When the future is another country

Published in The Observer (November 17th, 2013)

Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century by Paul Collier (OUP)

The migration of poor people to rich countries is a phenomenon overloaded with toxic associations, a subject politicised before it has been analysed. This is the starting point for Paul Collier’s lively exploration of perhaps the most contentious issue of our age, one that he sees as a natural extension of his influential previous books on the bottom billion people on our planet.

The former World Bank economist, who now advises presidents and prime ministers, thinks people are focusing on the wrong question. He says the key issue is not whether the impact of immigration is good or bad – although if pressed, he would come down on the side of good. He argues, instead, that we should focus on how much migration there should be and, more interestingly, who it really helps.

It definitely boosts those making the move in search of a better life. Their pay and productivity soar, the latter a consequence of moving to a better organised society. They send home huge remittances – almost four times global aid flows at $400bn – that help those left at home through bad times and encourage the spread of improved governance. Yet there can be a psychological cost to what he calls “a decentralised aid programme”.

This book underscores the superficiality of “brain drain” claims. Although some of the smartest people leave poor countries, overall educational standards can rise as parents invest in their children’s schooling in the hope they might migrate one day. Many educated abroad return; one study found two-thirds of heads of governments in developing nations studied in foreign countries. Collier argues the danger comes in a small nation such as Haiti that has seen 85% of educated citizens leave, although in truth this is an unusual case of such a shattered country sitting so close to the world’s richest nation.

He concludes migration is good for those left behind as well as the new host nation, while the only people who suffer economically are, he claims, previous immigrants. Yet drawing on cases such as Haiti, he frets about the damage of faster emigration. For at the centre of his thesis is the idea that migration has an inbuilt inclination to speed up. As a diaspora grows, it becomes easier for others from the same community to make the same move: they can find family members to provide beds, friends to give them work, familiar food.

This may well be true. Yet from this finding he paints a dark picture of dangerous growth and declining assimilation, a curious conclusion given much of the evidence he has compiled. The reality, as shown by countries such as Canada and the US and cities such as London – where one-third of residents are now foreign-born – is that even large, rapid waves of immigration fuel success with surprisingly little tension. It is not enough to talk of American exceptionalism or put forward straw man arguments revolving around uncontrolled immigration.

Collier’s logic can lead him down strange paths. Previously, he has praised military coups to remove unpleasant regimes. Now he wants to reduce the rights of migrants to bring in close relatives. He also focuses on cultural differences but ignores class, so essential to understanding the success and failures of immigration to Britain. Yet for all these flaws, Exodus is a valuable addition to the swelling library of books on this subject, written for a wide audience and containing some fascinating data.

One study that found giving mobile phones to households in Niger increased emigration illustrates the incredible impact of technology, for example. Another revealed Senegalese people in Spain send home half their earnings, a higher share than any other migrant community; Cubans in America and Turks in Germany send home 2% of income.

We are only beginning to grapple with the issues raised by modern migration. Collier shows its complexity in discussing the two African countries with the largest diasporas, Cape Verde and Eritrea; one among the best-governed nations on the continent, the other ruled by one of its most ghastly regimes. Although, he remarks astutely, “mass migration… is a temporary response to an ugly phase in which prosperity has not yet globalised”.

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