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Migration from Optimistic and Pessimistic Approaches Essay

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Updated: Apr 29th, 2021


Migration and development is an issue that has triggered emotive debate since the 1950s. Though migration, in a strict sense, refers to the movement of people from one place to the other, anthropology has over-time studied migration concerning development. This is perhaps because most contemporary immigrants are usually composed of workers who move from their places of birth to other areas perceived to provide a higher return, in terms of their labour input (Castles &Miller 2009). It is against this background that most studies on migration are linked with the issues of development and those of underdevelopment. Todaro (1981) says, “The causes and consequences of continued internal as well as international migration lie at the heart of the contemporary development problem”.

Several issues related to migration have cropped up. These are related to the advantages and disadvantages of migration. This paper is going to critically address the dichotomy between the “optimistic” and “pessimistic” approaches in the scholarship on migration, remittances and development. The review done will equally look at the various resultant theoretical advances that go with the study.

Migration and Development

For many years the debate on the impact of migration on development has occupied many scholars. The discussion has been so heated that many have taken distinctively opposing positions. The two opposing groups can be classified into “migration optimists” and “migration pessimists”.

It should be noted that initially, the migration has been dominated by pessimism (Taylor 1999). Further, the debate on migration has emanated from the general process and, even in some instances, on the societies that are receiving the migrants. Due to this skewed focus, the general migration theories fail to offer critical insights into the real picture of migration impacts on the development in the countries that send the migrants. It is thus crucial for us to map these theories within the broader view of migration theory.

Optimists Versus Pessimists

The opposing views on migration are composed of binary opposition, which reflects a notable paradigm shift such as neo-classical versus neo-Marxist, functionalist versus structuralist, brain gain versus brain drain etc. This paradigm shift has been changing since the 1970s, for instance, until 1973, the research community comprised of development and migration optimism. Here the major policy field majored in capital and knowledge that was transferred by immigrants. It also concerned itself with how migrants contributed to the development or took off of the sending countries. In essence, the development here was strongly associated with the return.

Between 1973 to 1993 research community mainly reflected pessimism. There was serious concern on the migration pessimism as the research concentrated on the negative side of migration, which included issues like migration being the cause of dependency, brain drain, consumption, disintegration, etc. There was a growing body of scepticism and the policy decisions of that time aimed at issues like tightening migration, integration concerns etc.

The period between 1990 and 2001 saw a persistent scepticism further advanced, only that this period was a near-neglect of the issue of migration and development altogether. This period was still characterised by a further tightening of the migration policies.

Research boom emerged in periods after 2001 with a significant focus on remittances and generally positive views such as brain gain and the importance of diaspora participation in development.

Optimistic Views

Neo-classical and Developmentalist Model

The neo-classical model views growth as balanced in terms of the labour movement and the movement of people from agricultural areas to urban areas. All these are considered as the general requirements for economic development process takes off (Jones1998). However, when labour moves from sender country, there emerges a situation where a scarcity of labour appears in the sender country, while forming a glut in the receiver country, thereby increase of the wage levels in the sending countries at the same time. Massey et al. (1998) argue that when such equilibrium arises, then migration ceases.

This, in essence, happens when the wage levels between the two countries converge. According to Djajic (1986), the initial view of earlier neo-classical migration theory did not consider the fact that the non-migrant countries also stood to benefit. But the current statistics show that the non-migrants are really benefitting from remittances that flow from the migrants to their countries of origin. It can be concluded, therefore, that the neo-classical migration model has no place for remittances to countries of origin (Taylor 1999). The neo-classical theory only views migrants as a utility-maximising group. It also does not perceive migrants as belonging to social groups such as gender, communities and even families.

On the other hand, according to the development theory, return migrants were considered as the engines behind development and change. Return migrants are those migrants who migrate for a certain period, then come back home to countries of origin. In this model, it was concluded that the migrants did not only remit money back home, but they also brought home new ideas that could spur entrepreneurship back home. This is basically because mostly the receiver countries were far much ahead in the development as compared to the sender countries. So it was easy for new ideas to be borrowed and implemented back at home. As a result, migrants were viewed as a crucial constituency in the modernisation of their countries of origin, which are usually developing.

Again, after colonisation, the newly decolonised countries were expected to strictly follow the path of their formal colonial masters in terms of development speed. It was also assumed that since these developing countries could not develop due to capital constraints, large-scale transfer of capital through financial aid, remittances and even loans, could spur development in these developing countries.

Many developing countries, equipped with such awareness, started encouraging emigration as one of the ways through which economic development could be realised. (Adler, 1981). It was also expected the return migrants would come and reinvest in enterprises at home after returning. What many saw in return migrants was hope for industrial development in the countries of origin. (Beijer 1970)

Pessimistic views

During the late 1960s, optimistic views faced great challenged through a combine influence emanating from the shift towards structuralist and dependency approaches. There were also challenges resulting in empirical studies as well. These empirical studies did not support an optimistic view at all. Instead, these studies overturned the neo-classical and developmental views such that instead of migration being seen to be narrowing the gap between the sending and receiving countries in terms of development, it was seen to be widening that gap. The historical structuralist approach views migration as motivated by the movement of people from desperate life home.

This desperation is caused by capitalist expansion. These conditions should be addressed to stop migration, but this seems not to be the case. Migration is actually seen as advancing underdevelopment. Papademetriou (1985), observed that migration leads to “…evolution into uncontrolled depletion of already meagre supplies of skilled manpower and the most healthy, dynamic, and productive members of their populations”.

Many researchers also share in the view that migration has adverse economic effects on the sending country. He feels that it denies the sending countries their rightful return to investment accrued from having trained its workforce. Remittances are also viewed as fueling consumption, on the one hand, and inflation on the other. Migrants have been observed to invest their money in enterprises that were unproductive.

The dependency theory debunked the modernisation theory in that unlike the earlier prediction of the modernisation theory; migration seemed not to exude the advantages expected. While modernisation theory splits the world into psychological and cultural realms, the dependency theory, on the other hand, actually posits the world as a single capitalist entity. According to several studies on remittance, it was found that remittances were never used for infrastructural development. Still, much of it would be used for housing and other consumption immediate needs. The same even applies to the skills acquired by the emigrants in the host countries.

Studies done by several researchers found out that many returning industrial workers did not want to work in industries back at home. But they wanted to do other things, or be independent altogether. This means that the skills acquired abroad were never put to use.

Usually, the skills acquired from working abroad are never applied back at home, since in most cases, the local economic set up cannot accommodate such skills. It has been established that migrants from Sicily tended to abandon agriculture and instead went ahead and bought land only to become absentee landlords (Bertram 1999). This led to inflation and general land fragmentation in Sicily.

In actual sense returnee migrants, in most cases, are never interested in investing in agriculture. They leave land brought idle for or sometimes use it for a retreat during summer retreats. There has been only one advantage of remittance as documented. The migrant remittances could be used to educate their children. This is, however, considered a long term positive effect of remittance.

In a study carried out on Mexicans in the United States, it was found that benefits accrued from migration depended on the extent the migrants, while in the US, participated in formal organisations such as co-operative societies.

Households and Gender

Migration research’s main problem is identifying the appropriate units of analysis. Most researches have based their analyses on the individual. However, recently migration research has focused on the individual. However, recently migration research has focused on the household as one unit that comes in between the social and that of individual analysis. Research has effectively used the household in a study he did on Mexican rural communities and women’s participation in production and marketing activities. These activities usually derive their income from migration. Some research has also looked at the role played by non-salaried female labour. These workers do simple jobs as well as offer simple services. Such capital, it is observed, usually finds its way into the mainstream capital stream, from where it is appropriated.

Recently migrant and immigrant women found in lower level labour markets have been the focus of anthropological study. Much of the research has been done on these cadres of migrant women who come from rural areas and work for transnational organisations such as EPZs (Export Production Zones), which are usually set up by the governments to capture foreign capital inflows. Usually, the majority of these workers are women, and they are typically paid lowly.

There have been patterns of movement in developing countries. The way by which the population moves from place to the other can be categorised under duration, form and destination. Form refers to whether the population moves from one place to the other can be categorised under time, form and destination. Form refers to whether populations move as groups, communities or as individuals. Usually, migration is motivated by labour concerns.

But for the women, migration has been found to be motivated by issues such as marital concerns. Though levels of migration vary from region to region, it has been found that women form the bulk of city ward migration. The research found that in Latin America, for instance, women have been immigrating on an independent basis. Though cityward migration has been dominated by men, recent trends show where the number of female migration is soaring and way above that rate with which men are moving to the cities.

This trend can be explained by the level of women participation in agriculture. The wage labour provided by the women is in high demand in the cities. This trend is particularly prevalent in East Asia and even Africa. Their services, being required in multinational industries, are also needed in both the semi-skilled and semi-skilled occupations provided in the cities.

Women’s migration is not just constrained by the labour differentials that exist between the cities and rural areas, but also by other familial and marital concerns. Cultural concerns also do impact significantly on female migration. For example, in specific communities, women are supposed to stay at home. That is why, even in the context of international migration, there is a disparity in number between women migrants and male migrants (Black, 1998). This could be due to the way the women’s sphere of economic placement. They are usually confined to minimal economic activity.

Domestic service is another category through which women migrate. This is predominant in situations where the women are migratory to more prosperous countries.

Women also find their way to overseas destinations through marriage. In the “Mail-order bride,” businesswomen are exported to European countries to become wives to become concubines to European and even Japanese men.

In “oscillating” migration, people move from one place to the other for a short period, then back again. This could be in search of labour or other concerns. Women, for example, could move, in some communities, from the towns to their mothers’ homes, especially during child birth for a certain period then back again. This is particularly prevalent among the Hausa women in northern Nigeria.

Gender differences in migration mainly show that men migrate independently than women due to intense pressure that the culture demands of women. Men, therefore, enjoy the freedom to move than women in such cases.

Approaches to female migration

Neo-classical/Equilibrium Approaches

The equilibrium model has been dramatically employed to understand female migration. It is, however, used just as a theoretical model and not as a systematic tool through for research. The neo-classical approach is useful in the sense that it emphasises on the spatial distribution of labour markets. By this, it effectively addresses the movement of women from rural areas to urban areas in search of work in the urban labour markets.

This model does not differentiate between male and female migration. Yet we know that such movement is usually motivated by different factors. For example, women could move in search of marriage partners, an occurrence that is absent among male population movement (De Haan et al. 2000). However, some neo-classical models have incorporated this differentiation. Another critique of this model is that it takes women as a homogeneous entity. This is not true since there are different types of women in unique ways (Ellis 1998).

Behavioural approaches

These approaches majorly deal with ideological and cultural aspects that motivate migration between men and women. These approaches usually show the role women play in the varied economic sectors while at the same time recognising such mobility (Zelinsky, 1971). The vital point is that the approaches do consider the significant role that marriage plays in this situation. The only major critique of these approaches is that fail to generalise beyond the community being studied, what the features of male /female migration.

Structuralist approaches

These approaches have been helpful in the study of female migration as they tend to view that migration in view of a general global perspective. These approaches show the impact of the changing divisions in gender among women. For example, of late there has been the mobility of young migrants in search of work in assembly firms like the “Free Trade Zones” in South East Asia, Mexico, Puerto Rico and so on (Chant 1992).

The household strategies approach

This approach gained acceptance since it incorporates the crucial role that household duties are at reflecting the gender-differentiated type of migration from rural households. According to Chant (1992), “in rural households which upon a combination of subsistence and cash-crop production, migration arises not only because of the inability of these activities to satisfy livelihood requirements but because gender divisions of labour within the household release certain members while retaining others”.

In the case above, the household is viewed as a coordinating unit institution that organises the available resources while at the same time recruits and decides where special labour force will be assigned to perform both productive and reproductive tasks.

In the household approach, more emphasis is placed on the power relations which govern decision making in the household (Ellis, 1998). Thus migration of women is governed by the nature of the relations and power structures inherent within that family structure and not just labour differentiation as is known (Bissel, and Natsios, 2001). The household approach is an excellent attempt to bridge its various weaknesses in the other models as it focuses on socio-cultural aspects such as production and reproduction and the power relations within a particular household (Chant 1992-23).

Migration and Development

Myths and Facts

Most of the debate has focused on the receiving end of the migration. This has been quite as such as seen from the discussion on international South-North labour migration. (Kuhn, 1962)

Unlike the usual assumption that migration is on the rise, there have been moments where migration in the 19th century has been the same through to 20th century (Keely& Tran1989).

There is also another misconception that poverty and general despondency are the root causes of immigration. Though the motivation for migration is indeed driven by the desire to improve one’s livelihood, it is simplistic to imagine it is usually the poorest that migrate. Instead, it has been documented that inequalities in the socio-economic arena coupled with educational levels and desire for information access to be the major causes of the rise in migration.

One can even tell from some of the leading emigration countries such as Mexico and the Philippines (Bertram 1986). These are not among the least developed countries, yet they are among the top migrant-sending countries in the world. Development seems to increase migration. Thus, when states in cases of more advanced stages of social and economic development, many countries usually change from net labour senders to net labour receivers. This is perhaps the situation that many southern European countries like Italy, Spain and Greece went through. (Lewis 1986)

Another misconception is that carefully crafted policies, aid and trade liberalisation could reduce migration. This is not true. Actually, the proponents of this view disregard the established fact that development initially spurs migration. Actually, in societies experiencing social development, most people are attracted to migrate as their personal aspirations tend to heighten at this moment. Studies have equally shown that liberalisation of trade through trade agreements usually lead to less migration both in short and medium term periods.

That means that even as the developed countries set out to send aid to fight poverty in developing countries set out to send help to fight poverty in developing countries like in Africa and Asia, this may not work to keep the people from migrating. It is, however, argued that for any meaningful attempt to handle migration, there is a need for the developed countries to avoid protective economics that harms south’s competitiveness (Chant & Radcliffe, 1992). This will mean that people will as well move to the North, where economic activity is concentrated.

Another myth about migration is that migration promotes brain-drain. This is not true, since not all the migrants are usually composed of a highly-skilled cadre. In a study done by Adams (2003), international migration usually does not involve the highest proportion of the highly educated. In essence, brain-drain can be reversed to brain-gain. Also, the highly skilled may, in turn, be beneficial to their communities through remittances, new skills, attitudes etc. it has also been established that the prospect for many to go abroad usually motivates those who are left behind to be encouraged to study (Bebbington1999).

Moreover, there are some cadres of employment for which the skilled migrants could reap maximum benefit to their investment to education at home. This is so because skilled workers in these cadres get well paid and not exploited (Vertovec, 1999). Some countries such as the Philippines and India are known to train certain labour types with the sole purpose of eventually exporting there so that their governments could benefit from remittances and other accrued resultant benefits.


Money remitted by migrants to the developing countries has been enormous (Kindleberger 1965). It has been established that remittances actually doubled in the 1990s as even the aid patterns were on the decline. It is a fact that a considerable amount of these remittances have had a significant contribution to the sending countries. Thus, many households have realised improved standard of living as a result of these remittances (Kapur, 2003).

The remittances for many developing countries form a desirable form and source of foreign exchange. They also form part of income redistribution since they assume a spatial perspective. Actually reach the people who need and deserve it (Fraenkel, 2006). This means that there is no room for a corrupt government official to grab or interfere with the administration of such funds in the sending countries (King & Vullnetari 2006).

However, this feeling about remittances could prove overly optimistic since migrants only consist of 3% of the entire world’s population (Binford 2003). Another problem could be that it does not always mean that remittances only target the poorest in societies. It could be the contrary. Another argument is that it does not mean that remittances are directed at development enterprises back at home.

Migration and Development policies

The relation between migration and development is still debatable. However, several measures need to be put in place to realise the benefits that many accrue out of migration. For instance, effective policies could not put in place that may enhance the legal standing of the migrant as well as improving both the social and economic status in the countries that send the migrants.

It should also be noted though remittances play a crucial role, they are not usually a panacea for the development in the sending countries (Gammage, 2006).

Another way could be through making sure that the cost of remitting funds is brought down considerably. It has been established that currently, the money transfer agencies charge exorbitant fees for a single transaction and so do banks. Another policy that could be of assistance would be to exempt remittances from tax requirements.

Guaranteeing migrant rights is another area that needs to be looked into. In many receiving and even sending countries, the rights of the migrants are not granted at all. This situation makes life unbearable for most migrants. This situation may even mean that migrants may not have the motivation to remit funds as they wish (Faist,2004).

Further, there is a need for governments to manage a database of migrants. This will guard against the emotive issue of brain-brain. Thus, the government can make sure that only the surplus skilled labour migrates so that government does not suffer a deficiency.


This study has clearly shown that there abound different perspectives on the issue of migration. Thus the complexity of migration requires that other approaches are employed towards the study of migration.


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