Investment in the Rural Economy Reduces Pressure to Migrate Internationally

By Andrea Cattaneo, Luc Christiaensen, Michal Rutkowski and Maximo Torero

In a world characterized by high country-income differentials, rising food insecurity and the proliferation of conflicts, many view international migration as the path to a better life. Unsurprisingly, concerns are also rising in destination countries about an undue influx of migrants, especially economic migrants, fueling anti-migrant sentiment and policies.

A paradoxical narrative is further taking hold that development would increase migratory pressures, and that the effect of development aid on migratory pressures has been small at best.

But further evidence shows that the results very much depend on the development process and the sectors. Rural development, for example, proves more effective at reducing international migratory flows. Support to food systems is also direly needed to tackle the world’s food security crisis. 

It suggests that investing in jobs for youth in rural areas can make a much needed difference across the globe in the short run and long run. Expanding legal pathways for safe and orderly migration should also be pursued to broker a migratory outcome that is beneficial for all.

The migration-development paradox

Inequality across countries is a major driver of migration. It follows that investment in more job creation in poorer countries would reduce migration. Voters, at least in countries that have high numbers of migrants, seem to believe so, as they broadly support foreign aid. 

And yet, when development occurs, aspirations change, education levels improve and financial constraints become less binding, making migration even more attractive and affordable. There is evidence that economic development in low-income countries typically increases emigration, with emigration declining only after they reach PPP$10,000 GDP per capita. The studies argue that the capacity of development assistance to deter migration is likely to be small.

But this ignores the fact that development can occur through many pathways with different impacts on its citizens’ intentions and ability to emigrate. One aspect that appears particularly important is the rate of urbanization and the extent to which it relies on rural-urban migration. Another is the extent to which efforts are targeted to create jobs for those highly inclined to depart.

Migration to urban areas as a precursor to international migration

New research highlights the role of rural-urban migration as a potential driver of international emigration. Based on data for 21 sub-Saharan African countries, individuals who migrated to urban areas are most likely to develop international migration intentions, followed by those who migrated to rural areas and those who live in urban areas and have not moved internally. This is followed by rural residents who have not moved internally.

The interpretation is that internal migrants have lower international migration costs, both monetary and non-monetary, and accumulate resources and experience that help overcome constraints related to international migration. An important factor is that social ties to places of origin weaken after initial migration, making it easier to move again, whether internally or internationally. As such, urban migration greases the wheels of international migration.

Investing in and around rural areas makes a difference

Labor moving out of agriculture and rural areas into non-food and urban sectors is one of the structural transformations poor countries make as they develop. It reflects the declining food share of household spending as incomes rise (but absolute food spending still increases). The challenge here for policymakers is to make urban migration a choice and not a necessity.

This requires providing attractive earning alternatives for prospective rural-urban migrants where they reside, on and off farms. Consistently, research indicates that aid targeting rural development reduces emigration from aid-recipient countries, while aid targeting urban areas does not. Providing an additional 1% of GDP of the recipient country as rural development aid would reduce the magnitude of emigration by nearly a percentage point, from 4.3% on average to 3.4%. In practice, the aid shares spent on rural development have been multiple times smaller. Governments underinvesting in agriculture and rural development, especially in Africa, has also been widely documented, indicating substantial scope for expansion.

Investing in today’s rural territories, their towns and surrounding areas by local governments and their international partners, is thus win-win. It provides a development path that more rapidly lifts people out of poverty and reduces migration that are based on need. Many of these investments will also be in food systems, which is direly needed to tackle food insecurity globally. Careful targeting of areas and individuals with a high propensity to move can further reduce irregular migration.

More orderly and properly matched migration could lie ahead

Greater attention to rural areas holds important promise to accelerate poverty reduction, increase food security, and reduce migratory pressures. At the same time, the global demographic bifurcation, with a youth bulge in the South and an aging population in the North, implies that migration will continue and that it will also be much needed as many vacancies in destination countries go unfilled in agriculture, construction and caregiving, and also for high-skilled jobs. Creating economic opportunities in countries of origin, including in rural areas, will result in desire-driven migration, not need-based ones. Complementing it with more effective legal pathways to meet excess demand for labor in destination countries will further help broker migration that works for everyone. Together, the approaches hold great potential to be beneficial for all concerned.

This blog first appeared in World Bank Blog on December 20, 2022.

(Photo by Daniel Krueger on Unsplash)