Migration and Development – a Hot Debate!

Migration and Development – a Hot Debate!

In this article, Carol Barton reflects on global migration in the context of United Methodist Women's participation in the Global Forum on Migration and Development, in Athens, Greece, November 14, 2009.

United Methodist Women attended civil society events related to the Global Forum on Migration in Development in Athens, Greece in early November. We found that migration, development and their connection are all hotly contested concepts. We learned that both rich and poor nations look to poor migrant workers as a key source for development of poor nations. This is a reminder that United Methodist Women and The United Methodist Church have been involved in development debates, through our work at the United Nations, for decades. Here's a brief primer of United Methodist Women's history of engagement in these issues and the current debates.

United Methodist Women, together with the General Board of Church and Society, work through the United Methodist Office for the United Nations (UMOUN) on advocacy at the United Nations. The contentious goal of development is at the core of our efforts. Wealthy northern nations built modern industrial economies based on a history of conquest and colonialism of Southern nations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific. For centuries colonial powers extracted wealth through raw materials, slave and indentured labor, and profitable trade arrangements where finished goods were sold to captive markets. The net effect of these centuries of unequal exchange through overt power was the profound impoverishment and underdevelopment of nations in the global south. From the 1960s into the 1980s, United Methodist Women and predecessor organizations played an important role in creating space for "petitioners" to advocate at the United Nations for decolonization. Women's Division staff Mia Adjali gave leadership in this work at UMOUN. Those decades marked a steady stream of newly independent nations, particularly in Africa. However, these new nations emerged with a legacy of poverty and economic dependence.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, concerns about development in the global South (also called the "Third World" at that time) were a priority for United Methodist Women's predecessor organizations, which created "World Understanding Teams" where United Methodist Women members traveled to different parts of the world to learn about other realities, led by Margaret Bender. A development education project led by Annette Felder sent United Methodist teams to Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Helene Castell led seminars and edited a book on development, bringing perspectives from the global South. In 1972, The United Methodist Church and UMOUN supported efforts by the global South to create a "New International Economic Order." The "Group of 77"—a United Nations caucus of developing nations—was created in 1973. Working through UNCTAD, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, these newly independent nations argued that they should receive special treatment in aid and trade rules as a form of repayment for the wealth extracted by the north. If nations of the north were rich as a result of the resources taken from the south, there should be some form of reparation and restitution, and global economic rules should reflect the fact that nations were not starting at the same place and were not on an equal playing field. This "North-South dialog" led to a Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, a Program of Action and a Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States. However, real political and economic power remained in the hands of the world's most industrialized nations, primarily Western Europe and the United States, which opposed these measures, so no progress was made.

Nations in the global south mostly sold raw materials and had little control on prices of these commodities, while importing finished industrial goods. Thus, they sought to create their own industries. To gain the resources to do this, some nations created cartels such as OPEC, while others went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and private banks seeking loans. Many mortgage holders in the United States now know what it means to have floating interest loans! These nations had taken private loans at floating rates that went above 20 percent in the 1980s, leading to a massive global debt crisis. Unable to pay back ballooning loans, they went to the IMF and the World Bank for assistance. These international agencies, controlled by Europe and the United States, offered bridge loans in exchange for strict conditions. To stave off economic collapse, dozens of poor nations agreed to privatize public firms; open fledgling industries to competition from powerful transnational corporations; cut public sector spending on health and education; and gear their economies towards export to pay debt, rather than production for local needs. These conditions once again served the interests of the powerful and wealthy nations of the global north at the expense of weaker nations. They were known as "Structural Adjustment Programs" or SAPs. United Methodist Women members will be familiar with our work to seek justice regarding the global debt crisis. We have called for a "Jubilee" to forgive unjust debts, and sent cards to the IMF and World Bank calling for new global economic rules of the game. We are members of the faith-based JubileeUSA network, and partners with Jubilee South. Poor nations have now repaid their original debts many times over and have restructured their economies to the detriment of their people at the service of external banks and businesses, becoming event more vulnerable and impoverished.

The 1990s saw the birth of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The new institution sought to set global trade rules that would set similar rules for all. The global South resurrected many concerns raised in the 1970s about the need for preferential treatment given their historic disadvantage. The global North pushed for "trade liberalization," meaning the dismantling of tariffs and protections against foreign imports - even in areas like health and education. Given the power imbalance in the negotiations, trade liberalization that favored northern transnationals moved ahead, while calls for special treatment for the South lagged behind. Poor nations opened their doors to the influx of food products from the European Union (EU) and the United States. While the poor nations were forced to cut subsidies on their exports, the EU and the United States continue to massively subsidize agricultural products. Local farmers could not compete with these cheap imports, and thousands left the land in search of alternative livelihoods. United Methodist Women members were active in challenging the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a regional free trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada. United Methodist Women members were present at the 1999 World Trade Organization in Seattle, Wash., lifting up the concerns of women, workers and the environment, which were being negatively impacted by new trade accords that put profits before people.

In the new century (2002), nations once again convened at the United Nations through the Financing for Development conference, which took place in Monterrey, Mexico. United Methodist Women were represented at that conference, working with nongovernmental organizations to raise justice concerns. United Methodist Women also worked on this process through the Women's International Coalition for Economic Justice, which it had helped to create. Nations again addressed key development issues related to fair trade rules, development aid from North to South, fair prices for raw materials, and the ability to control investments for national interests. Yet even as nations debated within the United Nations, finance and trade institutions (the IMF, World Bank and WTO) were setting the rules of the game in favor of the most powerful. From the 1980s onward, through debt payments, undervalued prices on commodities, meager aid flows, and outflow of profits, nations of the global South sent billions to the north. One estimate is that poor nations sent an average net amount of $43.5 billion a year to the United States between 1982 and 1992. Another estimate is that through the 1980s, the annual net outflow from South to North was between 33 and 45 billion dollars. In just 5 years from 1983 to 1988, an estimated $115 billion flowed from South to North. [Global Restructuring and Peripheral States, Mohameden OuldMey, 1996]

Thus, once again, as during the colonial period, poor nations were massively subsidizing wealthy nations, not the reverse. The United Methodist Church has consistently affirmed that this is an injustice - an inequitable and intolerable distribution of the world's resources. The United Methodist Social Principles affirm, "In order to provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world." (58). And the 2008 Resolution No. 6028, "Global Migration and the Quest for Justice," notes, "Virtually all groups of today's migrants and refugees are battered by the divide between the rich and the poor, a divide rooted in nineteenth and twentieth century colonialism and directly caused by rapid corporate globalization in agriculture, industry, and commerce. Currently, slightly more than 10 percent of the world's population consumes 85 percent of the world's wealth while the rest make do with just 15 percent of that wealth."

In 2000, the United Nations held a Millennium Summit in the largest gathering of world leaders in history. In a U.N. Millennium Declaration, the 149 world leaders committed to joint actions to end extreme poverty, address environmental concerns and seek debt relief and special trade rules for the world's poorest nations. Nations set specific goals by the year 2015, to halve the proportion of people with income of less than one dollar a day and of those suffering from hunger and lack of safe drinking water; to ensure equal access to all levels of education for girls and boys and primary schooling for all children everywhere; to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters; and to begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases. By the year 2020, they resolve to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. The Declaration also set goals for promoting human rights, democracy and good governance; protecting the vulnerable; and meeting the special needs of Africa. "Only through broad and sustained efforts to create a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity, can globalization be made fully inclusive and equitable," world leaders stated. Building on the summit, the UN Secretariat created eight Millennium Development Goals or MDGs. United Methodist Women participated in the nongovernmental organization event parallel to the Millennium Summit, and the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women has adopted implementation of the MDGs as it's priority. (For a list of the MDGs, see

In a parallel process, the United Nations has set forth a framework for the human rights of all peoples. It passed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights shortly after the creation of the United Nations. Since then, it has passed Conventions or Treaties further specifying rights, known as the Core Human Rights Treaties. Nations that ratify a treaty are regularly monitored for compliance. These include treaties addressing Torture (CAT), the rights of women (CEDAW), rights of children (CRC), migrant rights, the elimination of all forms of racism and discrimination (CERD), and treaties on persons with disabilities, enforced disappearance, and the use of antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions. In addition, there are treaties on civil and political rights (ICCPR), and on economic, social and cultural rights (ICESCR). For nations that have ratified them, treaties hold a higher level of governmental accountability than many UN declarations. The US has ratified very few treaties, including those on torture, race, and civil and political rights.

In the 1990s to early 2000s, the UN held a series of World Conferences addressing key areas of development in the framework of human rights. These included conferences on environment (Rio de Janeiro), social development (Copenhagen), human rights (Vienna), women (Beijing), habitat (Istanbul), population and development (Cairo), and racism (Durban). They set standards for the fulfillment of rights. United Methodist Women sent delegations to each of these conferences (except Vienna). A significant group of United Methodist Women members attended the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, and United Methodist Women has continued to monitor the outcomes. United Methodist Women participated in the Rio conference on sustainable development, and has given leadership among nongovernmental organizations in follow up to that event. We will be present in Copenhagen in December 2009 for global climate negotiations. This series of conferences affirmed the concept that peace and human rights were integral to development. However, much changed after Sept. 11, 2001. Very quickly, the human rights framework for development shifted to a national security framework. In addition, the Millennium Development Goals pared down broad commitments by all nations to narrow commitments that primarily held poor nations responsible for their own development. MDG Goal No. 8, which refers to the responsibility of the North to assist more equitably in development has largely been ignored. Meanwhile, goals of eradicating poverty and disease place the burden on poor nations, with little external help.

Thirty years of corporate globalization and structural adjustment policies, built on unequal North/South relations, has devastated the global South. By the 21st century the impacts of unjust trade, investment and finance policies were clear - massive unemployment; indebtedness and food crisis led to massive migration from the countryside to cities, and then from the South to the North. The movement of peoples is the direct outcome of unequal historic relations and of recent policies by the world's wealthy nations that have sucked resources from the world's poorest nations like a giant vacuum. Notes the United Methodist Church resolution on Global Migration, "Contemporary migration involves the linked realities of abundance and poverty and racial/ethnic/religious identities and exclusion. The current global economic system reflects an expectation many people will live in poverty, or have their nations torn by conflict, so that others may live in abundance. That many people will resist poverty and war through migration is an ancient and modern fact of human existence. As a consequence, elaborate national and international systems of containment and classification based on national origin have been developed over the past quarter century with regard to migrants."

The resolution goes on to state, "Virtually all groups of today's migrants and refugees are battered by the divide between the rich and the poor, a divide rooted in nineteenth and twentieth century colonialism and directly caused by rapid corporate globalization in agriculture, industry, and commerce. … Yet, while money and products easily flow across borders, the movement of people is increasingly restricted, leading to concentrations of the poor along borders and, often, to the building of literal and figurative walls of exclusion, notably around the rich nations of the northern hemisphere and the affluent enclaves in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. While the legal and physical walls seek to exclude flows of undocumented migrants, in fact, there is growing demand in wealthier nations for cheap labor ... Ironically, and horribly, with regard to economic migrants, the rich say, 'Come in, do our dirty work at low wages, and then go away.'"

This brings us to 2009, and the conversation about Migration and Development. The dialog emerged from a special U.N. Summit on Migration and Development held in 2006. Poor nations were increasingly relying on the "export" of their people for needed income, but facing barriers to migration in the North. Northern nations were welcoming cheap migrant labor, but did not want permanent residents. Nations were hesitant to house a discussion on migration in the United Nations, which would be public and might set guidelines that impinged on nations' own migration policies. Thus, the Global Forum on Migration and Development was devised as a six-year private dialog, to be hosted by different nations outside of the United Nations context. Athens, Greece, housed the third Global Forum in November 2009, where the U.S. government participated for the first time. Access by nongovernmental organizations was very limited. Once again, United Methodist Women was present at the Civil Society Dialog parallel to the government event.

Ironically, the conversation did not address commitments made by governments to human rights treaties or U.N. conferences, and did not acknowledge the legacy of colonialism and modern corporate globalization. While the poor have paid the greatest price for these models of development based on corporate greed, they are now being asked to shoulder the burden for development. A key issue at the Global Forum was that of remittances. "Guest workers" and undocumented workers work in miserable conditions for meager wages and send home their hard-won earnings to support their families. While their individual contributions may be small, when you add up all of the dollars and yen and euros flowing back to poor nations in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Caribbean, it measures in the billions. Some nations, such as Honduras and El Salvador, now count these "remittances" as their greatest source of foreign income. Poor nations have become increasingly dependent on these flows of remittances to sustain their economies. Rich nations have effectively been let off the hook in terms of responsibility for a greater sharing of resources through development aid. Instead of fulfilling longstanding commitments to annually give 0.7 percent of national income in development aid, they are citing the flows of remittances as an alternate source for development. This is literally asking the poor and super-exploited to pay for development through their hard labors. What's more, the United States, EU and Japan are erecting elaborate barriers to migration, with ever intensified enforcement mechanisms. Migrants' labor is in demand, but they are frequently forced into a precarious and humiliating existence, where their political, economic and social rights are violated on a daily basis.

The government set agenda in Athens was to discuss how migrants contribute to the development of their countries of origin, while also adding value in their temporary homes. This is the official nexus of "migration and development." There was much talk of "circular migration" - the notion that migrants would come for a short time to work and then return home. This is far from the reality for most migrants, who cannot afford to return home, yet are not welcome in their new country of residence. There was NOT talk of government accountability to human rights. There was NOT a critique of the unequitable economic system that has underdeveloped poor nations and caused large migrant streams. There was no discussion of massive flows of capital from South to North in recent decades that have intensified poverty and crisis, nor of the historic legacy of inequality. Migrant, church, labor and human rights organizations found it difficult to voice these concerns and have them heard.

United Methodist Women continued to raise the concerns that reflect our long history of advocating for human rights and an equal sharing of the world's resources, particularly for women, youth and children. The United Methodist Church resolution on global migration calls on us to act for "just and equitable trade and development policies that support human rights and counteract the root causes of migration such as war and militarization, environment spoilage, and corporate greed." Along with nongovernmental organization partners, United Methodist Women advocated for the following in Athens:

  • Consider human development (all aspects of a full life) rather than only economic development;
  • Incorporate migrant voices in framing migration and development policy;
  • Put migration and development in a human rights framework that holds governments accountable to universally recognized minimum standards in the human rights conventions as well as International Labor Organization core labor standards;
  • Lift up gender, child rights and racial justice lenses in formulating migration and development policy;
  • In the context of Goal No. 8 of the MDGs, recognize that macroeconomic and trade policies must be considered in addressing migration and development, and that developed countries of the north bear significant responsibility in a partnership to finance development in the global south.

United Methodist Women have been and continue to be present in key arenas for decision-making regarding a just and equitable human development. Global migration is one manifestation of the failure to achieve such development. To address migration, we will need to address the global distribution of the world's resources. In a time of economic crisis in the United States and globally, we are aware that many in the United States are also facing poverty, unemployment and foreclosures. This reflects a growing wealth gap within the United States as well. In recent years there has been a hollowing out of the U.S. middle class with more very rich and very poor. While the United States continues to be a very rich nation relative to poor nations around the world, not everyone in the United States benefits from that reality. We have our work cut out for us. As the United Methodist Social Principles state, "ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world" both in the United States and globally.

Carol Barton is an executive with United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 1/1/2009 11:00:00 PM