Remittances remain resilient despite financial crisis – World Bank

The global financial crisis of 2008/09 has not sent migrant workers streaming back home, despite worsening employment prospects and anti-immigration rhetoric in some destination countries, says a new book on migration and remittances, published by the World Bank.

In fact, migrants may have mitigated some of the pain of the crisis as they tend to work for lower wages, receive fewer benefits and rely relatively little on the state, says the ‘Migration and Remittances during the Global Financial Crisis and Beyond’ book.

“During the crisis, remittances continued to provide a steady source of foreign currency to developing country economies at a time when foreign aid remained flat and foreign direct investment declined sharply,” said Otaviano Canuto, Vice President, Poverty Reduction and Economic Management, at the World Bank.

Removing restrictions on human mobility may help enhance financial flows among nations and alleviate some of the adverse effect of the crisis, says the book. With migrant workers projected to remit about $399 billion to their home countries during 2012, compared to $372 billion in 2011, remittances are the most tangible link between migration and development.

Although many of the 215 million international migrants are facing worsening employment prospects in some destination countries, particularly high-income Europe, their cash support to families in their home countries has remained resilient, posting, in 2009, the only decline in recent memory. Even then, remittances decreased by a modest 5.2 percent, in sharp contrast with the precipitous declines seen in global private capital flows.

“The resilience of remittances is good news for developing countries as they remain one of the less volatile sources of foreign exchange earnings, particularly for the less developed countries. At the household level, these cash transfers are, in many cases, the only lifeline for families in the home countries,” said Hans Timmer, Director of Development Prospects at the World Bank.

However, despite many years of recording ever-increasing volumes of remittances, leveraging this rather large and growing source of funds for socio-economic development remains a key challenge, with the vast majority of remittances used for maintaining families and for the purchase of consumer goods.

The book, which is the first comprehensive study of remittances during the global financial crisis, is a compilation of 45 separate studies that identify and discuss remittance practices across the world and possibilities for the future. Each study is authored by a different expert who analyzes certain countries and certain aspects of remittances, ranging from patterns of remittance flows to usage of remittances received by communities and households.

The book is co-edited by Dilip Ratha, Manager of the Bank’s Migration and Remittances Unit; Ibrahim Sirkeci, Professor of Transnational Studies and Marketing at Regent’s College, London; and Jeffrey Cohen, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Ohio State University, USA, who also co-author the book’s first chapter on remittance flows and practices during the crisis.

“Contrary to expectations, we found no evidence of return of migrants, even as the financial crisis reduced employment opportunities in the United States and Europe, with many countries, such as Spain, offering financial incentives to encourage migrants to return,” said Sirkeci.

Migration, in fact, was a strategic response to the financial crisis. Like any political or environmental catastrophe, the financial crisis caused human insecurity and people in developing countries responded by crossing borders or moving domestically to survive the impact of the crisis.

“Remittances have remained resilient and, barring the decline in 2009, have maintained a healthy growth momentum. However, since the book went to press, the global economy continues to experience serious bouts of volatility, which could affect migrant earnings and, hence, remittances,” said Ratha.

For receiving countries, a key factor behind the resilience in remittances is the diversification of migrant destinations.

Countries in South Asia and East Asia with many migrants in the United States, Europe and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries continued to register increased remittance inflows. One study in the book concludes that only a prolonged global slowdown would cause a decline in remittance flows to India, the largest recipient of remittances in 2011, with $64 billion.

In contrast, Latin America and the Caribbean region, whose migrants are concentrated in the United States, suffered a dramatic decline in remittances throughout the financial crisis. Mexico, the world’s third largest recipient of remittances ($24 billion in 2011), saw a significant decline in remittance inflows from the United States during the crisis. A similar strong impact was found in El Salvador. Both cases underline the fact that many Latin American countries were vulnerable to the effects of crisis, with a special impact on the urban youth in these countries, who face more difficult labor market prospects and declining opportunities to migrate.

Studies related to the effect of the crisis in the European Union on remittance-receiving countries found that Spain has been the fastest-growing immigration destination for the past decade and is now the fifth largest remittance-sending country, after the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Switzerland.

In the East Asia and Pacific region, remittances account for as much as 12 percent of GDP, as in the case of New Zealand and Pacific island economies, while remittances have been keeping the national economy afloat in the Philippines for the past three decades.

Also, due to the depreciation of local currencies of many remittance-recipient countries, such as India, Mexico, and the Philippines, migrants from those countries turned to investment-oriented remittances in South Asia and East Asia where goods, services, and assets suddenly became significantly inexpensive and affordable.

The book recommends that countries develop policies that reduce restrictions on human mobility and develop programs to facilitate the use of remittances for long-term investments and promoting entrepreneurship. Such changes, tailored to both host and recipient country needs, can strengthen the contribution of remittances to development.

Eliminating the complexity of transactions and reducing transaction costs would also help increase the volume of remittances utilizing official channels, to enable many small nations, in particular, to reap the socio-economic benefits of migrant earnings.

Source: World Bank

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