As Nepal is rebuilding from the recent devastating earthquakes, some observers have made the claim that rural communities will find it especially difficult to recover because able-bodied men have left the farms and villages for work elsewhere. At first glance, the picture of prosperous small farms and intact families is more appealing than images of men working abroad away from their families. But labor migration is not a tragedy; the notion that migration is “worse” for poor families than available alternatives is wrong. In fact, policies deterring migration produce the opposite of the intended effect: they reduce the welfare of vulnerable people.
In subsistence low-tech farming, there are times during the year—especially right before the harvest—when there aren’t many labor opportunities in villages for the landless poor. Even when there are jobs, they don’t pay much. Moving to a different labor market can allow people to be much more productive. This is true for men working in construction and for women working as domestic help. These migrants send back remittances that help families manage disaster and other risks. Encouraging all family members to stay in one (disaster-prone) area is akin to advising them to put all their eggs in one basket. While migrants’ lives may still be hard by absolute standards, expanded opportunities can make both the individuals and their families significantly better off.
There is hard data that backs up the claim that temporary migration improves productivity and welfare. Remittances are incredibly important to Nepal, accounting for almost 30% of Nepal’s GDP in 2013. The World Bank estimates that more than $30 billion has been sent home by migrant Nepalis over the last decade—$5.88 billion in 2014 alone—helping to build new houses, businesses, and better lives.
Allowing people to choose freely what is best for them and their families—to stay together or to separate temporarily in pursuit of new opportunities—is excellent public policy. It is people-based, not place-based, development policy: We should be concerned about the welfare of Nepalis, wherever they happen to reside at any moment.
In a field experiment, 2,500 rural Bangladeshi families received assistance with the cost of temporary migration; this subsidy allowed the families to consume 600 extra calories per person per day during the famine season. An investment in a $10 bus ticket—the value of the travel subsidy—had a 273% gross return for each household. Similarly, the government of Nepal estimates that if remittances stopped, the incidence of poverty in the country would increase from 19% to 35%. Case studies from El Salvador and Sri Lanka found that children who are in households that receive remittances are less likely to drop out of school.
Reliable data suggests that migration has a net benefit for the destination economies as well, even after accounting for the enhanced competition for native workers. Migrants reduce the price of services, spur innovation, and create new businesses and jobs.
Of course, migration can come with costs and risks. People may be exploited or they may get into debt to pay for help to migrate. So why don’t we focus on reducing this exploitation, and make it easier and cheaper to send remittances with mobile money? Social protection programs for women and children back home make sense, too.
The sensible policy—backed by data and evidence—is to address the risks of seeking temporary work and bring it out of the shadows. The wrong response is to discourage migration and cut off the very poorest from one of their best opportunities to help their families live the best possible lives.
Let’s not be confused by romantic notions of the pastoral village that consign people to fewer opportunities than they deserve.