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Conceptual Background: Migration, Globalisation and Poverty
> Introduction
> The DRC's approach to migration and development
> The DRC's research focus
> Defining key concepts


Globalisation has brought both benefits and costs to the poor, and much the same is true of migration. At one extreme, forced migration is seen as a consequence of globalisation and development, as people are displaced either directly by global corporations, international organisations or governments seeking to exploit natural resources and promote a particular vision of development, or indirectly as structural shifts in the economy lead to violence and insecurity. Alternatively, migration is seen as reflecting a lack of development, as poverty forces people to leave their homes in search of a better life – a search that is often viewed as doomed to failure. Yet in other circumstances, migration can be understood as a deliberate and often successful strategy adopted by poor people to maintain livelihoods, realise their rights and promote social protection. This has been described by some as a genuine process of ‘globalisation from below’, although the migration of the poor ranges from inter-continental down to local, seasonal movements.

The DRC's approach to migration and development
Over the last decade, there has been a gradual shift in attitudes towards migration, and this is reflected in the core conceptual underpinning to the Migration DRC. Our starting point encompasses three key positions:


First, that migration is an integral part of the everyday life of many poor people. Historically, the policies of most governments have tended to focus on trying to prevent migration, or at best on trying to address its ‘root causes’, by eliminating poverty and promoting development. Yet this approach has not prevented migration. Rather, it has simply tended to increase the costs and risks borne by poor people who continue to migrate anyway, because migration represents an essential livelihood option.


Second, that some forms of migration typify the poor more than others. Global public attention has tended to focus on the more visible international movements - perhaps unsurprising given the massive increase in movements to North America and Europe over the last two decades. Yet the migration that is most open to the poor tends to be short-term, seasonal or temporary, and contained within southern countries and regions. Such flows, although an enduring feature of migration systems, tend to represent an invisible component of migration flows, not picked up by many data-gathering systems and relatively little studied. These flows are also highly gendered, and may disproportionately affect children or other less visible groups of migrants.


Third, we start from a position that to understand the significance of migration in poor peoples’ lives, migrants themselves need to be consulted and involved in the research process. This implies a participatory approach not only to field data collection, but also to the analysis and dissemination of research findings that could directly impinge on the ability of the poor to secure their livelihoods and rights through migration.

Migration is not a new process. Indeed, as a proportion of the world’s population, it seems likely that the stock of international migrants at least has remained relatively constant over recent decades, even if the range of different origins and destinations has increased, and the gender, age and class composition of migrant flows has shifted. However, what is new is the approach being adopted towards migration. Despite growing restrictionist policies adopted by many governments in the North and the South, development agencies and donors are increasingly accepting that migration has a potentially important role to play in the alleviation of poverty. Thus, at an estimated $88 million each year, global remittances by migrant workers have come to dwarf Official Development Assistance, and are higher than Foreign Direct Investment in some 58 countries in the South.

The DRC's research focus
In this context, the overall objective of the Migration DRC is to develop a programme of research, training and capacity building which seeks to maximise the benefits of migration to poor people, whilst minimising its risks and costs. Our main emphasis will be on the study of migration flows in which poor people themselves are most represented – internal and cross-border flows in the South, often to engage in temporary work, although also to escape violence and the restrictive conditions of official settlement schemes established for refugees and the internally displaced. Our concern is not simply with the volume of remittances, but with how migration impacts on livelihoods, rights and social protection more generally, including the inter-generational and gendered distribution of costs and benefits. Short-distance flows of migrants from rural to urban or between rural areas within a country or region are also often intimately linked with wider transnational flows of migrants, and one of our objectives is to explore these under-researched linkages.

In addition, we will be concerned with large-scale international flows of migrants in two key areas. One involves negotiations over the movement of persons to provide services in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) – where we will seek to focus attention on the temporary movement of a range of categories of service workers, both skilled and unskilled. The second area will incorporate the movement of qualified professionals (and southern students seeking professional training), since such movements and their dynamic impacts on training, labour markets and services in areas such as the medical and teaching professions can have a major impact on the poor.

Defining key concepts
A number of important concepts re-occur in the research descriptions and plans outlined below:


First, the notion of livelihoods is understood in its broader conception to encompass the various entitlements and capabilities that poor people (and others) have in terms of seeking a living and maintaining well-being. The intention is to move beyond the relatively narrow framework of ‘sustainable livelihoods’, which has been developed as a policy tool in the context of particular programmes, to a conception that explores the many different ways in which people enhance their well-being.


Second, the notion of poverty itself is viewed as multi-dimensional rather than strictly income-related, and we will be concerned with exploring impacts of migration on poverty (and vice versa) that extend to broader well-being, access to education and freedom of social and cultural expression. We do not assume either that the poor are forced to migrate, or indeed that the poor are often not able to migrate. The process of migration, by exposing people to broader ideas, may intensify feelings of relative deprivation.


Third, we will seek to extend understanding of the concept of social protection in situations of migration, viewing migration both as a process that can increase or reduce the vulnerability of those affected by it, as well as an important social protection strategy in its own right.


Fourth, much of our work will be infused with a focus on rights, including analysis of the practical value of a rights-based approach to migrants and migration, rather than an approach based on mitigating risk or reducing vulnerability. Here, our understanding of rights is again broad, encompassing ‘bottom up’ economic and social rights that are embodied in customary practice as well as the ‘top down’ rights that are enshrined in international law.


Fifth, we are concerned with issues of inter-generational and gendered distributions of costs and benefits, and especially the consequences of migration for children. Children are affected by migration in a number of ways – they may migrate with their parents, or be left behind when one or more parent migrates; but they may also migrate themselves, including for work and education. Autonomous child migration appears to us a contentious, but also somewhat under-researched (and under-theorised) phenomenon. An important starting point is to recognise that in much of the world, children and adolescents do participate in the labour market, sometimes from an early age. In this context, child migration may well primarily be about choosing where to work, rather than whether to work.

The use of each of these concepts in the literature on migration and development has been examined in more detail in a series of initial working papers that have been written during the inception phase of the Centre (see publications section).

In addition, we are interested in exploring in more detail the concept of sustainability, both of migration as a livelihood or social protection strategy more generally, and specifically the sustainability implications for individuals, societies and nation states of return migration and the temporary mobility of professionals and other migrants. Discussion of the concept of sustainability will form the focus of a further conceptual paper to be developed in the first few months of Phase 2, along with a paper dealing with the conceptual links between internal and international migration.

The key concepts listed above are not unique to the field of migration, and several form the focus of substantive research in other DFID-funded DRCs and other wider collaborative research projects and centres. Reflecting this, our intention is to adopt an open and inclusive approach to our research and training, building on and enhancing the strengths of partners from five countries, but also reaching out to researchers and policy-makers outside these specific partners and countries, and outside the specific field of migration. Our primary aim is not to speak only to those who are convinced that migration is an important aspect of poor peoples’ livelihoods, but to those who are not yet convinced, and to address areas where new research and analysis and dissemination of research findings can make a real difference.
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With thanks to IOM and Claudia Natali for the photographs