Sunday, June 10, 2007

Migration Manifesto

I read a fascinating article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine about labor migration as a development strategy. Lant Pritchett wants to open up the borders of wealthy countries to workers from poor countries as means to address global poverty:

Pritchett, a development economist and practiced iconoclast, has just left the World Bank to teach at Harvard and to help Google plan its philanthropic efforts on global poverty. In a recent trip through Chaurmuni, he praised the goats as community-driven development at its best: a fast, flexible way of delivering tangible aid to the poor. “But Nepal isn’t going to goat its way out of poverty,” he said. Nor does he think that as a small, landlocked country Nepal can soon prosper through trade.

To those standard solutions, trade and aid, Pritchett would add a third: a big upset-the-applecart idea, equally offensive to the left and the right. He wants a giant guest-worker program that would put millions of the world’s poorest people to work in its richest economies. Never mind the goats; if you really want to help Gure Sarki, he says, let him cut your lawn. Pritchett’s nearly religious passion is reflected in the title of his migration manifesto: “Let Their People Come.” It was published last year to little acclaim — none at all, in fact — but that is Pritchett’s point. In a world in which rock stars fight for debt relief and students shun sweatshop apparel, he is vexed to find no placards raised for the cause of labor migration. If goods and money can travel, why can’t workers follow? What’s so special about borders?

I put my own Pittsburgh spin on Pritchett's manifesto in the post titled, "Let Your People Go." The perspective I share with Pritchett is that there are great economic benefits in liberalizing migration policy. Not only do I think that Pittsburgh should stop trying to keep talent in the region, but I propose helping that very talent to relocate. Pittsburgh already does this when a school district succeeds in educating its students.

The better the education, the better the geographic mobility, and the better the economic opportunity. Pritchett sees a similar decision value chain, but cuts right to geographic mobility as the crux of the problem (and solution) for the world's poor.

I had a similar epiphany during my graduate school days pondering how best to improve human rights. A big sticking point is national pride. One country's citizens do not appreciate being told what to do by another country's citizens. Hence, international standards must have local variations, which in turn can undermine a universal approach. I figured labor rights posed the best chance for a widely accepted standard given the global reach of economic globalization.

The most powerful labor right is a choice of where to work. If corporations had to compete for labor (like they do now for talent), working conditions and wages would improve. I understand Pittsburgh's political geography as geared towards thwarting the geographic mobility of labor and reducing the employment choices, thus the need for unions. You don't need to organize if you can pack up your things and find a better job someplace else.

To discourage geographic mobility is a violation of an individual's fundamental human rights. To limit a person's area of opportunity is akin to denying them an education. Parents are not doing their children any favors if they try to keep them close to home. A local or regional opportunity landscape will always pale in comparison to a global one.

Pritchett is indirectly saying that Nepal should promote the out-migration of its human capital. Should we help the place or the people? When we look at development in terms of education, the answer is obvious.

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