The Arab world has one of the highest proportions of migrant to local workers in the world, with over 32 million migrant workers in the Arab states in 2015 alone. In addition, the region has one of the largest diasporas in the world. This means that many skilled workers are emigrating to wealthier countries and sending money home via remittances. But what do remittances in the Arab World mean for the region and its inhabitants?
Brain Drain vs. Gain
In Lebanon and Jordan, unskilled labor is provided by growing numbers of refugees and foreign workers, totaling over five million in 2015. However, as more foreign workers enter the country, growing numbers of high-skilled Lebanese and Jordanian nationals are emigrating. This often occurs when opportunities are limited, when unemployment is high and economic growth slows. The phenomenon is dubbed ‘brain drain’ as opposed to ‘brain gain’, whereby an increasing stock of human capital boosts economies. A drain occurs while poor countries lose their most high-skilled workers and wealthier countries in turn gain these educated professionals.
Remittances in the Arab World
These expatriates commonly work to improve their own living situations while also helping to support their friends and families. This is where remittances come into play. As defined by the Migration Data Portal, remittances are financial or in-kind transfers made by migrants to friends and relatives in their communities of origin. Remittances often exceed official development aid. They are also frequently more effective in alleviating poverty. In 2014 alone, the Arab states remitted more than $109 billion, largely from the United States followed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
There is no denying that remittances can be a strong driving force for the socioeconomic stability of many Arab countries. But not all the influences are positive. Some experts argue that remittances can actually hurt the development of recipient countries. Their arguments cite potential negative effects of labor mobility and over-reliance on remittances. They emphasize that this can create dependency which undermines recipients’ incentive to find work. All this means an overall slowing of economic growth and a perpetuation of current socioeconomic status.
The Force of the Diaspora
The link between remittances in the Arab world and poverty is clear. Brain drain perpetuates and high amounts of remittance inflow and outflow persist if living conditions remain unchanged. Policymakers are therefore focusing efforts on enticing emigrants to return to their countries of origin. By strengthening ties with migrant networks, and implementing strategies like entrepreneurial start-up incentives and talent plans, the initial negative effects of brain drain could be curbed.
Overall, though brain drain and remittances can seem to hurt development in the short-term, if policies can draw high-skilled workers back, contributions to long-term economic development can erase these negative aspects altogether. Young populations that have emigrated to more developed countries acquire education and valuable experience that is essential to promote entrepreneurship in their home countries. Moreover, their experiences in advanced democracies can bolster their contribution to improved governance in their countries of origin. The Arab world’s greatest untapped potential is its diaspora, and it could be the key to a more prosperous future, if only it can be harnessed.
– Natalie Marie Abdou