The right to emigrate is an uncompromisable human right. For the rational and active individual, the search for greener pastures has always been a natural choice. Better transportation, increasing diasporic networks, and more accessible information through the Internet endow the potential migrant with the ability to materialize his deliberated initiative. Hence, the basic civil right, the perpetual human aspiration for the better, and the individual's increasing ability to travel are producing an ever-increasing flow of international labor migration. Optimally, both skilled and unskilled labor engage in voluntary and orderly international migration in a “win-win-win” phenomenon, benefiting not only the individual and the destination country, but also enabling sustainable improvements in the (often developing) country of origin.
However, the actual benefits of international labor migration for the country of origin are considerably more uncertain than is usually implied in current discourse. First, the direct advantages of increasing and more secure remittance flows to developing countries should be more thoroughly questioned. Second, remittance flows are not sufficient to decrease the pressure causing excessive skilled emigration, or brain drain, in the first place. Money remittances may even accelerate further excessive emigration of critical workforce from a developing country.
There is a general presumption that remittances, which are actually much greater than all foreign aid combined, make the countries of origin somehow better. In other words, it is believed that remittances en masse would contribute to a more equitable and somehow more multifaceted development in countries of origin such as Bangladesh, Malawi, or Haiti. An optimally smooth and secure flow of remittances is often seen as a panacea: the more money pours into the developing country, the better.
But massive flows of money remittances may do more to corrupt, divide, and make passive a country of origin than contribute to sustainable, fair, and versatile economic and political improvements. The family receiving remittances becomes increasingly dependent on the money from a son overseas. Although macroeconomically questionable, this problem is nonexistent on the micro level until the remittance flows unexpectedly or gradually end. If there is an unexpected cessation of remittances, for example to Egypt from the United States, and this cessation is for some reason systemic, perhaps widespread concerns of many expatriates, this may cause severe problems in the country of origin.
Passivity may also be a problem when viewed in the context of a gradual disappearance of regular remittances. There is evidence of this disappearance of remittances: a decrease in remitting over time has been noted by B. Lindsay Lowell regarding Mexicans in the United States, by Douglas Massey regarding Turks in Germany, and by Riccardo Faini in general. If this is connected to family passivity and is a widespread phenomenon among a given diaspora group, then the consequences for countries of origin seem complex indeed.
Another way in which remittances may increase passivity has to do with the workers remaining in the country of origin. This workforce may conclude from the remittance amounts that wages abroad are substantially higher. This may lead to exaggerated expectations regarding domestic salary levels, which cannot be met by the local employers, leading to a dismissive ignorance of less lucrative employment opportunities available in the country of origin. Systemic passivity may develop unless an exit path abroad opens up. If such a path is found, again brain drain may accelerate.
Furthering Corruption and Turmoil
In addition to passivity, remittances may be contributing to further corruption. In its 2005 annual corruption report, Transparency International ranked 159 countries on its corruption list, and among the countries from where most labor emigration occurs, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh rank among the top 25. Remittances may increase corruption directly and indirectly. Direct corruption is possible through extortion: the country of origin may demand protection money from the recipient family for the smooth continuation of remittance flows.
There are indirect risks that corruption will be increased when there is money available, especially when a remittance-receiving family is dependent on a government prone to corruption dealing with taxes, travel documents, and other government services. The authorities may be informed that a family in need of government services has extra remittance assets. This argument touches fewer countries, such as Mexico, the Philippines, or Taiwan, which have a fundamental respect for the emigrant, even lifting them up to the status of folk heroes, but, in some other countries, the emigrant is considered as nothing more than a cheat. If corruption is involved in the latter context, it could well develop into extortion.
Even more serious than remittance related passivity and corruption is the risk that remittances will create new mutual oppositions, as well as strengthening existing ones, be they economic, political, or military. A new conflict may be generated from the economic function: a conflict in which the ones receiving remittances are the haves and the ones not receiving are the have-nots. As the emigrants are likely from the ranks of the elite, a new “elite within the elite” may develop, thereby widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Even if the recipients are not among the wealthiest, their extra assets may lift the prices of construction, health services, or any other branch made busy by remittances. Have-nots may soon find their purse empty after dealing with such businesses. Furthermore, consequent inflation might severely compromise the purchasing power of those not receiving regular flows of stable foreign currency, such as the US dollar or the euro, from a wealthy country better buffered against inflation.
Economic confrontations may also escalate to political crises. As the countries of origin are often developing countries with significant deficits in democracy and the rule of law, political crises may expeditiously turn violent. Because of corruption and a general lack of the rule of law, the haves typically will be sheltered and the have-nots will typically suffer.
An extreme case of remittances exacerbating existing gaps are internal wars. Many wars in the Horn of Africa could not be waged were it not for the external remittance money pouring in. In such cases, remittances are exactly the opposite of their ideal—remittance money that would contribute to building and maintaining peace, progress, and prosperity is instead funding war. Remittances to Somalia, rather than fueling trucks and industrial machinery, serve as fuel for Somali Technica machine gun vehicles.
If the passivity, corruption, and conflict aspects of remittances are not recognized and managed, major obstacles will result. A conflict may be upshot, and thereafter, the more remittance money is poured in, the more desperate the human suffering and the downward spiral of the country of origin may actually be.
Breeding Brain Drain
As remittances are at least implicitly considered to be checks and balances to brain drain, the starting assumption should be that they by themselves are not the primary cause of brain drain. However, the three aspects related to remittances—passivity, corruption, and conflict—all cause situations that, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), are the major triggers causing the citizen to deliberate leaving.
Drops in income—often related to the passivity aspect—are one of the key reasons for this deliberation. Another reason for leaving are poor socioeconomic conditions, which may also play together with both passivity and the have/have-not divide. The third reason, political insecurity, is partly a result of the increasing economic and political divides caused by, among other factors, unequal allocation of remittances. Finally, the reasons prioritized by IOM as ninth, tenth, and eleventh—tribal discrimination in recruitment, corruption, and qualification-based discrimination, respectively—can all be subsumed under corruption.
Therefore, unwisely used remittances are, at least indirectly, contributing to additional brain drain. Particularly in Africa, where economic infrastructure and salaries are weak—factors related with a multitude of problems such as passivity, rampant corruption, internal wars and conflicts lasting decades, chronic political instability and coups-d’etat—the three unintended aspects of remittances are not only limiting the most effective, fair, and generalized allocation of remittance benefits, but are also causing the contrary: increased brain drain.
Looking to the Future
Passivity, corruption, and conflict are unintended consequences that severely limit enduring, constructive, and fair benefits that a poor country of origin may receive from remittances. The condition of the have-nots may become even worse, and any deterioration of the political situation, whether caused by inadequate allocation of remittances or some other reason, may lead to an accumulation of the adverse side-effects of the remittance stream. At the extreme end where warfare is financed by remittances, more remittances may intensify the warfare and result in more lives lost.
It is important to note that remittances, although huge in amount and promising in potential, are far from being a panacea. Remittance flows shall, however, be facilitated in the future, and even encouraged, with the exception of those that finance internal warfare. Political scientists and economists should be assigned the task for a six to eight year period to discover where remittance monies actually go in the cases of particular countries of origin and what the consequences of the use of these moneys actually are. This information should then be reported to the domestic government of the country of origin, as well as to the international organizations and Western governments giving foreign aid.
Rather than focusing only on remittances, the international scholarly community should also look closely at the developmental aspects of brain drain. To what extent is emigration good, and how can a critical mass of educated people be persuaded to stay in their country of origin or return there? Can development aid be re-focused away from useless or corrupt projects and toward increasing the awareness of the Tanzanian scientist or the Malawian doctor about the opportunities presented upon return?
It is easy to come back to the initial argument that the human right of migration shall continue to thrive, and the motivation and ability to migrate will continue to increase both migration and its consequent remittances. Therefore, critical questions about the limitations of the use of remittances need to be thoroughly addressed. There is a vast amount of potential for good or ill regarding this amount of money, particularly when it constitutes a sum larger than all foreign aid put together. Reckless use of remittances may cause terrible turmoil in developing countries, whereas thorough research and a consequently responsible policy may, with international help, bring these countries back on their feet.