement of people into urban areas—are occurring in the developing world. Cities and metropolitan areas are also drivers of regional and national economies, cultures, and societies. Domestic and international migrants tend to move to and contribute to cities and metropolitan areas. As such, when thinking of migration as a component of development, it’s also important to explore the intersecting processes among migration, urbanization, and the role of cities and metropolitan areas.

The post-2015 development goals currently in the works may include a strong focus on migration as a cross-cutting component of development that transcends many other issues, including urbanization. As Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, observes, one of the emerging post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs) the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals proposes is to “reduce inequality within and among countries.” The Open Working Group proposes two ways to do that: “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” and “reduce to less than 3% the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5%.” Regarding cities and urbanization, the Open Working Group also proposes a goal to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” One of several ways to do that, relating to processes of domestic or internal migration, the group proposes, is to “support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.” Clearly, the authors are attempting to address the many types, geographies, and factors of migration and its intersection with issues of urbanization.

The UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda has also produced “thematic think pieces” on some of the key issues of the post-2015 development agenda. Regarding migration and human mobility, the Task Team states, “The migration-development equation is complex. Does underdevelopment cause migration? Does migration impede development? Can migration promote development?” Their report concludes that there are meaningful ways in which to include migration in the global development agenda. As the Task Team notes: “When looking ahead at the post-2015 landscape, it first of all has to be noted that there are increasing arguments for the global development framework not to focus solely on the development of the poorest countries, but also to encompass measures to promote the development of all countries. Such a view would focus less on resource transfers and more on dynamic interaction and partnerships. Migration fits extremely well with such an approach. Since migration is relevant for such a broad range of development factors, a substantial case can be made for the inclusion of migration as a cross-cutting issue.”

With the potential inclusion of migration as a component of post-2015 development goals, Clemens posits several observations. First, he observes that “development policymakers are thinking about how to harness the power of migration for global development and plan for a mobile world. This is exactly the right thing to do, and decades of social science show that there is no alternative. If the SDGs are to be a serious roadmap for global development policy, they must seriously engage with migration policy.” Second, he cautions that progress toward inclusion of migration within new SDGs may be vulnerable as negotiations worldwide will carve up various proposed goals before the final product emerges. However, as Clemens urges, “negotiators must not compromise on migration. Policymakers in the last few years have reached a broad consensus that migration, if properly regulated, can be a massive force for global development poverty reduction. If policymakers allow migration to slip out of the final set of goals, they’ll miss a big and rare opportunity for constructive influence.”

One criticism of the original Millennium Development Goals that authors of the new post-2015 development goals should keep in mind is that they often seek to introduce local social change through external initiatives and external financing. As such, a counter argument is that the development goals would be better achieved through grassroots, community-based initiatives in partnerships with other stakeholders. Either way, migration processes should clearly play a role in the post-2015 development agenda. Local municipal, civic, and community leaders in places around the world are already recognizing the role migration can play in their local and regional development. They’re proactively pursuing innovative initiatives to encourage migration to their locales, to welcome immigrants, and to integrate migrants already there. By including migration’s role in development as a cross-cutting component of development goals that emerge post-2015, the international community will rightly recognize the important links among migration and many issues areas of development.


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