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Review: Paul Collier's 'Exodus'

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17 February 2014 15:01

Kosovo refugees

Oxford economist Paul Collier has spent much of his career studying the lives of the poorest people on earth. His popular The Bottom Billion considered the causes and possible solutions to extreme poverty.  In his new book, Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, Collier's focus is on how the poor may be helped, or hindered, by migration. It is not primarily about the 'rights' of host populations to 'decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come', but rather about which migration policies are best for the world's poorest. 

Without restrictions, Collier argues, migration rates would increase dramatically. In a Gallup Poll from a few years ago, around 40% of people in the poorest quartile of countries indicated that they would choose to migrate to rich ones if given the chance. If supply could meet demand, some countries would face an exodus.

For Collier, the question is not whether migration is 'good' or 'bad', but how much is ideal. His answer is that the door should be neither open nor closed, but slightly ajar.

The issue on which Collier speaks with the most authority is whether migration is good for those left behind. Undoubtedly this is an aspect of migration that is often forgotten. Those who seek entry to wealthy countries are rarely the poorest of the poor; they are those with the resources and skills necessary to migrate. Left behind are those without options. How does migration affect them?

Resolving the question is tricky, but Collier ultimately concludes that for small, poor countries in particular, current levels of international migration are likely excessive, and do many of the world's poor more harm than good.

The main downside of migration for poor countries is a loss of human capital. 'A talent transfer from poor to societies to rich ones', Collier notes, 'is not necessarily something that should be cause for global celebration.' Whilst migration at low levels generates an incentive for youngsters to pursue further education and follow in the steps of successful role models, at faster rates it drains a country of the very people most needed to pull it out of poverty.

The main benefit of migration for poor countries comes in the form of remittances, which in 2012 totaled around US$400 billion. However, besides being very unevenly distributed (many poor people do not have relatives in wealthy countries able to send remittances), there is evidence that weaker migration restrictions decrease remittances: 'remittances to most countries would be increased were the migration policies of host countries somewhat more restrictive.' 

So, high rates of migration have the potential to induce the leaking of talent and decrease the commitment on behalf of those who make it to wealthy countries to send wealth back to their countries of origin. According to Collier, 'even present rates of migration are most likely beyond the happy medium at which it is most beneficial to them (the bottom billion). At the margin, migration is already handicapping their struggle out of poverty.'

One positive role than migration can play is in the transmission of ideas, a topic Collier discusses at length. A disproportionate number of competent leaders in poor countries have been foreign educated: as of 1990, over two-thirds of the heads of government in developing countries had studied abroad. This is likely to be hugely beneficial, since recent research indicates that education has a substantial positive effect on leadership performance.

One of the key weaknesses of Exodus is that, in speaking about migration overall, it does not offer definitive answers to whether increased migration from particular countries would be beneficial. Increased emigration might harm Mali, for instance, but continue to benefit India. Additionally, the overwhelming focus of the book is on economic migration. In Australia, at least, much of the debate has focused on those fleeing conflict.

I suspect Collier's book will rattle those on both sides of the migration debate. In particular, the clear losers, if his policy prescriptions were to be implemented, would be those who wish to migrate. But not everyone can win. In the interests of the world's poor overall, significantly faster rates of immigration should, Collier says, be avoided.

Exodus is an extremely interesting and elegantly written discussion of global migration. Collier's commitment to the world's poor is obvious, though his conclusions as to how best to help them will undoubtedly cause a stir.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.

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