As waves of migrants have crossed the Mediterranean and the US Southwest border, development agencies have received a de facto mandate: to deter migration from poor countries. The European Union, for example, has pledged €3 billion in development assistance to address the “root causes” of migration from Africa. The United States has made deterring migration a centerpiece of its development assistance to Central America.
Will it work? Here we review the evidence on whether foreign aid has been directed toward these “root causes” in the past, whether it has deterred migration from poor countries, and whether it can do so. Development aid can only deter migration if it causes specific large changes in the countries migrants come from, and those changes must cause fewer people to move.
Economic development in low-income countries typically raises migration. Evidence suggests that greater youth employment may deter migration in the short term for countries that remain poor. But such deterrence is overwhelmed when sustained overall development shapes income, education, aspirations, and demographic structure in ways that encourage emigration.
This will continue for generations. Emigration tends to slow and then fall as countries develop past middle-income. But most of today’s low-income countries will not approach that point for several decades at any plausible rate of growth.
Aid has an important role in positively shaping migration flows. Realizing that potential requires massive innovation. Because successful development goes hand in hand with greater migration, aid agencies seeking to affect migration must move beyond deterrence. They must invest in new tools to change the terms on which migration happens.