The hidden truth about migration: A looming farm crisis back home

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Male outmigration has led to the feminisation of farming. [United Nations Photo / Flickr]

Mass migration has become a major political challenge in Europe. While the media documents the perilous journeys that migrants undertake, the hardships and hopes of the rural areas from which many originate receive less attention, meaning the root causes of migration persist, writes Claudia Sadoff.

Claudia Sadoff is Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which leads the CGIAR Research Program Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).

People migrate for many reasons. Many are ‘pushed’ by conflict, danger or disaster. Others are ‘pulled’ by the hope of opportunities for more stable and prosperous livelihoods. At the heart of the migration challenge is the need to diminish the hardships that propel unplanned migration and to foster more stable and prosperous livelihoods at home.

This year, World Food Day focuses on investing in food security and rural development to change the future of migration. The fundamental message is that food (and water) insecurity and social fragility in rural areas are both causes and consequences of unplanned migration. Failing to address them can potentially trigger a downward spiral that puts even more people on the move.

The European Union is currently engaged in ongoing dialogues to promote development and fight irregular migration, particularly with countries of North, West and Central Africa, through the Rabat Process. The key question that policymakers must ask is how best to address the root causes of this challenge.

A large part of the answer is to invest in more productive farming in migrants’ countries of origin, while at the same time strengthening non-farm rural employment. Particularly in Africa, where agriculture accounts for about 60 percent of employment, these measures are critical for building stable economies that can deliver food and job security.

In search of ways to improve the effectiveness of such investments, IWMI/WLE have undertaken research that focuses on the communities from which migrants depart and the impacts their departure has on farming.

Armed with new insights, we set up a network in 2016 called MARIS or Migration, Agriculture and Resilience: Initiative for Sustainability. Bringing together dozens of international and national experts, the network seeks to develop innovative solutions to the underlying causes of the migration crisis in Africa and Asia.

One key finding is that remittances sent home by migrants represent an enormous untapped opportunity to invest in agriculture, businesses based on processing farm produce, or alternative livelihoods in rural areas. Their total amount has risen by a factor of 15 over the last 25 years (reaching USD 441 billion in 2015, according to World Bank estimates), nearly three times the amount going to global development aid each year. Currently, recipients use most of this money to meet subsistence needs or purchase non-productive luxuries.

Governments could leverage the potential benefits of remittances from planned migration, while lessening the drivers of unplanned migration, by putting in place policies and programs that encourage productive investment in rural areas. Agriculture is one option, but if other opportunities provide greater returns, they too could enhance food security and livelihoods through higher incomes.

Governments may also need to place greater emphasis on meeting basic human needs in rural areas by investing in sustainable access to water for domestic and productive use. To achieve this, government agencies can team up with the private sector to invest in novel business models for rolling out water-smart technologies. In many areas, groundwater is a lifeline for rural communities and needs better management to ensure it is not overdrawn or degraded.

Another part of the answer to migration’s root causes is investing in measures that reduce communities’ vulnerability to water-related disasters, such as extreme flooding or drought, which worsen social, economic and environmental fragility. Index-based flood and drought insurance, for example, which relies on robust scientific data to trigger timely payouts, shows promise for cushioning rural livelihoods against disaster risks.

In many areas, male outmigration is leading to the feminization of farming. Investments in this context should be designed to help achieve greater gender equality. The departure of predominantly young males may offer some advantages for those who remain, such as increased bargaining power for landless labourers.

But traditional power relations and inequalities in rural communities remain largely intact and continue to hinder progress, especially for the women left behind. While in some cases women are able to expand their decision making power, their workload also increases, and they remain as vulnerable as ever to the lack of productive assets, such as land, water and credit.

In response, agricultural research, extension and other services (including formal education) must be reoriented to fit these new realities. Increasingly, services must cater to women, seeking to identify and overcome gender barriers to their adoption of new technology.

The use of small pumps for micro-irrigation, for example, shows great potential for enabling women and men to grow high-value crops and boost their incomes during the long dry seasons of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Unless we act on these risks and opportunities in a more concerted fashion, with strong public and private sector participation, the global goals of ending hunger and poverty will likely remain beyond the grasp of many rural communities – even farther away than the prospect of a better life abroad.