Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, June 13, 2011

The People Paradox of Globalization

International Migration in the Age of Crisis and Globalization: Historical and Recent ExperiencesOne theme in a book full of interesting ideas about global migration is what  the author of International Migration in the Age of Crisis and Globalization, Andres Solimano, calls "the people's paradox of globalization."   Goods and capital are highly mobile, people are less so.  Not all migrants, however, face the same challenges.  There is a category of people with special skills, knowledge, money and social connections who are not required to submit to the same immigration regulation as workers.  IT experts fall into this group, but also artists, healthcare workers, entrepreneurs, scientists, technocrats, and graduate students.  The European Blue Card, for example, targets precisely these people, hoping to entice them to migrate to an EU country as opposed to Canada or the United States.

So we are looking at a global market where regions or countries adjust their immigration laws to be in line with global market requirements.  The demand is high, the supply is limited.  Many of the targeted professions and skills require years of investment on the part of individuals and their home countries, but countries cannot really prevent this human capital from leaving and destination countries cannot force them to migrate to specific places.  As Porter would put it, "supplier power" is high while "buyer power" is relatively low.  This has some interesting consequences for both home and destination countries.

Home countries divert resources to build talent at home and to harness the productive power of their citizens:  tax relief, public education (in some cases this goes right up to the university level) and even regulatory environments that actively encourage people to become entrepreneurs, making it easy for them to start businesses, fail, learn valuable lessons, and begin again.  All these things create people with transferrable skills that can be used in many places and may, in fact, be in higher demand and thus better paid somewhere else.   A diploma, a good CV or the right experience is a ticket to participation in foreign labor markets which is probably not what the citizens of the home country had in mind when they agreed to subsidize such things in the first place.

What pulls these people to migrate?  Economics are certainly a factor but there are others that are just as important.  Solimano gives three examples:  entrepreneurs seeking capital that is more easily found in the destination country, scientists seeking grants and a collegial world in which to develop their ideas, and creative people seeking a more stimulating environment and the chance to be surrounded by peers who have already gained an international reputation.

The receiving countries, on the other hand, are usually delighted to bring in such talent.  Highly skilled immigrants are relatively few in number (about 10% of global migrants overall) but their impact is quite high.  Enough of an impact that the receiving country not only is willing to differentiate them from other migrants but is sometimes willing to offer them a better deal than ordinary residents and citizens.  Imagine the shock of some of my French friends and family years ago when they discovered that, as an employee of a recognized NGO in Paris, I was exempt from French income tax.

Is this migration of talent really a lose-win situation or can it be beneficial for all the parties concerned:  the individual and the home and destination countries?  I honestly think there are some benefits though I am painfully aware of my own bias on this topic.

Few migrations are "one way trips."  A talented individual may spend some years abroad and return to the home country wiser (one would hope) and with a wealth of new contacts, skills, experience and capital.  Even when he or she chooses to remain in the destination country, connections are created between the home and destination countries that mean new opportunities for collaboration between businesses, scientists, and creative industries (culture and the arts).

That said, selective immigration still makes me a bit queasy.  Over the years I have met any number of very talented migrants who, after coming into a country with very limited skills or severe handicaps compared to residents, have become great assets to their destination countries by providing important, even essential, services that nationals no longer deign to provide, by getting an education or training in areas desperately needed by the host country, and by starting businesses that create jobs for everyone.

Perhaps what is so disturbing to me about all this chasing after elite migrants is that it confers an advantage to already advantaged group of people based on what they have done in the past and makes a projection into an unknowable future about what they presumably will contribute. Potential untapped talent, I admit, cannot be measured so easily but we know it is there in people from all places.  They may simply need to be here rather than there in order to realize it.

Elite migration has its place but so do all the other kinds of migration.  I would not argue against special programs for the first but I would hope that we might do a much better job of valuing the potential and actual contributions of the others.

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