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Theoretical Perspectives on the M&D Nexus

Any social scientist with a contemporary global perspective will surely agree that the phenomenon of migration and the challenge of development are vigorously debated topics. How do these two mega-processes interface with each other? We start with definitions and move to theory. Bakewell (2012: xiv) contrasts 'solid' migration with 'slippery' development.

Migration is observable and measurable, despite the invisibility of clandestine migration and the challenges of collecting good migration statistics. The global stock of migrants—people residing in a country different from their birth country— stands at 232 million, 3.3% of the world's population of 7.2 billion (UN 2013). But stock figures are static measures; they reflect the culmination of previous migrations. Given that both migration and development are dynamic processes, flows of migrants are often seen as the more relevant variable—either one-way or net flows over a certain time span, such as a year or a decade. The notion of net migration, intuitively attractive in the gravitational logic of economic push and pull factors, is problematic, however, as it is the residual product of five types of migration flows: emigrants going out of a country, and those returning; immigrants coming into a country, and those returning; and finally, transit migrants passing through. Moreover, if migration is seen as the product of individual human decision-making events, then it has to be pointed out that there is no such individual as a net migrant! Fischer et al. (1997: 94–96) engage in a simple but interesting correlation analysis between the “net stock” of migration for each country (the balance between that country's immigrants and its emigrants, expressed as a percentage of total population) and the “dependant” variable of development (gross domestic product (GDP) per capita measured in purchasing power parities). For the world as a whole, the correlation is +0.46. Overall, then, the more immigrants the higher the GDP, and the more emigration the lower the GDP[1].

Compared to “solid” migration, the conceptualization and measurement of development are contentious, with a diversity of perspectives. Bakewell (2012: xiv–xvi) notes two older ideas of development. The first is the European Enlightenment belief in the capacity of humanity to progress towards a stable and rational social and economic order, which implies a duty of “advanced” countries to help and “civilize” the “unenlightened” parts of the world. In practice, this was no more than a 'moral cover for colonial expansion' (ibid.). Second, the mid-twentieth-century collapse of colonial empires, combined with the Cold War, set the frame for an ideological battle between, on the one side, the West's policy of “development” as modernization and economic growth within the capitalist global order and, on the other, the heterogeneous communist or socialist ideas about development espoused by the Soviet bloc, China, Cuba, etc. We return to this ideological duel presently.

Over time, narrowly economic interpretations of development (i.e., economic growth measured in trends in GDP per capita as the magical indicator) broadened to a wider vision of human development. This is now well established (since 1990) in the Human Development Index used in successive annual reports of the United Nations Development Programme to synthesize, alongside per capita GDP, qualityof-life variables like literacy, health, life expectancy, infant mortality, human rights, and gender equality into composite indices. Such measures take their cue from Sen's (1999) pioneering work on reconceptualizing development as the capacity of people to exercise autonomy and control over their lives.

  • [1] The correlations are higher when the analysis is applied to groupings of countries linked by regional immigration systems: +0.81 for Europe, Turkey, and the Maghreb and +0.73 for the Americas (Fischer et al. 1997, 95).
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