Politics of Poverty

Migrants need creative solutions that protect their rights, not the risky ideas donors are floating

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Yasser Hussein, from Homs in Syria, carries his three month old son towards a registration centre for migrants and refugees in Preševo, in southern Serbia, on October 5, 2015. After registering, the refugees here are given a 72-hour permit to travel onwards through Serbia to Croatia. The father of 5 and his group had already travelled for 20 kilometres that day. Photo: Sam Tarling / Oxfam

While short-term social disruption caused by migration can be unsettling for host communities, the most politically expedient solution—diverting development aid to address the acute migration emergency—is a moral and practical disaster.

Later this week, the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) will convene in Paris.  The DAC is the club of wealthy donor governments that provide the largest share of development financing for poor countries.  There’s no doubt the bulk of the conversation at this week’s meeting will be obscure debates about how to count development aid; but despite their technocratic nature, they’re likely to yield significant decisions on whether aid continues to serve poor people—or whether it gets diverted to serve the short term interests of rich countries.

What’s driving this critical question is the upsurge in migration to Europe.  As European countries confront a large influx of migrants, their citizens are demanding that their governments do something to stem the tide.  There are very good reasons why European should welcome as many migrants as possible; in addition to the moral imperative of welcoming fellow human beings fleeing poverty or violence, numerous studies show the long-term economic benefit of migration to host communities and countries.

Nonetheless, the short-term social disruption caused by migration is quite unsettling for many people in host communities.  Hence the demand from citizens for policy solutions needs to be taken seriously.  Unfortunately, the most politically expedient solution—diverting development aid to address the acute migration crisis—is a moral and practical disaster.

Diverting aid to address the needs of migrants starves development programs that often support critical services for poor people in developing countries.  Current DAC rules allow donor governments to count some money spent on refugees in their own countries as aid—despite the fact that the money never leaves the donor country.  For example, Sweden is often one of the more generous donors of development aid.  But in 2014, Sweden held back more than one billion dollars of their development budget—more than one out of every six Swedish aid dollars—to meet the needs of refugees in Sweden.  That made Sweden the largest recipient country of Swedish aid in 2014—receiving an amount greater than the Swedish government gave to all Sub-Saharan African countries combined.

Some of the proposals to be considered this week suggest this loophole should be expanded.  Of course European governments should seek to help and host refugees within their borders.  But there is no need to pit the needs of one group of disadvantaged people—refugees—against the needs of another—poor people who remain in their home countries.  Donors can and should be able to address the needs of both without crippling aid investments that are already underway.

The second idea that the DAC will consider this week is allowing more aid to be spent on strengthening the security forces of developing countries.  It is certainly true that violence and insecurity fuel migration.  Helping people to be safe and secure in their home countries is an important component of supporting development and defending human rights.  The problem is that aid to security services in developing countries has a poor track record of actually improving human rights.

The biggest problem with using aid to support security functions is that it is often designed to first and foremost meet the needs and interests of donor countries—not poor people.  This leads to security institutions that are less accountable to their own citizens.  Aid has also been found to often amplify the existing political arrangements in a recipient country; so while security assistance to a functioning but poor democracy might help police protect human rights, security assistance to a dictatorship has a high risk of being used to infringe on human rights.

European politicians are also grasping onto the idea that aid should be spent to help migrants return home.  When European and African leaders met last November in Valletta, Malta to discuss joint responses to the upsurge in migration to Europe, they included this idea in their new, two billion dollar emergency trust fund.  Unfortunately, this could end up actually being a net loss for developing countries.  According to the World Bank, diaspora communities sent almost $33 billion to their relatives in sub-Saharan Africa in 2014—sixteen times the size of the new trust fund, and more than the $25.6 billion in official development aid sent by DAC donors to sub-Saharan Africa in 2014. Sending migrants back home means potentially denying their families access to this important development resource.

The recent upsurge in migration to Europe is putting a strain on millions of people and communities; first and foremost the migrants themselves, but also the people who are welcoming them, and those left behind in developing countries.  But there is no quick fix—and the ideas being put forth so far risk causing much more human suffering and underdevelopment.  The current migration challenge has been decades in the making.  A diversion of aid in the short term risks undermining longer term development progress that offers to help more people achieve their full rights and potential.  Aid is meant for solving long term challenges, not meeting donors’ short-term political interests.  The DAC should reject any changes that would allow donors to divert more aid away from its true purpose.

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