Reframing Migration: How Can Development Practitioners Better Support People on the Move?

In this edition of Talking Urban Futures in Africa, Beza Tesfaye speaks to CSIS Africa Program director Judd Devermont about Mercy Corps’ new report on migration in sub-Saharan Africa and why development practitioners need to rethink their approach to helping people on the move. They discuss the impact of migration on African cities, including Niamey, Niger, and the fallacy of migration as a failure of development. Beza outlines steps that donors can take to address the gap of care for people who migrate, which begins with reframing migration as a reality with both challenges and opportunities. Finally, Beza recommends that municipal governments across sub-Saharan Africa meet the reality of migration by investing in housing and basic services like education and healthcare.

  • Beza Tesfaye is the director of research and learning for migration and climate change at Mercy Corps.

The discussion, moderated by Judd Devermont, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

JD: Beza, can you tell us a bit about Mercy Corps’ research into migration—and the shortsightedness of governments and development practitioners who tend to see migration as a failure of development?

BT: Existing research indicates that migration and development go hand in hand. When countries develop, migration typically increases, and then over time migration will stagnate and go down once countries reach a level of development seen in upper-middle-income countries. Given the development trajectories of many sub-Saharan African countries, migration is expected to continue to increase, with the majority of this migration being internal. People are going to move from rural areas to bigger cities in their country. And then beyond that, when people migrate outside of their countries, they tend to stay within the region, particularly in neighboring countries.

Our research was born from donors’ assumption that migration is a failure of development. When donors believe this, they tend to invest in development in rural communities with the intention of dissuading would-be migrants from moving into urban areas or other continents. But the types of development investments being made by donors in rural areas actually have very little likelihood of preventing migration—at least in the short-term—and there are better ways to help people who are contemplating migration. In other words, the existing model of development initiatives geared toward migration makes it very difficult to support people who are mobile.

JD: Why do you think this bias exists in development practice?

BT: We tried to dig deeper with our research to understand why there have been limited development policies or programs linking migration and development in a positive way. There are a few different reasons for this. One is the structural divide we often see in foreign affairs ministries where development and immigration policymakers and practitioners work in silos and often with goals that do not align.  Another reason is that development programs usually target specific localities or countries and therefore are not able to support people moving from rural to urban areas or from one country to another. And third, we found that the domestic pressure to curb immigration to donor countries influences prioritization of development investments designed to curb migration. Ultimately, a debate about immigration at home often translates to a shift toward foreign development assistance that favors keeping people in other countries from moving.

JD: Let's talk about one of the case studies, which is on Niger. You focused on interviews in the capital, Niamey, and in Tillabéri region. Can you share some of the findings?

BT: Yes, and let’s begin with a bit of context. Niger is actually one of the least urbanized countries in the world, including within Africa. Only about 17 percent of the population in Niger lives in urban areas, and those who live in rural areas largely rely on subsistence agriculture. In Niger, there is this practice called l’exode in French, which means exodus. During the lean season (between planting and harvesting) annually, men, and in some cases women, will migrate to urban areas in Niger, to cities like Niamey and Maradi. Some people, if they have the means, will also migrate further outside of Niger to countries within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region.

All migrants we spoke to cited l’exode as foundational to their ability to exist. As a rural community, it is essential to send an individual to an urban area during those periods of the year, because the community relies on the remittances from the migrants in order to provide for itself and also develop businesses or other livelihood opportunities in rural areas.

But that is not to say it isn’t without challenges, which can include difficulties finding work. The migrants who come to urban areas oftentimes lack formal education or skills that would be useful in getting formal wage labor. So, a lot of the employment that they engage in, even in urban areas, is informal and in some cases exploitative. That has risks in terms of the reliability of income and the ability to send money back home and can put the migrant in a dangerous situation.

JD: What does Mercy Corps see as a better way for development practitioners or governments to aid people on the move?

BT: We need to begin reframing the problematic way we speak about migration in the development community. We should drop this notion of migration as a problem and look at it first and foremost as a reality. People are migrating. They will continue to migrate, particularly due to trends we are observing like climate change and population growth. Instead of a problem, let’s begin seeing migration as an opportunity with both risks and potential rewards!

We should try to help maximize the rewards and minimize the risks for people who decide to migrate and their families. It’s not about preventing or promoting migration—it’s about providing support to individuals who are mobile and those who remain behind. At present, there is a gap in development assistance for people who are moving from one place to another for economic opportunities.

We can better help mobile individuals by providing them with skills or educational training that is relevant for their ultimate destinations. For example, training could help prepare rural migrants for opportunities in the labor markets of the cities migrants are going to. There is also work to be done around financial inclusion and reducing the fees attached with sending remittances, so that remittances can be efficiently channeled into productive investments at home. Support to family members of migrants, especially women, who often bear the financial burden and additional household responsibilities when men migrate, is also critical. Finally, donors and development practitioners could focus on helping migrants integrate better into their destinations, including through strengthening and helping migrants gain access to services.

JD: What is Mercy Corps’ recommendation for municipal governments? How can they better support people on the move and address other migration issues?

BT: One of the risks of migration is unplanned urbanization given the influx of people entering cities. In some cases, that leads to townships, slums, and other areas that are not properly planned. There are concerns about migrants being marginalized and then recruited into gangs or violent groups. How can municipal governments—which are arguably the best placed to prepare for population increases—prevent this situation from unfolding? Much of the migration that occurs to African cities like Niamey is seasonal, so municipalities can prepare and plan for the influx during those periods. In terms of what type of preparation and support would be useful, when we spoke with people, including migrants in Niamey, they were worried about basic things like not knowing how to put a roof over their heads. This suggests that municipal governments can start with issues like housing and essential services like healthcare and education.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Judd Devermont