Sunday, 25 October 2009

The relationship between migration and development in Africa (by Nkanyiso Sibanda)

While there may not exist a single and fixed definition of migration, most if not all definitions of migration refer to movement from one place of the world to another for the purpose of taking up permanent or temporary residence, usually across a political boundary (bbc, n.d.). Migration occurs at a variety of scales: inter-continentally (between continents), intra-continentally (between countries on a given continent), inter-regionally (within countries) and even regionally (within a region).

Development is another term that is broad and is defined in many ways depending on who is defining it and the context that it is being used. Here, the term development will be used to refer to improvement in a country's economic and social conditions. It is a complex term that takes in many different ideas. Put more simply, when referring to a country, it will be taken to mean reaching an acceptable standard of living for all people. It means that people have the basic things they need to live (World Bank, n.d.).

Migration is a key issue across Africa. Both within countries and across borders, it can be seen as an integral part of labour markets and livelihoods across much of the African continent for at least the last century (Black, et al, 2006). It has always been a major socio-economic issue and is inseparable from Africans’ way of life (International Organization for Migration, 2003). Over time, and in different places, migration has taken numerous different forms. It has cut across class and skill boundaries, and exists in widely different geographical and demographic contexts. Migration represents an important livelihood strategy for poor households seeking to diversify their sources of income, but is also characteristic of the better off, and indeed of many African elites (Black, et al, 2006).

In practice, however, the link between migration and poverty is often viewed negatively (ibid). It is assumed across much of the continent that it is poverty that forces poor people to migrate, rather than migration being a potential route out of poverty (ibid). The poor are also generally seen as the worst affected by conflict-induced migration, itself a prominent feature in Africa. The movement of skilled and/or wealthy Africans is also generally viewed negatively, for example, there is long-standing concern on the African continent with the impact of the ‘brain drain’ of African professionals (ibid). Only slowly, and in relatively few quarters, is understanding emerging of the potentially positive role that migration itself can play in reducing poverty, or of the possibilities for ‘mobilization’ of the African diasporas in the fight against poverty. Meanwhile, public policy remains a long way from building effectively on such understanding (ibid).

This article will discuss the relationship between migration and development in Africa on a general note first. Focus will then shift to Africa’s regions which have been divided into the West, East and the Southern Africa. Some countries in the North and Central Africa have been incorporated into one of the three regions because the scope of this essay[1] does not allow for discussion of all the regions, let alone a thorough in-depth discussion. For each of the three regions, one brief case study will be highlighted.

Some studies of migration focus on the negative aspects of migration which include, illegal immigrants, human trafficking, the fight for and over resources, over-population in the host country and so on. Large-scale departures of highly skilled and educated executives and university graduates have contributed to brain drain. Thousands of African professionals such as medical doctors, nurses, accountants, engineers, managers and teachers leave Africa each year for more developed and stable first world countries. The main reasons for their departure include to improve their living conditions, either by pursuing studies or by seeking better-paying jobs. Others depart fleeing from insecurity and/or unstable political and socio-economic conditions (Migration for Development in Africa, n.d). The resulting brain drain heightens the dependency of African economies by compelling them to resort to costly foreign expertise in many areas, which in turn creates a widening vicious circle (ibid).

Numerous policy responses have been forwarded in response to the issue of ‘brain drain.’ There are intergovernmental initiatives, including through the African Union, that have sought to improve the quality of tertiary education in Africa, and the circulation of students and professionals within Africa (Black, et al, 2006:10). This has been done to remove the necessity of Africans going abroad for University training (Essy, 2003). For example, The Virtual African University, established by the world bank in 1997, also operates in 17 countries in Africa… (ibid). The ‘Migration for Development in Africa’ (MIDA) programme was established by the International Organisation for Migration to build partnerships between host countries and countries of origin of migrants and encourage the return of African professionals on temporary assignments.[2] The African Union, during an ‘Experts’ Meeting on Migration and Development in Africa’ held in Algiers Algeria on the 3rd to the 5th of April, 2006, established a ‘strategic framework’ policy on migration within its Social Affairs Directorate. One of the programme’s goals is to seek cooperation between countries to make effective use of the opportunity for development presented by migration.

The realization that migration does infact have notable positives has fueled interest in the relationship between migration and development in Africa. In some cases, the amount of remittances by migrants to developing countries is very substantial and at times even exceeds foreign assistance. International migration is now widely seen to have the potential to contribute to development and many governments and development agencies are seeking ways to maximize such resultant benefits. This essay will now focus on the synthesis between existing information on migration in Africa, and its relationship to development on the African continent, particularly specific regions in Africa.

Southern Africa has been referred to as a region that is literally on the move (McDonald, 2000). This mobility is as a result of numerous push factors which include; the end of apartheid in South Africa, the establishment of SADC, the violent land invasions in Zimbabwe, the DRC war, the ousting of Mr. Mbeki as the president of South Africa, the collapse of Zimbabwe’s socio-economic structure as well as other factors. These factors have led to an explosion of the numbers of people crossing borders in Southern Africa. Arguably, Southern African countries can be divided into migrant sending countries, which include – Zimbabwe, Zambia, DRC, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland; receiving countries such as South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Like anywhere else in Africa, the migrants send remittances to their home countries to fend for relatives and friends. In the receiving countries, migrants become a source of cheap labor for the host country and even contribute to the skilled personnel of the host country. There are therefore subsequent positives and negatives associated with migration and the case of Zimbabwe will be looked at.

· The case of Zimbabwe[3]
Historically, Zimbabwe has been a sender as well as receiver of migrants. The end of colonialism in 1980 saw a sizable number of white people leaving the country going back to Europe, especially Britain. It also saw a sizable number of people coming from other countries especially in Africa because then, Zimbabwe had arguably the best economy and currency on the continent,[4] and it was arguably the second best and most developed country after South Africa. It was referred to as the ‘bread basket’ of Africa because of its well developed agriculture and its potential to produce so much food that it even exported some to other countries. It produced its own electricity at Kariba thermal power station, Hwange as well as Munyati power stations. Its development and socio-economic stability was a key pull factor for migrants from all across Africa and the world as a whole. As I write this essay, all this seems like a dream because Zimbabwe has sunk to such low living standards that many people are even referring to it as a ‘failed state’ (Ndlovu, 2008).

Zimbabwe’s steady decline since the early 1990s, which was accelerated by the farm invasions in 2000 and the ensuing anarchy saw huge numbers of highly skilled people leave the country. White commercial farmers, on whose farming Zimbabwe was dependent, were either violently forced to leave or decided to leave because of the violence and lawlessness that characterized the land reform programme. This saw a marked and sharp decline in agricultural production which subsequently saw a tremendous decline in the value of the Zimbabwean dollar, unprecedented on this earth in history. Currently, the rate of inflation is officially at 231 million percent. For a lay person, put differently, this means prices of commodities (should there be any found in the shops), increases literally more than three times a day. Pundits however estimate that inflation in Zimbabwe is in sextillions percent above the official rate (Kant, 2008).

The decline in the socio-economic structure of Zimbabwe has led to almost all professionals leaving the country to other countries, which exodus was led by white commercial farmers following the land invasions. South Africa is the main recipient of Zimbabwean migrants. It is estimated that about 5 million Zimbabweans live in South Africa alone (ibid). Zimbabwe is in dire shortage of skilled people such as teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, social workers and many other professionals and this has worsened the socio-economic situation in the country. Host countries such as Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia and even Britain and Australia have benefited immensely from such huge exodus of qualified Zimbabweans into their territories. These countries also enjoy the benefits of cheap labour as many of the migrants take up blue collar jobs such as driving, working in farms, cleaning the streets as well as other low key jobs[5]. In Zimbabwe, however, the skills’ shortage is hindering any development or improvement of the country’s socio-economic situation. The critical shortage of skilled people because of migration is evident in the dilapidated roads, the streets lights that are not being fixed, public transport system that has collapsed because the vehicles are down and can not be fixed, schools that have no teachers, hospitals that have no medical staff and many other developmental challenges that are associated with migration of skilled people from a country.

These people in the Diaspora however send remittances to Zimbabwe without which living in Zimbabwe would be unfathomable. The Zimbabwean Diaspora community now plays such a critical role in the well being of fellow Zimbabweans so much that trading in foreign currency is now legal. The local currency loses value every second. As of the weekending Friday December 5, the highest bill of exchange was the $200 million dollar note, enough to buy only 3 loaves of bread on the thriving black market. Only a week later, the Reserve bank of Zimbabwe announced that on Friday December 12, it would introduce a new $500 million dollar note. Such hyper-inflation has made it necessary to legalize[6] the use of foreign currency. The government has no money to procure fuel and the bulk of the fuel in Zimbabwe is bought from neighboring Botswana and South Africa by diasporas. Basic amenities such as sugar, cooking oil, toothpaste and bread are also being bought from neighboring countries with the help of diasporas. This boosts the economies of the countries that supply these basic goods while making bearable the lives of those whose relatives send remittances and foreign currency[7].

All state hospitals have virtually closed down because of lack of staff and medical drugs. Universities are in startling shortage of staff, the national water authority has no chemicals to purify water as evidenced by the cholera epidemic that is currently gripping the country, the national electricity supply authority supplies electricity sporadically because of lack of qualified personnel to repair the ever breaking down power distributors. Only those who receive remittances from the Diaspora community can afford to; send the children for tertiary learning in other countries, receive medical treatment from other countries, have electricity generators, erect boreholes in their yards for water. Migrants are buying cheap second hand mini-buses from Japan and other Asian countries and these make the bulk of the Zimbabwean public transport system. They literally run the public transportation system in Zimbabwe. Arguably, the Zimbabwean current situation is a classic contemporary case where the relationship between migration and development in Africa is manifest.

West Africa has a long history of migration both regionally and internationally. This has been partly due to the wars that have characterized the region, the region’s proximity to Europe, relative to most of the sub-Saharan African countries as well as the establishment of the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) which has guaranteed freedom of movement within the region. According to De Haan (2000), about one third of West Africans live outside their original places of origins. Across West Africa, migration represents a significant livelihood strategy for poor people (Black, et al, 2006:23). This factor is even recognized in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers in Cape Verde, Senegal and Niger, but it is not restricted to these countries (ibid). In Senegal, it is estimated that nearly $1 million is transferred to the Reserve Bank of Senegal from Libreville every month, whilst about 30 – 80 % of house hold budgets in Senegal are comprised of remittances (ibid). Many migrants are now an important source of capital, ideas and improved agriculture management techniques which flow back into West Africa as a result of the diversification that has occurred with labor mobility.[8]

The impact of migration on development in the West African region is the subject of much debate. It has been suggested that the poorest societies benefit from remittances that ensue out of migration. However, another argument is that the poorest societies are not really the ones that benefit because the people who can afford to migrate infact come from the middle class and elite in the society. Attitudes towards international migration (in the region) have somewhat been divided, with concern expressed by many observers about the brain drain, but also a growing level of interest in the potential for remittances and returnees to contribute to national development (Black, et al, 2006:35). In Ghana, it was estimated that remittances were $1.5 billion for January – September alone in 2003.[9]

· The case of Nigeria
Nigeria has experienced substantial internal and international migration. Just like most Africa countries, Nigeria has experienced considerable rural – urban migration. Internal conflicts in the country have also resulted in forced migration. Anyawu (1996:26) asserts that rural-urban migration has led to rural depopulation and loss of agricultural production, negating development in the country side. However, the migration of Fulani pastoralists to South Western Nigeria has produced positive developmental results, for example, it has stimulated trade in cattle (ibid).

On an international scale, nearly 15 000 Nigerians migrated legally[10] to Europe and North America every year from 1995 – 2001 (Black, et al, 2006:29). These emigrants were/are made up of mostly high skilled personnel such as doctors, engineers, nurses among others. The loss of highly skilled persons has reinforced decline in development in the country (ibid). Sadly, most of these professionals do not get jobs for which they trained. Instead, they have blue collar jobs such as driving, factory workers or other low skilled occupations. This is waste of critical skills that would make a huge difference in Nigeria.

However, Nigerians’ international migration has not been entirely negative. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago estimated that Nigerians in the US alone send about $1.3 billion each year to Nigeria.[11] This is more than six times the annual flow of US aid to Nigeria (Black, et al, 2006:29). These remittances go to the poor families and communities and play a significant part in as far as reducing poverty is concerned.

East Africa has a long history of migration because of the plantations in the region, the mines as well as pastoral communities that live there. Like anywhere else in Africa, migration in the region is of significant importance to the poor. It has provided investment capital for rural commodity production, stimulated the flow of new ideas and social practices into rural areas and enhanced rural livelihoods (Francis, 2002:181). De Haan (2000) notes that in Ethiopia, the poor migrate to urban areas more than the rich so that they can supplement the income that families earn from farming and so that they can also repay debts. While in Somalia migration has brought substantial remittances, in other countries in the region, like else where on the continent, it is seen as a big challenge because of brain drain. According to Shinn (2002), in Ethiopia for example, it is estimated that between a quarter and three quarters of students and professionals traveling abroad to study have not returned to Ethiopia, inevitably resulting in losses to the academic and medical professions.

· The case of Kenya
In 2001, a review on international migration in Kenya revealed that there were 47 000 Kenyan nationals in the US, 20 600 in Canada and 15 000 in the UK[12]. While there are no official records on the amount of remittances that Kenya receives, in 2002, it received an estimated $420 million (Black, et al, 2006:57). According to Francis (2002), in Kenya, rural families increase their livelihood security by splitting the locations of the family, most often by one member of the family migrating to an urban area. Migrant income in some cases is also larger and more secure than income from local wage labour and contributes significantly to investment in farming. Seasonal and temporary migration for agricultural employment is common in rural areas and is used to increase family income (ibid). Francis (2002) further argues that migrant remittances in Kenya have brought a considerable difference between the rich and poor farmers in Kenya. Most remittances are on housing improvements and children’s education. He further states that because education appears to be a major focus in Kenya, remittances are often invested in school fees.

Other East African countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda experience the same migration effects and patterns such as Kenya. There is a problem with brain drain while there is the consequent benefit from remittances that come with migration. The conflicts in the Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Uganda have seen a significant amount of involuntary migration of both skilled and unskilled personnel. These migrants send remittances to their country of origin which remittances help in sustaining their families. According to Black (2006), in Somalia, each year, nearly $750 million in remittances is sent back through informal channels to help with the day to day upkeep of families in Somalia.

Migration and development have a relationship in many ways, some of which include through livelihood and survival strategies of individuals, households and communities; through large and often well targeted remittances; through investments and advocacy by migrants, refugees, diasporas and their transnational communities; and through international mobility associated with global intergration, inequality and insecurity (Sørensen, et al, 2002). It has both positive and negative effects on development in countries of origin. Millions of migrant workers send remittances to their families and communities of origin. Worldwide, annual remittances may amount to more than one hundred billion dollars, primarily sent from the industrial to the developing world (Muponda, 2008). These remittances help improve household earnings, feed families, improve housing, education and health standards, in turn influencing development in their home countries.

It however has its negative effects too, most notably, brain drain and depletion of labour force from the sending country. The infusion of money from migrants may have an inflationary influence on the local economy (Sørensen, et al, 2002). Host countries can also be overwhelmed by migrants such as the case of South Africa, which experienced Xenophobic attacks early this year. Sørensen (2002) argues that several concerns have been raised about the merits of migration in poor countries. Studies have revealed that migration drains human and financial resources from migrant sending areas, reduce labor effort and contribute to a decline in per capita incomes. From this perspective therefore, remittances are part of a vicious circle of migration and falling incomes (ibid).

Whether positive or not, that there is a relationship between migration and development in Africa in unquestionable.


Anyawu, S,. 1996. ‘Spatial Population Maldistribution in Nigeria: Causes and suggestions.’ Journal of Development Alternatives and Area Studies 15(1).
De Haan, A,. 2000. ‘Migrants, Livelihoods and Rights: The Relevance of Migration in Development Policies.’ Social Development Working Paper No.4, DFID London.
Essy, A. 2003. ‘The Role of HigherEducation Institutions in the Building of the African Union.’ Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents of African Universities, Grand Bay Mauritius.
Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on (09.12.08).
Francis, E. 2002. ‘Gender, Migration and Multiple Livelihoods: Cases from Eastern and Southern Africa.’ Journal of Development Studies, 38:167-90.
Francis, E. 2002. ‘Making a Living: Changing Livelihoods in Rural Africa,’ London: Routledge, 2002.
International Organization for Migration, 2003. ‘Linkages between brain drain, labour migration and remittances in Africa,’ in IOM, (ed), World Migration 2002. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.
Kant, R. 2008. ‘Inflation in Zimbabwe breaks all records.’ On (08.12.08).
McDonald, D. 2000. ‘On borders: Perspectives on International Migration in Southern Africa.’ Cape Town and New York: SAMP and St Martins’ Press.
Migration for Development in Africa, 2008. on (09.12.08)
Muponda, G. 2008. ‘Tapping Diaspora capital to kick-start Zim economy.’ On (09.12.08)
Ndlovu, N. 2008. ‘Is Zimbabwe a failed state?’ on (09.12.08)
Richard, B,. (et. al.) 2006,. ‘Migration and Development in Africa: An overview.’ Idasa Cape Town, 8001 and Queen’s University, Canada.
Shinn, D. 2002 ‘Reversing the Brain Drain in Ethiopia.’ Addis Tribune.
Sørensen, N. N. (et al), (2002). ’The Migration-Development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options.’ International Migration Vol. 40 (5) Blackwell Publishers. (08.12.08) (08.12.08) (08.12.08)

[1] 3 000 words.
[2] The MIDA programme partially replaces ’The Return of Qualified African Nations (PQAN) programme which only facilitated the return of 2. 500 professionals between 1983 – 1999. The current MIDA programme focuses on the Great Lakes, Somalia, Ghana and Guinea.
[3] Please note that the writer is a Zimbabwean who himself is a migrant from Zimbabwe. He has experienced most of the things first hand hence an attempt not to use other people’s views except where such reference will serve to prove an academic phenomenon.
[4] The Zimbabwean dollar was valued at the ratio of Z$1=£1 as of 1980.
[5] . In a seminar at Stellenbosch University on 18 April 2008, Mr B Landau, the head of migration studies at Wits University noted that were it not for cheap labour from foreigners in South Africa, the price of basic commodities would be many times more than the current prices.
[6] The most commonly used currencies are, the Botswana Pula, the US dollar, the South African Rand as well as the British Pound.
[7] Please note that the writer of this essay is a Zimbabwean migrant in South Africa, who sends remittances to Zimbabwe. Therefore, the nexus between migration and development in Africa, particularly in Zimbabwe is more of a reality than theoretical.
[8] See,
[9] See .
[10] It is estimated that there are many thousands more Nigerians residing in Europe and America illegally.
[11] See (accessed on 09.12.08)
[12] See

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