World Development Report

Relevant rural-urban interplay

by Eva Dick, Einhard Schmidt-Kallert
Temporary migration between cities and rural areas shape life in many developing countries. For a long time, neither the academic mainstream nor development agencies took notice. For good reason, the World Bank has started to look into the matter, yet it fails to account for the complexity of informal relationships. [ By Eva Dick and Einhard Schmidt-Kallert ]

Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, is an economic powerhouse and port city with officially 2.5 million inhabitants. However, studies have shown that the population fluctuates significantly. Depending on the time of year, a substantial share of the urban population returns to the countryside to do rice farming in the villages–usually people who earn their daily wages in the informal sector. On the other hand, income that is not generated from farming but transferred by relatives, ensures the survival of village people.

Mainstream scholars and development agencies have only recently begun to take these socio-economic factors into account. An example is the World Bank’s recent World Development Report with the title “Reshaping economic geography”. The report examines the influence that spatial surroundings have on economic and social development at local, national or international levels. Mobility is seen as a factor that influences the development of economic spaces, and particular attention is paid to migration within countries, between rural and urban areas with growing or shrinking population sizes. Indeed, far more people migrate between cities and the periphery, than from one country to another.

The authors generally see migration as a positive phenomenon. They argue that market dynamics should determine the size and direction of migration, as they do for capital and goods: “Let markets pick the places.”

Migration is nearly impossible to prevent, states the report, highlighting several failed attempts of governments to prevent rural-urban migration. There is little to be done about cities and other dominant regions being attractive. The authors argue that migration benefits both the migrants’ destinations and their home regions in terms of economic growth and prosperity: the first gain workers, while the latter benefit from remittances and know-how.

The authors’ point of view is strictly economic, and they do not find all kinds of migration desireable. In their view, it is the governments’ challenge to prevent people from migrating for the wrong reasons (though not to prevent migration as such). The authors are in favour of voluntary migration of skilled and well-educated persons, whom they view as crucial for the development of economic and academic clusters. In the long run, the argument goes, grouping a well-educated higher-income labour force together will result in lower poverty and promote income equality.

Similar hypotheses were already backed by Albert Hirschmann and other polarisation theorists 30 years ago. This academic tradition expects governments to encourage desireable migration through a legal framework - for instance, by boosting urban infrastructures.

On the other hand, the World Bank considers involuntary rural-urban migration as economically inefficient and burdensome for fast-expanding mega-cities. The authors thus suggest that migration from rural areas, which is sparked by poor living conditions, should be stemmed by improving basic services such as health care, education et cetera. For this purpose, the report supports “spatially blind measures”, as opposed to targeted economic development of “shrinking” areas.

The World Development Report’s main conclusion is that rural-urban migration is welcome in principle. That is an innovative and welcome message. Unfortunately, however, the implicit demand to back skilled migration is substantially less innovative.

Moreover, the report does not do justice to the realities and motives of poor migrants in Africa and Asia. To begin with, the report’s perspective is top-down. Different political reactions are recommended to different motives for migration – say the pursuit of higher wages or better education as opposed to fleeing poor living conditions. However, distinctions between “good” and “bad” migration are only based on economic considerations, without paying attention to reducing individual or family poverty.

Moreover, the report tends to focus on individual motives for migration, neglecting motives of entire households. But in Africa and Asia, the answer to the questions of who migrates where (whether rural-rural or rural-urban) depends on benefits anticipated for entire households.

On top of that, the report’s choice of countries is problematic. Are the examples of industrialisation in Singapore, South Korea or eastern China transferable to sub-Saharan or Southeast Asian countries? Many of them have substantial domestic migration, without, however, enjoying the positive effects of urbanisation and industrialisation. Is all this, in the eyes of the World Bank, undesired migration? And what are the recommendations to countries where there are, so far, no innovation clusters?

Finally, due to the neglect of the household-perspective, the report fails to mention the interplay of rural and urban survival strategies of multi-locational households. Rural-urban interdependence is often based on the connection of economic opportunities in the urban informal sector with social and economic options in rural areas, these generally being informal too.

It would make sense to boost the potential of such informal rural-urban relationships; and to do so, government policy should take temporary migration seriously and spawn comprehensive forms of governance. This is what African and Asian governments should focus on, instead of waiting for new industrial high-tech clusters to emerge.

The World Development Report is right to revisit and re-assess migration. It is indeed high time to take rural-urban interplays into account. But the success stories of a few newly-industrialising tiger economies are not a solid base for policy recommendations all around the world.