Migration Debate: From Local Lives to Global Policies

Migrant entrepreneurs represent clear development potential for source countries. While abroad they gain new skills, earn more money, build social networks — and often bring these benefits ‘home’. But amid a divisive political climate, how should academics and policy makers approach this thorny issue? On 29 May 2013, the Maastricht Schools of Governance and Management held an International Policy Debate to clarify the links between remittances, entrepreneurship, and development. 

As a new research assistant at UNU-MERIT, I was lucky enough to sit in on last week’s policy debate. Having finished my bachelor’s a few weeks ago, I can say that I have read development and migration about as thoroughly as an undergraduate can. But I had never before seen it applied in real time.

Several aspects of the debate were completely unexpected. The first was how openly experts admitted that many topics were under researched, which may well be a symptom of the fast-changing nature of migration  A large part of the discussion was spent identifying specific areas that require more study and in debating an array of terminology found wanting.

One of the aims of this kind of debate is to dispell ambiguities in addressing and solving the problems at stake. I think that real progress was made, and I gained a new respect for researchers who doggedly investigate the fields of migration and development. Yet the amorphous nature of development remains slightly startling to me.

The inherent ambiguities of these topics may relate to something else I noticed: nearly all panelists — regardless of their field of expertise — tended to speak about policy issues at the macro-level. This makes sense in that, by definition, the UN and other international organizations work on global problems. And, of course, policy matters are usually broad in scope, particularly when addressing migration issues that span countries and continents alike. At this level, policies need to ‘be macro’ to function.7006092027_6a96838d78_z

However, I couldn’t help thinking of my own experience with migrants.  During my undergraduate years, I worked extensively with migrant Mexican farm workers in the southeastern USA.  These farm workers aren’t a large, homogenous mass to me. They’re faces, they’re friends.  Their individual impacts on my life and the lives of other American citizens span far beyond the economic dimension.

Participants of the policy debate were not blind to this aspect. I think few work in development without a strong belief in helping others and much of the debate was dedicated to creating climates beneficial to migrant entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is often a very personal pursuit. It represents a way for migrants to contribute to the development of their countries of origin while simultaneously improving their own lives

Several panelists spoke of the knowledge bases of migrants, who often bring much needed skill sets to both their host countries and countries of origin. There was even some discussion on the need to seek measurable outcomes by thinking locally and creating local solutions. This was very good, and I would like to see a further delving into the subject of the local.


When we begin to consider migrants as individuals, some of the ambiguity is resolved. A person is revealed. Larger development goals ultimately depend on addressing the needs and achievements of these unique individuals. That was the greatest lesson I took away from the policy debate, and I would be glad to see it in more development discussions in the future.

By Levi Vonk, Migration Group Research Assistant, UNU-MERIT / School of Governance, Images: MsM; Flickr / Bread for the World; USFWS Headquarters.

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