Global hypocrisies and glass ceilings: Aid, migration and remittances

Author: Dr Niamh Gaynor, Associate Professor, Dublin City University

For decades Ireland has rightly prided itself on its generosity and support to people living in poor and precarious circumstances in the global South.  Whether it comes in the form of charitable donations, or in the form of support for Irish Aid’s programmes overseas, Ireland has consistently ranked among the world’s top donors.  However, there is a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of this global system.  While generous and willing to assist people from the global South once they stay at home, Ireland, like many other Northern countries, proves far less magnanimous in supporting and assisting people from the global South once they arrive here, seeking to work and assist their families and countries directly themselves.  A glass ceiling exists and, as political sensitivities toward immigration in the global North heighten, this ceiling is turning to concrete.  As aid flows stagnate while remittances rise, it’s time to rethink our global approach to development finance, policy and practice. 

Much energy and resources have been expended within the development sector in lobbying and advocating for the 0.7 percent overseas development aid (ODA) target as agreed within the United Nations in 1970.  Yet, as Table 1 below indicates, global aid flows continue to stagnate while remittances – money sent home by migrants working abroad – are steadily increasing.  By 2024, the World Bank estimates that remittances will be larger than ODA and foreign direct investment (FDI) combined, constituting the largest source of development finance for Southern countries, surpassing 25 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for some. 

While certainly not a panacea for poverty reduction, migrant remittances play an important role in development in many Southern countries.  In some countries they amount to over 25 percent of the country’s annual GDP (for example, Haiti, Nepal, Tonga and Tajikistan).  As well as assisting families and communities to access necessities such as food, clothing and housing, these direct flows can also help in the development of livelihoods and businesses. And in particularly acute situations, such as in times of recession or devastation due to climate-related disasters, remittances rise, as migrants send more money home to their families and friends to assist in the process of recovery and reconstruction.  For example, during the floods that hit the southern Indian coastal state of Kerala in August 2018, remittances to India grew by more than 14 per cent.  Remittances are also less volatile in comparison to other financial flows.  As Table 1 above also illustrates, during the global financial crisis when there was a significant reduction in FDI (Foreign Direct Investments) and ODA (Official Development Assistance), remittance receipts barely faltered, going on to continue their steady upward pace thereafter. 

Yet, with a hardening in stance in Europe and North America towards migrants, the full potential of such remittances for development is not being realised.  Indeed, a recent World Bank report reveals that more people emigrate from Southern countries to other Southern countries than to countries in the global North.  This is particularly the case for countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where the number of people living in poverty (defined as less than $1.90 per day at 2011 levels) has grown – from 278 million in 1990 to 413 million in 2015.  Seventy percent of SSA migrants go to other SSA countries.  As employment opportunities in these countries are limited, remittances to SSA countries are much lower than the global average.  At the high end, remittances to some countries amount to between 7 and 15 percent of GDP (for example The Gambia, Liberia, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria).  However, many of SSA’s poorest countries receive less than 1 per cent of GDP. 

Moreover, UNHCR data shows that, despite European proclamations of a so-called migration ‘crisis’, countries in the global South have historically hosted, and continue to host by far the largest share of refugees.  This was around 85 percent of the global total in 2017.  Meanwhile, the approval rate for asylum applications in the European Union (EU) has been falling – from 46 percent in 2017 to 37 percent in 2018.  With a total stock of over 870,000 pending asylum applications at the end of 2018 and also considering detected undocumented economic migrants, the World Bank estimates that the number of migrants refused entry into EU countries in 2018 at over 6 million.  The growing anti-immigration sentiment in many European countries is clearly having an influence.  Although in December 2018, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly voted to formally adopt a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration as a step toward managing migration in a more humane and orderly manner, the withdrawal of several countries (mostly from within the EU) from this is indicative of heightened political sensitivities toward immigration. 

Ireland is no exception to this wider trend.  Despite its positive reputation for its celebrated aid programme, Ireland’s welcome for migrants and asylum seekers leaves a lot to be desired.  While over 15 percent of the workforce in Ireland is comprised of migrants, these are concentrated in low-paid sectors such as food, retail, hotel and catering, and personal household services.  As well as struggling on low wages, migrant workers experience a wide range of other challenges.  An ESRI survey of over 1,000 migrants in 2006 found that 32 percent of work permit holders have experienced racist harassment at work, while 21 percent of those entitled to work reported discrimination in accessing employment.  This was most common among Black Africans.  18 percent of those who had contact with immigration services reported that they were badly treated.  Another study found that, in 2008, migrant workers were three times more likely to experience discrimination while looking for work, while Black Africans were seven times more likely.  A more recent study on discrimination in the labour market from 2004-2010 reported ‘very high rates of discrimination’ experienced by Black African and non-White EU migrants in the workplace. 

Ireland’s treatment of migrants seeking asylum has long been a source of justifiable criticism.  An analysis of UNHCR data shows that Ireland ranks poorly among European nations for its treatment of asylum-seekers over the last seven years in several respects.  Ireland has recognised fewer asylum claims than many smaller or similar sized countries since 2012 and ranks 55th out of 183 countries overall, recognising asylum claims in 677 cases since 2012.   Crucially, just 3 percent of asylum applications have been recognised over this period; 21 percent have been rejected; and a staggering 76 percent of applicants have either been left waiting under the country’s much criticised system of Direct Provision, or their cases have been closed, without either recognition or rejection. 

There will always be a place for aid in global efforts to secure greater equality and justice.  Yet, aid alone is not sufficient. And as aid flows stagnate, we need to challenge and question the inconsistencies and hypocrisy underpinning our global approach to development finance, policy and practice.  The agency and capacity of Southern people to actively engage in their own, and in their country’s development needs to be acknowledged and supported.  This means overtly challenging the incipient racism and ‘me-first-ism’ which permeates public discourse and attitudes towards migrants.  Opening our borders and labour markets to incoming migrants provides one mechanism which can go some way towards redressing the egregious global imbalance of power and resources which the aid system alone can never change. 

A longer version of this blog is published in Issue 29 of ‘Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review’. 

Details of Niamh’s research and publications are available here.

Published by deptintdevmu

International Development is an important vehicle for just transformation in our world. As one of the top 100 Young Universities in the world, Maynooth University offers unique opportunities for critical learning for global change. With over 40 years of experience, through the Kimmage Development Studies Centre, our work at the Department of International Development is underpinned by a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, equality and justice. Focusing on local and global development issues, we support skills development and critical engagement at personal, local, national and international levels. Our courses reflect a combination of formal and non-formal educational methodologies. We facilitate learners to understand the causes of poverty, inequality and injustice around the world, while supporting them to question understandings and responses to the international development challenges we all face. Our MA in International Development offers flexible learning options to study part-time, full-time, or remotely, online. Studying international development prepares people for careers in local and national government, transnational organisations, non-government organisations and activist groups. Our graduates work in community development, global education, development policy, project management and in humanitarian and conflict contexts, and on issues such as human rights, gender, climate action, justice, migration and empowerment.

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