Immigration in a Development Context Manuel Riesco

National and regional development is still an all-important ongoing historical phenomenon. Among its many social, economic and institutional determinants, social policies play a significant role.

It only takes place over the backdrop of a singular tectonic social transformation -it can only take place once in the history of peoples and nations – which has causal determinations over the whole process, and is certainly determined by it in return. The paper chooses to call this underlying phenomenon “Immigration,” mostly for political reasons.

This requires a little explanation. Regardless of horrendous past experiences, a significant part of the people seemingly persists in the historically damned behaviour of casting their periodic fears and insecurities into hatred against vulnerable and easily identifiable minorities, mostly immigrants nowadays, coming from emerging regions in general in the case of the developed North, or from less developed neighbours in the emerging South. The paper tries to cast this phenomenon in the framework of the wider process of development, with the purpose of promoting a global view on the phenomenon and the policies to deal with it.

In the case of LA, for example, the peak of urbanisation has already been left behind and the rate of peasant migration has declined from a very fast 0.8% of total population per year from the 1960s to the 1980s, to a more moderate but still rapid 0.5% per year in the 1990s and 2000s. However, in countries in the earliest stages of transition the rate is still in its peak and even accelerating (Draibe-Riesco 2007, appendix table 1).

Even at the present rate, LA governments have to deal with around three million immigrants per year. As a reference, a recent study by Goldman-Sachs showed that, from 2001 to 2005, the European Union-15 countries had been receiving net immigrants from outside this region at a rate of 0.5% of their total population per year, which number 1.74 millions per year. In the larger EU25 the rate is lower and the net number of immigrants from the outside is similar: 1.76 million per year (Financial Times 2007).

This is much less than those incoming into LA cities, most of which are internal immigrants in countries early and moderate transition stages, and especially those in full transition. However, many move across borders as well, and arrive en masse to cities in LA countries already in advanced transition stages.

In the world as a whole, assuming the same migration rate of second half of the 20-century in LA, then peasant migration in the planet amounts to the amazing figure of about 50 million people per year. This seems not at all unreasonable considering that exactly half of the overall world population today are peasants, much the same as LA in 1960s.

Certainly, the fears and worries of some inhabitants in the developed North seem a bit exaggerated considering that even considering all the developed countries, South-North immigrants ad up to much less than 10% of the world total. Certainly, the governments of rich democracies should be in a much better position to receive them than the developmentalist States that have to deal with the remaining 90% or more.

Some would argue that in the latter case it is people of the same nationality. However, this seems a rather short-sighted argument, because peasant immigrants pouring into the cities of underdeveloped countries may be even more alien than those who arrive in Europe or the US. They are discriminated by their manners, language, looks, colour of their skin, tastes, smell, and certainly for their neighbourhoods, if the places where they come to live in may deserve such denomination. Sometimes, this assumes violent and even barbaric forms, as recent events in South Africa and India, among others, well remember us.

A more serious objection is the fact that part of migration has nothing to do with peasantry at all. Developed economies are very dynamic and constantly push masses of workers from one industry to another, the average professional lives and works in two or three cities along their lives, and many south-north immigrants are rather qualified technicians. All this is certainly true, however, the numbers involved in these kinds of migrations may well be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions per year, but are one or two orders of magnitude away from the tens of millions per year of ongoing peasant migration.

It is in China where immigration is seen truly in a development context. The magnitude of the phenomenon is quite evident because the government has the policy of assigning immigrants a legal status as such, at least regarding the social policies to which they are entitled in their villages but not in the cities where they work. In this way, China during the last one or two decades has accumulated 140 million legal immigrants, and a considerable number of unregistered ones on top of that. However, including them, urban population is still around 44%, so it is yet not even halfway through.

Considering this number, which exceeds the whole workforce of the US for example, while at the same time witnessing the amazing impact of development in this country, it is impossible not to realize the inextricable link between one and the other.

However massive, China is the world in nutshell, so to say. It has taken thousands of years for half of humanity to leave the land of their ancestors. Most of it has taken place in the last two centuries, really. However, at the present rate the other half will complete this journey within the coming fifty years. The dimensions of this phenomenon dwarfs any other in the socio economic space. Its impact on development of the emerging world is evident. Furthermore, it also may be determining the most massive movements in developed economies as well, such as secular economic cycles.

Once the concept is turned upside up, the research questions that arise are many and fascinating. In the first place, it should be dimensioned and described in a precise manner. How many immigrants are there globally? Is their rate still increasing or has it already peaked and is now declining? Where are the main movements taking place? What is the degree of completion of the process in the different regions? In what conditions did the process start and evolve in the different parts of the world? Are there certain general economic laws that seem to be causing it in the different cases, or is it caused by purely historical causes?

Other questions point to the relationship of immigration and development. It is well known although seldom remembered that the premise for the emergence of modern market economies is the previous existence of a massive and fairly healthy and educated workforce, mostly urban but in any case freed from the bondage of peasantry. It is also well known that when peasants migrate their hands get the touch of Midas, because their work may be as long and exhausting in the farms as it is in the cities, but only in the latter most of its product is sold in the market and shows up in GDP.

However, there are many countries that can already exhibit a large proportion of urban population and are nevertheless still quite backward. When is that magic and terrible moment reached when this initial condition explodes into a bustling modern market economy? Why does it occur? Which regions of the world are now on the verge of that explosion? Which are the ones where the “miracle” is already taking place? What are the projections of the world when this process becomes complete?

The answers to these questions will certainly point towards the historical and institutional aspects of development, and once again very especially to the Developmentalist State and its social policies.

Draibe S, Riesco M (2007b). “Latin America: A new developmental welfare state in the making?” In: Riesco M, ed. Latin America: A new developmental welfare state in the making? Pp. 21-116. Basingstoke, Palgrave-Macmillan/UNRISD.

Manuel Riesco, Vice-president, Centro de Estudios Nacionales de Desarrollo Alternativo (CENDA), Vergara 578, Santiago, Chile.

(This article was published in Financial Times, August 20 2007)