An Overview: Exploring Development Aid and Migration

This blog post explores the relationship between the history of international development aid and migration.

My previous posts have focused on high-level meetings and policies used as guidelines to advocate for development effectiveness and cooperation in the international aid and development sector. At a time when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been rolled out to countries to make sure “no country is left behind,” nations have a shared framework to guide them and make sure their development policies support activities that lead to outcomes such as poverty alleviation, job creation, and sustainable communities. Additionally, the aim of development effectiveness and cooperation is to provide accountability for donors and financing agencies as countries move forward with their national agendas.

The focus on how to best do development has me wondering why development is necessary in the first place and, furthermore, what role migration plays in this discussion. To start off, the United States Agency on International Development’s (USAID) mission  is to “partner to end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing [the United States’] security and prosperity.” When I personally consider the end goal of development, I think about countries across the globe being able to support themselves economically. I envision healthy communities and the elimination of poverty. This is what I envision. However, in order to have a better understanding of development today, its history has to be re-visited.

In the United States, the concept of economic or international development first became widely circulated during the Truman administration, a period where there was a strong belief that science and technology could solve human problems like disease and malnutrition. More specifically, President Truman proposed an international development assistance program in 1949 called the Four Point Program. This development program built on the 1947 Marshall Plan  that focused on rebuilding Europe after WWII and promoting an exchange of U.S goods with European countries. It was also established to prevent vulnerable countries from joining the Communist party. Overall, European countries showed that reconstruction and development were possible in areas of technological and social infrastructure, and such a blueprint could possibly work in developing countries. During the time period of 1952-1962, the plan transitioned into the: Mutual Security Act, Mutual Security Agency, Foreign Operations Administration, International Cooperation Administration, and the U.S Foreign Assistance Act (which led to the creation of USAID). There were a few overarching goals of aid assistance: 1) promote economic development and support democratic societies, and 2) actively apply Rostow’s Modernization Theory to help countries out of poverty and provide the end products of urbanization, technological advances, and durable consumer goods. Other theories, such as the Dependency Theory, proposed that disparities existed not because countries were undeveloped or not “modern enough,” but were underdeveloped as a result of exploitation of human capital and natural resources by Western countries. In conclusion, both theories, in a way, try to explain the cause of disparities between richer and poorer countries. Over time, foreign aid, education, and investments in infrastructure are inputs that have been used by countries to close economic gaps and try to achieve some version of sustainable development.

So, what role does migration have to play in all this? I initially thought that more development gave individuals and families an incentive to remain in their countries of origin due to increased economic opportunity. However, this is not actually the case. In its initial stages, development inspires emigration, especially for those who are more educated. While this benefits destination countries, and even migrants, it often leads to “brain drain” in countries that are initially struggling to produce or maintain an adequate level of economic growth, particularly those below $6,000–8,000 GDP per capita. About half of all countries fall under this threshold. Brain drain can lead to shortages of talent in sectors that are necessary for infrastructure such as engineering, health, and education. Ultimately, these shifts in the population contribute to and perpetuate inequality on a global level. According to the Center for Global Development, there are at least six reasons why development initially causes these disadvantages:

  1. Development is usually accompanied by a demographic transition that favors a corresponding mobility transition
  2. Development means that more people can afford to emigrate
  3. Development means that more people can access the information they need to emigrate
  4. Development tends to disrupt economic structures that keep people immobile
  5. Development shapes domestic inequality in ways that foster migration, and
  6. Development in country A means that people in country B are more likely to give visas to migrants from A.

Although emigration can become beneficial when origin countries are able to retain educated natives, both the development level of the country and probability of emigration have to be just right – not too low and not too high. Emigrants are more likely to return to their countries of origin in response to increased development efforts that are competitive. In light of such data, development assistance programs may not actually be able to bridge the gap between rich and poor countries. In fact, questions have been raised concerning the effectiveness of aid in countries that have been receiving money for years but still remain impoverished.  Another thing to consider about migration is that economic mobility is not the only reason why people migrate. Migration is fueled by what is going on in home countries compared to what is going on in destination countries- political instability and corruption, religious persecution, limited career paths, or lack of economic growth. Ultimately, a combination of push and pull factors that can be related to international development activities make emigration desirable. For example, the initial stages of international development aid in the United States simultaneous occurred during the decolonization of Asian and African countries, some of which are the main recipients of foreign aid. Additionally, wars have continued to contribute to economic and political instability throughout the world.

Despite push and pull factors and challenges with ensuring that foreign aid actually benefits those it’s supposed to help, education continues to empower individuals and communities to be leaders and brainstorm new ways to create healthy, sustainable communities. Furthermore, educational settings may prove to be an effective bridge to foster relationships between receiving countries and countries of origin that make it easier for emigrants to return and provide human capital that is needed to reach the SDGs.


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