Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Transnational Migration and Development

Date: May 31 - June 01, 2007

Organizer: Thomas Faist (Bielefeld)

The aim of the Working Group was to interrogate the current enthusiasm on remittances in public and academic debates from a transnational angle. The central puzzle is: On the one hand, public and academic debates in the newest round of the migration-development nexus address mostly one-way flows, the transfer of resources from North to South, such as financial remittances, human capital, knowledge and even so-called social remittances, for example the export of ideas and institutions such as democracy, gender equity and human rights. Like the older ones in the 1960s and 1980s, the current debate is couched in terms of development and development cooperation, that is, the transposition of the Western model of economic modernization to 'underdeveloped' or 'developing' regions of the globe. On the other hand, studies taking a transnational approach suggest that we do not see one-way traffic but two-way flows, not only from North or West to South or East but also in the reverse direction. For example, there is not only a massive flow of 'brains' from South to North, the so-called 'brain drain', but also flows less prominently considered, such as student tuition fees. Also, we may consider empirical findings which indicate 'reverse remittances', for example, families of migrants in Accra, Ghana paying for their kinfolk in Amsterdam to 'get their papers', that is, legalize their status in the Netherlands. Also, taking a broader historical perspective, it seems odd that the migration-development debate would focus predominantly on North-South transfers, as it is well-established that only colonial and imperial domination of large regions of Africa and Asia set the conditions in which migration systems could develop.
Public debates and research on the two-way relationship between migration & development-the migration-development nexus-has increased considerably since the early 2000s. To be more precise, it has experienced yet another climax after two previous ones, in the 1960s and 1980s. From a simple cost-benefit point of view the basic idea has always been that the flow of emigrants and the loss of brains are partly or wholly compensated by a reverse flow of money, ideas and knowledge. Yet there is very little systematic thought given to what is 'new' around this time. A transnational angle implies the analysis of the emergence of a new transnational agent in development discourse-intermittently called 'international migrants', 'diaspora', or 'transnational community'. These social categories have turned into development agents. Increasingly, debates and studies take the cross border ties of geographically mobile persons and collectives to the centre of attention. And national states, local governments, inter- and supranational organisations and development agencies seek to co-opt and establish ties to such agents who are engaged in sustained and continuous cross-border relationships on a personal, collective and organisational level. Such policies and debates have increasingly connected the mostly parallel policy discussions on immigrant incorporation and development cooperation. For example, it is by now a well-known albeit contested finding that those immigrants who have achieved high levels of social integration-measured by variables such as income level, professional status and immigration country language knowledge-are the ones who are most likely to be engaged in development cooperation.
The emergence of this new type of development agent can be tackled by a decidedly transnational methodology, which looks at both ends of resource flows in emigration and immigration regions, and does not take states as container-like entities but envisages transnational social formations as societal-political, economic and cultural-structures sui generis. Only then can we hope to look at what is usually called 'development' in both North/West and South/East, and what the different agents involved understand by 'development', hence the plural used in the title: 'development(s)'. Development is a decidedly normative term and may be of little value analytically. However, its main purpose for this discussion is that it concentrates academic and public debates on the conflicting and evolving notions of what different agents understand by leading of what political philosophers may call a 'good life'.
The discussions at the Working Group meeting achieved two goals-methodological clarification of the concept of transnationalisation, and the specification of empirical research questions. First, the Working Group clarified the concept 'transnationalisation' and 'transnational social spaces', and its application to the issues of development. The conceptual questions dealt with were: What are central elements of social, economic and political theory in moving beyond 'methodological nationalism', that is, going beyond an essentialisation of nation-states as the 'natural' unit of analysis in global contexts? What understanding of space underlies the concept of transnationalism? What are the commonalities and differences of a transnational perspective vis-ŗ-vis world society and globalization theories? Are transnational social spaces conglomerates of economic, cultural and political structures which complement and/or contradict other forms of integration, such as functional differentiation? How useful are transnational approaches for the analysis of the linkage between migration and development? Second, the Working Group delved into various questions related to transnationalisation and development(s), such as economic, political, socio-cultural, public policy and discursive issues.

The participants in the Working Group will publish the results. The written versions of the papers presented will be available as of 1 October 2007 at the following website:

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