Coming and Going

People lined up to get on an airplane in Africa

Source: © 2012 M. N. Abdallah/Reuters

Is migration from Africa good or bad for the places migrants leave behind?

Each year, a net 2 million people leave Africa south of the Sahara for other parts of the world. This annual exodus includes as many as 23,000 university graduates and 50,000 executives, whose departure contributes to the “brain drain” from the region. Many others, however, are lower-skilled people simply responding to the presence of conflicts and other pressures at home, as well as opportunities abroad.

Until recently, attention has focused on the negative effects of the brain drain on African countries and on the positive effects of the remittances that migrants send home to their families. But a recent compilation of research on migration produced by researchers at IFPRI’s West and Central Africa Office shows that the effects of migration on economic development in migrants’ home countries can be more complicated. “The pieces in this compilation look at the factors that determine patterns of migration and what happens in the source communities,” says Ousmane Badiane, IFPRI’s Africa director.

Send Money

When African migrants send remittances back to their home villages and rural areas, the money can help rural households invest in productive assets such as cattle, which can help them diversify their portfolio of activities. If remittances lead to increased overall spending by those households, they can also stimulate the local economy.

Remittances can have downsides, though. The flow of money may decrease recipients’ incentives to work. In some cases, the inflow of cash and outflow of labor can lead to a phenomenon known as the “Dutch disease,” in which the value and production of certain goods in a country become distorted in ways that are harmful to future growth.

Migration can also have a high opportunity cost. Migrants often are young men, and the loss of their labor can hit rural farming communities hard. When one family member leaves to work elsewhere, the result is usually one fewer able-bodied person to work in the fields. IFPRI Research Fellow Fleur Wouterse has conducted research on villages in the Plateau-Central region of Burkina Faso with high rates of migration to Europe. “It’s not so much a brain drain, but the disappearance of those young people who can contribute to and innovate in agriculture,” she says. “Farming requires a certain degree of entrepreneurship, but those are the people who are attracted by remunerative options abroad.”

Path to Entrepreneurship

Migration is not always a one-way street, and if migrants return home, they may bring economic benefits with them. Wouterse has noticed an increase in self-employment among migrants returning to Senegal from abroad, as well as among domestic migrants moving from rural to urban areas. The rise in new businesses among returned migrants makes sense. People willing to migrate are risk takers. Migrants can accumulate capital abroad, and upon their return home, they can use it to fuel their entrepreneurial ambitions.

The businesses started by domestic and international migrants differ in one important way. Rural-to-urban migrants are more likely to be self-employed “in low-return activities requiring very little investment such as street vending,” Wouterse says. “Migrants coming back from international destinations are likely to generate more income from their self-employment activities.” This may be because international migrants tend to acquire more capital for a larger initial investment, and the larger amount invested upfront can lead to greater returns later.

Harnessing Benefits

So, does migration aid development in Africa or hold it back? The answer differs from community to community, depending on the types of economic activity in the home community and on the main constraints to growth, productivity, and employment there, says Badiane. “Once you understand those,” he says, “if you want to maximize the contribution of migration, then you might be able to figure out entry points for programs and activities that can harness the benefits of migration.”

Africa’s 2 million net emigrants each year are dwarfed by the number of people leaving other regions, such as South Asia (more than 8 million) and Latin America and the Caribbean (about 5 million). (For more on this topic, see “In Numbers” on page 28.) In recent years, Africa south of the Sahara has enjoyed sustained economic growth and a decrease in armed conflict—factors with a strong effect on migration rates—while economic stagnation in the West has reduced its appeal to potential migrants. If these trends continue, Africa may even turn into a migration destination. The “brain drain” may become a “brain gain.”

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