Being wrong, wrong wrong about migration: David Goodhart in the Guardian

by | Apr 1, 2013

Migration is a notoriously divisive issue. Maybe David Goodhart, writing in the Guardian last week, should be commended for trying to say something new on the subject. But alas, his attempt to marry fairly standard right-wing anti-immigrant views with pro-welfare liberalism results in an article that is, to put it kindly, a little confused. Others have written well about the fact that he’s wrong on the evidence about the impact of immigration on the UK, and about how immigration policy is made. But he also makes some wild assertions about migration and development, which is what I know about, so let me start there.

First, he attributes some pretty extraordinary views to people like me who work in development and live in the UK. Apparently we think that UK policy should be just as much about people in Burundi as people in Birmingham (loving that alliteration, David). But, oh dear, he then tells us that in the UK, the apparent home of this hotbed of internationalist liberalism, we spend 25 times more every year on the NHS than on development aid. And, er, that most people see this as a ‘perfectly natural reflection of our layered obligations’ although ‘to a true universalist it must seem like a crime’. Spot the straw man. I have been working among these strange ‘universalist’ creatures for nearly 15 years now, and I have never met anyone, not one single person, who would argue to cut the NHS budget to spend more on overseas aid.

Tempting to say that there is no argument here since the people to whom the article is addressed do not exist, and the point of view he is rebutting is not one that anyone actually holds. Tempting to stop right there. But let’s plough on.

Migration, apparently ‘slows down the development of poor countries’. No actual evidence is offered for this assertion, which should not be surprising since there isn’t any. All the facts point the other way. World Bank researchers say the impact of migration on developing countries is most often ‘sizeable and positive’. Michael Clemens, the migration guru from the Centre for Global Development in Washington has looked at the numbers and estimated that freeing up migration might lead to gains of 50 to 150 per cent of world GDP. Migration reduces poverty for those who migrate, and for those left behind. The money sent back by migrants in 2010 was about three times the value of overseas aid. And migration contributes to long-term economic growth – the World Bank recently estimated that every migrant leaving an African country generates in the region of an extra $2,800 worth of exports per year for their country of origin.

Never mind the money, what about the so called ‘brain drain’? No evidence it’s a bad thing either. In fact, the prospect of migration might even encourage people to do more training and get more skills, leading to a net ‘brain gain’. And of course people do go back, with new contacts, new ideas and with the capital they have accumulated overseas, all contributing to economic development in the countries they came from. This applies even to health workers, over whom David Goodhart weeps bitter tears at their temerity of daring to travel for work. People who have looked at the actual facts conclude that the ‘brain drain is on balance good for Africa’.

Let’s leave aside the numbers, which some people do find heavy going. But what about, say, the study of history, which is presumably more comfortable territory for a self-confessed ‘Hampstead liberal’? There too, Goodhart gets it almost hilariously wrong. He laments than an open asylum policy might encourage ‘the most reform minded people in semi-authoritarian countries to quit rather than stay and fight for change’. Tell that to almost every liberation movement ever in history – the ANC, to take just one example – for which having an external base, from which to organise relatively freely, raise funds and build international support was such an essential part of their eventual success.

People have been worrying about immigration for hundreds of years. There are real fears, however ill-founded they have always turned out to be, about the social and economic impacts of migration on host countries. These need to be engaged with. But this attempt to dress up the age-old suspicion of foreigners in the cloak of concern for their countries’ welfare is factually wrong and, in my view, morally quite objectionable.

UPDATE (4 April): This post prompted a long debate on twitter with David Goodhart and others.  You can see most of it by looking through my timeline (@clairemelamed), plus Owen Barder (@owenbarder), Jonathan Portes (@jdportes)  and Lee Crawford (@rovingbandit) also got drawn in, and of course David himself (@David_Goodhart).  What was striking to me was that while saying that he disagreed with the papers above, David offered no contrary evidence, either in the form of different empirical analyses or of critiques of the methods employed by the authors cited in the blog.  I am still waiting for him to supply any numbers at all which demonstrate that migration is a net drain on poor countries, in defence of the argument he makes so confidently. If others have any references to analysis which makes this case, I’d be delighted to see them.


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