Understanding Migration and the Global Policy Agenda

'Given all the hype about migration to Europe, it is easy not to realize that migration within sub-Saharan Africa is a primary force for development and social change (...) These issues matter, but there's more we should be exploring: we need to shift our analytical attention to migration and displacement within Africa and local responses to it. As it now stands, the loci of policy debates risk disguising practices that may worsen the condition of displaced people within Africa'.

by Loren Landau

Given all the hype about migration to Europe, it is easy not to realize that migration within sub-Saharan Africa is a primary force for development and social change. Even African scholars have jumped on the bandwagon, looking at remittance and resource flows from Europe while often overlooking the important domestic and international dynamics closers to home. If they hope to gain much international or scholarly attention, African migrants who remain on the continent need to be displaced or otherwise victimized by disease, traffickers, smugglers, or other baddies. These issues matter, but there's more we should be exploring: we need to shift our analytical attention to migration and displacement within Africa and local responses to it. As it now stands, the loci of policy debates risk disguising practices that may worsen the condition of displaced people within Africa.

But shifting the agenda is easier said than done. Most knowledge production in Africa is not produced for Africans or, indeed, for independent scholars. Given scarce funding and political pressures to be 'relevant', most of the African research on African migration is designed to answer policy questions posed by international consumers and donors. HIV is a case in point. Access to treatment and mobility as a vector of disease continues to dominate discussions at the cost of looking at broader patterns of vulnerability and health seeking behavior. Migrants, like most others in Africa, are more at risk from malaria and other diseases than HIV but there is precious little research on these themes. The fixation with trafficking, climate change, HIV, internally displaced persons, and international humanitarianism are all further examples of issues that have dominated the research agenda to the exclusion of other concerns: the role of local government, the relationship between masculinity and migration, or the development effects of hosting -not just sending- migrants. Perhaps most importantly, little has been done to explore the relations between domestic and international migration in Africa (although such scholarship is well established in Latin America and Asia).

In many cases, local scholars are too skint to challenge an international research agenda, afraid that a critical reports will cut off the consulting work needed to clothe, feed, and education their children. In other instances, they are simply too impoverished -financially and in terms of research materials- to develop effective critiques. Even when they do, those who disagree with donors and aid agencies often fail to find a platform to voice their concerns. Unfortunately, where local authorities have independent opinions, they too are in no position to set or support a research agenda. Should we find ourselves in a position to reframe or broaden the research agenda, we need to shift our focus from international interventions and national policy frameworks to local practices.

As we move forward, we must never be too sanguine about the likelihood that any policy -no matter how well informed- will achieve the desired ends. In almost no cases do African governments have the capacity to measure, predict, and proactively respond to human mobility in ways that will contribute to the public good. Even where African states have good migration or asylum policies, they often lack the personnel, systems, procedures and technology required to implement them effectively. Similarly, international humanitarianism provides only limited impacts. As such, the starting point should be understanding what is happening and what matters to the people on the ground, not the folks in Washington or Berlin.

Scholars within Africa must also find ways of politicizing our analyses. To reconsider how policy categories and issues are generated; the political processes and forms of learning that shape current debates, and to be critical and cautious of issues emerging in the future. There are interests everywhere and it is important we name and understand them. If migration scholars intend to fulfill the dual imperative of satisfying academic standards and influencing policy and practice, there is a need to broaden our audience and those to whom we listen. This means stepping outside dominant discussions and categories to situate migration where it occurs.

Migrants are not divorced from their environments and neither should our approaches to learning about or assisting them. A focus that moves beyond formal policies and institutions will invariably generate a range of categories, challenges, and solutions that we have not yet considered. There is a wide range of actors that affect the welfare of forced migrants and are, in turn, affected by human mobility. In most instances, those actors are not directly involved in policy responses, but it is only by understanding their influence can we hope to build mechanisms to protect the poor and vulnerable and maximizing the development potential of human migration.

Given the unequal distribution of resources, those closest to the majority of migrants, local scholars and activists, are often unable to conduct research, publish, or otherwise disseminate their views. To gain access to global debates, we often rely on international donors who demand a focus on particular issues that all too often confirm what they already know. Where possible, we should push for a greater separation of academic enquiry and advocacy. Such autonomy does not necessarily mean irrelevance; quite the contrary. The only way to ensure that the political interests described above do not trump the immediate interests of migrants and the communities in which they live is to build the capacity to observe and critique those whose work is irrelevant, unethical, or simply misguided. But this means encouraging additional resources into research outside the power centers of the global north. I hope that this short paper can begin such process.

 

Photo: Turn Right For Italy, by Noborder Network/flickr