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Moving Beyond “Root Causes”: The Complicated Relationship between Development and Migration
Policy Briefs
January 2018

Moving Beyond “Root Causes”: The Complicated Relationship between Development and Migration

As policymakers in Europe and other high-income countries search for ways to reduce unmanaged migration, they are paying new attention to addressing the drivers of migration, in particular the lack of economic opportunities in countries of origin.

The logic, embedded in the European Commission’s 2015 European Agenda on Migration for example, suggests that if development assistance can improve livelihood prospects in countries of migrant origin, outward migration will decrease.

However, the nature of migrant decision-making and the complex relationship between migration and development suggest development assistance may be a blunt tool for reshaping migration patterns—and indeed one that could increase migration flows over the short term. Numerous studies have found that as countries become richer and their citizens have more resources at their disposal, emigration increases, at least initially. And while employment may decrease the likelihood that an individual will migrate in some contexts, in others it appears to increase those prospects.

Little solid research has been done on the extent to which development policies reshape migration, but the brief suggests shifting the focus of development assistance away from increasing individuals’ skills and assets toward the creation of opportunities at the local, regional, or national level. Investments in the broader economic or governance structures that are a prerequisite for economic growth and stability may offer more alternatives to emigration in the long run. In the shorter term, destination-country policymakers may need to accept the idea of working with, rather than against, migration trends to reap the development benefits of migration.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. Unpacking Policy Narratives about Development and Migration

III. It’s Complicated: Challenging the “Root Causes” Narrative

A. Are Attractive Opportunities Available Locally?

B. Does a Migration Corridor Already Exist?

C. Are Would-Be Migrants Able and Willing to Cover the Costs of Migration?

IV. The Policy Implications of a More Nuanced Migration-Development Narrative

A. The Role of Migration in the Local Context

B. Creating Assets Versus Creating Opportunities

C. Distinguishing Between Short- and Long-term Effects

D. Who Benefits from Development Programs

V. Conclusions