Make migrants a core part of rural development: AGRUMIG Policy Dialogue Meeting Report, Kyrgyzstan.

By Pacem Kotchofa and Alan Nicol (IWMI, ETHIOPIA).

The record-breaking levels of migration in today’s globalized economy are deeply reshaping social, economic, and political settings in both sending and receiving countries. For policymakers, practitioners, and migration researchers, understanding and seeking efficient adaptation policies in such a fast-changing environment is a key priority. The AGRUMIG project aims to support policy solutions to this complex situation, examining the relationship between migrations and “sending communities” in low and middle-income countries, with particular attention to transformations taking place in the agrarian sector.

On September 2, 2022, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, AGRUMIG convened a policy dialogue among the seven countries constituting the AGRUMIG project along with key partners – both national and international. The meeting examined the progress made and barriers faced during project implementation over the past four years. A series of high-profile speeches opened the event from the Directors of three AGRUMIG partners in Kyrgyzstan: (Dr. Elimina Nogoibaeva, Director of the Center Polis Asia); Dr. Alexander Wolters, OSCE Academy Director; and Dr. Roy Sidle, MSRI UCA Director).

Peter Molinga, AGRUMIG Project Coordinator from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and Hans Farnhammer, Head of the Cooperation Section at the European Union Delegation to Kyrgyzstan, also gave opening remarks. All five speakers emphasized the important role out-migration plays as an instrument of local development and its impact on local agriculture while underlining the importance of coordinated policy efforts between sending and receiving countries to best serve the interest of migrants and overall strategic development plans in different countries. They also argued for the need to generate and monitor well-disaggregated, gender-sensitive migration data to support the design of effective and suitable governance policies that would bear more desirable results locally, regionally, and internationally for migrants and their countries.

Each of the seven AGRUMIG countries’ focal points then presented an overview of their respective migration governance issues and relationships with agriculture and rural development. These presentations were organized in two-panel discussions, with the first panel comprising Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, Moldova, and Nepal and the second-panel providing inputs from Morocco, China, and Ethiopia. Each presentation focused on the unique country context regarding migration governance and implications for local development. After the presentations, panellists engaged with the audience on various questions, including commonalities and differences between countries’ policies that could enhance the overall regional or international migration ecosystem. Below are the main takeaway summaries of these various presentations and discussions.

  • Kyrgyzstan: While agricultural GDP is declining, as well as the share of people operating in the agrarian sector, remittances received from outmigration have risen to 30% of the national GDP. In addition, off-farm work comprises 40% of rural employment. However, some striking trends still link migration and the agricultural sector, especially for livestock farming systems. Through remittances, migration sustains both livestock farming systems and the preservation of degraded pasturelands, illustrated in the case of “Song – Kol”, a high alpine pastureland in the Naryn region where a concerted community-led committee of herders manages their pasturelands using remittances received from household members living abroad.
  • Thailand: Similar to the Kyrgyz case, the share of agricultural GDP in the total national GDP is also declining. Migration is a common rural development strategy. Two key issues in migration governance are related to the skills validation of returnee migrants in their local communities and the effectiveness of pre-departure and pre-return training. Usually, the pre-departure training is provided by government officials with little to no migration experience and may not meet the need of migrants in host countries.
  • Moldova: Outmigration is presented as both a threat to national human capital – “the majority of the citizens of Moldova have left their hometowns” – but is also a significant source of remittance flows to finance agricultural activities. To build upon the latter, the government has put in place a set of actions with different investment programs to attract returnee migrants and help them invest in profitable local businesses.
  • Nepal: With millions of Nepalese migrants outside the country, migration is also a strategic development strategy, especially when opportunities are scarce locally. However, unlike the agricultural context in Kyrgyzstan, Nepal has experienced a significant decline in livestock and animal husbandry in general as they lack large pasturelands. The use of shepherds caring for many animals from different households to cut down costs is also not common. However, grain production, including rice, is on the rise mainly due to the availability of irrigated lands. Outmigration has caused a shortage of agricultural labour, a high cost for animal feed, and feminization of the overall workforce in agriculture as men predominantly migrate, leaving women behind.
  • China: Several social and economic changes have occurred, especially in rural areas. Elderly people have been left behind to care for children as most young people move to urban areas for better opportunities. Rural labour outflow has caused an increase in rural wages and income levels as demand is greater than supply. The government has developed some policies, including large investments in agricultural infrastructure, mostly at the national level, but the evaluation process is still unclear, making it challenging to identify successful strategies that could be replicated to enhance development in rural areas.
  • Morocco: The government has put in place a set of policies targeting mostly returnee migrants that span all administrative levels. However, migrants’ personal histories, especially with their home communities, influence how they relate to these policies. For instance, their self-perception about being a “migrant” influences their likelihood of interacting with these local, regional, and national institutions. If a migrant does not identify him/herself as a migrant, he/she will not interact with public bodies, policies, and programs targeting migrants. Also, they are met with some “unrealistic expectations” from their home country as they seek to receive comparable treatments and services to their destination countries.
  • Ethiopia: Unlike the preceding countries, agriculture is still the main contributor to the Ethiopian economy, providing 45-50% of the national GDP and 85% of all employment. Nevertheless, Ethiopia has experienced massive international and internal migration to major cities, including Addis Ababa, and to the Gulf States. Climate change and low productivity of agricultural resources, including lands and water, have led to this major rural mobility. As labour migration becomes an unavoidable phenomenon, the government has also put in place a set of policies to support a positive migration experience for Ethiopians, especially women, in light of several claims of abuse in the Gulf States. These include pre-departure training and programs aimed at creating rural job opportunities in crop and livestock farming. However, these programs have suffered from poor coordination and have not been very effective, especially during the COVID pandemic. There have been also several efforts to provide legal frameworks to foster lawful and formal migration and discourage smuggling and human trafficking, the latter often leading to reported cases of abuse.

Arising from the two-panel sessions, here are the four major policy pointers of cross-cutting relevance:

  1. Returnee migrants are mainly perceived as resource providers or “international wallets.” However, unlike this common view in some countries, they also bring new skillsets and expertise back to their home areas which are often underused as they are seen as unwanted or irrelevant to local economies. For instance, in the case of Thailand, there has been resistance to various changes brought by migrants (e.g. new production systems and new crops) by older generations and more traditional socio-economic structures.
  2. Capacity building migrants’ rights and duties from their home country. The design of pre-departure and pre-return training should not be generic but specific to each receiving country’s context and build upon previous experience and support from diaspora communities. Not considering migrants in all their dimensions (skills, expectations, capacities, and own views, etc) is an obstacle to the success of policies.
  3. Well-disaggregated and gender-sensitive migration data is needed to support the design and implementation of successful migration policies. Many government programs that aim at reaching migrants or supporting their return often fail to deliver their objectives because of a lack of accurate data on the targeted group. A similar experience was reported in China, Kyrgyzstan, and Thailand.
  4. Formal registration of returnee migrants at a community level can be a tool for development and outreach, including recognizing migrants as local development partners. Formal registration would also increase the likelihood of migrants interacting with various national institutions and programs designed for them and would help foster networks and interactions amongst returnees themselves. Also, this registration information can support the best use of their new skill sets – their ‘social remittances’ – and help tailor policies to specific groups.

The policy dialogue ended with the commitment of the organizers and participants to continue raising awareness of migration as a vital and unavoidable development instrument and how concerted policy efforts and legislation are required to maximize migrants’ positive experiences in both receiving countries as well as in their home communities.

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