Why you should care
While international aid has long been thought to reduce migration, the numbers don’t add up.
In March, President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would stop all foreign aid — including hundreds of millions of dollars already promised — to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala until those countries reduced the numbers of migrants fleeing to the United States. He faced flak over the decision: Lawmakers warned that he was just encouraging more migration by making the situation for people in those countries even more desperate.
Trump’s action went against conventional wisdom that foreign aid helps stop migration from poorer countries to richer ones. In June 2015, then U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon explained that the U.K. needed to spend more money on foreign aid “to discourage mass migration so we don’t have to fish people out of the Mediterranean later on.”
But studies of migration have failed to back up this assertion. In fact, a systemic analysis of existing work on the subject last year found that …
There is no clear evidence that foreign aid deters migration.
The paper, published last year by the Center for Global Development, found that while it’s difficult to compare the various existing studies as they examine different countries and correct for different variables, some found that foreign aid actually raises emigration. And the reason isn’t that people in those countries don’t need help. It’s that below a certain gross domestic product per capita threshold, people simply don’t have the resources to migrate. According to a recent study by Germany’s Berlin Institute for Population and Development, migration numbers to Europe are lowest in countries where the GDP per capita is below $2,000. The highest levels of migration to Europe are seen from countries with a GDP of $8,000 to $13,000, such as Tunisia and Jordan.
“Starting with GDP per capita around $2,000 or $3,000, migration rates increase at a high speed,” says Adrián Carrasco Heiermann, a researcher at the Berlin Institute who was closely involved with the study. Some of the factors shaping migration potential are economic, political — like oppression or conflict in the home country — or environmental, like climate change.
Foreign aid is on the decline around the world, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reporting that donations from its 30 member countries fell by 2.7 percent year on year in 2018. That could help wealthy countries control migration, though it could also worsen the situation in the world’s poorest countries, many of which are expecting population booms in the next 30 years. United Nations population forecasts indicate that Burundi (with a GDP per capita of $275) will see 120 percent population growth by 2050, while the Central African Republic (GDP per capita of $510) will grow another 77 percent in that time. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 15 percent of the world’s population — about 750 million people — would like to migrate. But only about 3.3 percent of the world’s population actually does, according to the latest U.N. International Migration Report.
“Foreign aid for development is not huge,” explains Francesco Castelli, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Brescia. “OECD countries have pledged to invest 0.7 percent of their GDP for development activities, but most of them are far from reaching this level of aid.” Even what is given is often made less effective by corruption, poor management and following the priorities of the donors rather than the people in the affected countries. “Pumping money in a given country is not at all the best way to prevent migration,” he says. “Development needs decades to happen, not yearly projects.”
While migration is used as a scare tactic on all sides of the political spectrum, with pundits and politicians warning about influxes of migration if laws are not tightened or aid dollars not spent, it may be the countries that fear migration who are shooting themselves in the foot. Some European Union member states, Carrasco Heiermann says, are already dependent on immigration. Last year, the EU’s “old-age dependency ratio” — the number of people over 65 compared to the number of people in the working-age population — hit record highs, with only three working-age people for every elderly person. In order to maintain their economies and support systems, the EU may have to rely on outside migration. Perhaps they should get cracking on increasing foreign aid.