Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The ways that remittances shape youths’ educational and occupational life paths in Bangladesh

By Dorte Thorsen

Tangail is a district in central Bangladesh, where migration to Southeast Asia and the Middle East is born of poverty. Most of the households are considered poor, though to different degrees related to how food secure they are. Those who engage in migration are mostly from middling poor households. After the first priority of satisfying consumption needs is met, remittances are used for investment in property (land and housing) and in the education of the next generation. It is this investment in education that is of interest when thinking about how remittances shape youths’ life paths, but it is not just a question of being able to afford education or not.

Over the past months I have enjoyed working with the authors of the new Migrating out of Poverty Working Paper 40. which addresses how international migration and the availability of remittances shape left-behind rural youths’ ideas of what a good future involves and how it can be pursued. The paper takes a step further than previous analyses and explores the cultural, social and economic dimensions underpinning youth aspirations and pathways. It demonstrates that gender and generational inequality impact on youths' capacity to aspire and that all youths do not benefit equally from the opportunity spaces created by remittances.

Remittance-education-gender linkages

Youths’ opportunity for pursuing education is influenced by a number of factors. In Tangail, education is seen as a means to upward social mobility and youths - irrespective of their age, gender and economic circumstances - aspire to complete higher secondary school. They are much less interested in higher education. This is often because it is more difficult to access and because youths are under pressure 'to be established'.

The economic standing of households and the perception that education equates social mobility affects youths’ ability and interest in pursuing education. The investment of remittances enables youths from migrant household to attend school, at least until they have completed higher secondary school and sometimes also in higher education. But the opportunity space for education is also determined by norms outlining men’s and women’s social positions and responsibilities in adult life. Male youth are to become breadwinners and, eventually, heads of households, while young women are to become care-givers and home-makers.

Male youths

The gender norms related to male youths can enable access to education if school certificates and diplomas have been a pathway to secure employment for others. However, gender norms can also be constraining if parents are pushing for their son to become established as a breadwinner. The opportunity space for education intersects with concerns about the temporality of migration in a complicated manner. The preference for education can be underpinned by a desire for the longer-term security of regular payment, pension schemes etc. associated with government employment. The choice to leave education can also be rooted in the stopping of remittances or the need for a son to replace an ailing migrant father or mother by travelling for work.

Perceptions of social and economic status affect male youths’ educational and occupational choices. Government jobs are popular because they are perceived to offer long-term security, whereas migration is often seen as a temporary income. Again, opportunity spaces grow and shrink as a result of migration and remittance sending. On the one hand, remittances may allow youths to pursue the pathway(s) they desire the most by allocating money to education and the bribes necessary to land a government job. Remittances also allow youths to migrate. On the other hand, the experiences passed on by migrants about the hardships of migration affect youths’ perception of desirable destinations and migrant occupations and may sway their preference towards government jobs.

Female youths

Female youths’ future role as care-givers is intimately connected to marriage. In a setting where daughters are married off when they are 15-19 years old, female youths rarely have space to continue education beyond higher secondary school. An interesting point emerging from the research is that educated women are considered better mothers. So even if the role as care-giver limits the length of time spent in education, it consolidates the opportunity space for female youths to complete higher secondary school.

Opportunity spaces for youth to make choices about their occupation are closely linked with cultural and social constructions of what type of work is suitable for female and male youths. The emphasis on women’s care-giving responsibilities in the home and the idea that they are unable to make decisions and need protection shrinks the opportunity spaces for rural female youths. They rarely pursue jobs within Bangladesh and they do not become migrants. Only divorced and widowed women and women whose husband does not meet his economic responsibilities go abroad to work. The desired pathway for female youths is marriage, and only marriage failure opens other opportunity spaces. That said remittances do shape female youths’ marriages. They allow for a wider choice of marriage partners if remittances are allocated to pay the dowry and they may allow for a marriage to break down because the family can support a divorced daughter and her children. Yet, the reliance on remittances to pay the dowry may also push for an earlier marriage if remittances are soon to dry up.

Fresh insights

Through its intriguing combination of Appadurai's concept of the capacity to aspire and feminist approaches to understanding intra-household behaviour, the paper exposes ways in which the cultural and socio-economic dimensions of migration can be enabling and constraining at the same time, in different ways for female and male youths. It is this analysis that has brought out fresh insights into the conundrums of how remittances affect female and male youths’ life paths.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The View from Cuff Road

By So Young Chang
Being a migrant worker rights’ advocate can mean confronting very unflattering aspects of a society. It means challenging ideas around national identity, the right to belong, pathways to citizenship, and other sensitive topics. Considering the civil society landscape in Singapore, I picked up on the perception that many NGOs working on migrant support and advocacy are spearheaded by expats.

That made me curious. What does this imply for the NGOs and their impact? How do the “expats” position themselves and present their message? What compels them to campaign for the rights of outsiders as someone who might be perceived as an outsider by others? Do they tend to appeal to globally established norms around human rights? The context lends itself to thinking critically about what makes an activist and what it means to be an activist. What are the values and ideals that one fights for and just how universal are they?

Debbie’s story
Debbie makes her way to Little India on weekday mornings around 07:30. She has committed to this routine practice of volunteerism and humanitarianism for many years. I first find her huddled around a table outside a small restaurant in Little India, surrounded by a crowd of men, each eager to tell a story that she would diligently document and process, the way she has been doing for many years now. Isthana Restaurant serves free meals to migrant workers who are awaiting decisions on various claims related to their salaries and/or injuries in their precarious work. Since its beginning in March 2008, the Cuff Roads project has served more than 660,000 meals to migrant workers. Varying degrees of injustice connect the men who go there with their makan cards (meal cards).

Her presence around the block is evident from the way every passerby nods with a smile when we walk down the street to have breakfast together. This is a lady who hosted migrant workers in her own home for more than six years. She seems to be motivated by something special, not satisfied with just doing things from a comfortable distance. In a previous interview she had spoken about being invited back to the villages of those she had helped. But the story she shares over freshly made roti blurs the narrative of a moralist whose world is black and white.

She recalled an occasion when she had gone to great lengths to assist a migrant worker. She had accepted an invitation to visit his family and his community. On arrival, she received a warm welcome from everyone, but at some point later, a different attitude emerged. For him, the fact that she had been able to travel there to meet with him sent a message to him, his relatives, and his neighbours. This must mean that she is a very important person whose resources and connections would then be able to benefit him in a transformative manner. “But now you’re not giving me anything more”, he pleaded.

On hearing Debbie tell this story, the first word that surfaced in my mind was betrayal. I voice this to her. But Debbie insists that she does not see it as such. Her response is, simply: “How can you blame them?” There is depth behind these words. It reveals genuine empathy honed through experience. Since that encounter, she merely allows herself more room to discern which friendships are worth continuing.

And friendship is a word that Debbie emphasises several times. It’s what sustains her work despite her pessimism about the current migrant situation in Singapore. She believes that the exploitation of migrant workers under the modern labour migration regime is going to worsen in the coming decades. And while there are those amongst us who would crusade for structural change, Debbie takes a different approach.

Debbie tells me: “There’s nothing I can do to really address the disparity of wealth within a community except as an individual, and if you have a close friend who’s really in need, you’ll do what you can.”

Be kinder than you need to be, expand your circle
Debbie sees the migrant workers who come to Cuff Road as potential friends. It would be hypocritical, she says, not to try her best to help when she has the voice and the means to improve the situation for someone who is sitting across the table from her. And suddenly, her exceptional actions make sense: this spirit of seeing every individual at eye level is what allows her to go that extra length. She sees each migrant worker for the totality of his circumstances. Opening up to interpersonal relationships can mean enriching insights, albeit not all of these will be straightforward affirmations for “doing good”. Through it all she has harnessed a remarkable capacity for compassion, which makes her daily work all the more valuable and impactful. For others who want to get involved and help out, she just tells them this:

“Be kinder than you need to be. Be kind to people outside your own circle. Be assertive, even aggressive when necessary. And reach out to people and understand things from their point of view, not your point of view.”

That circle can be defined by socioeconomic status, skin colour, or nationality, and these are hurdles that we all have to learn to go beyond. This can mean seeing the construction workers lifting concrete blocks as sons, brothers, and husbands who are shouldering the livelihoods of entire families back home. This can also mean seeing “expats” for their actions and messages rather than their accent or appearance. Differentiating the ‘other’ may be a biological impulse. But finding the familiar in the foreign and embracing the humanity in another are virtues. It is quietly remarkable how Debbie, and others like her, allow others to breathe easier, one by one, one at a time.

What Debbie taught me is that seeing the same view from one street every morning can impart immense wisdom. During our interview, she adds that we need to be less attached to outcomes. We shouldn’t refrain from doing something just because we may not succeed.

The ultimate irony may be that she doesn’t quite believe in advocating for universal human rights. Perhaps this calls for another blog post and another visit to Little India to ask her why.

Debbie is a long-time volunteer with a local NGO called Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), working under the banner of the Cuff Road Project (TCRP) which she began. Born in the US, she has been living in Singapore since the 1970s and is a familiar face to many locals for her advocacy work. Her story was featured in an Al Jazeera special, and she has helped to edit a book titled A Thousand and One Days: Stories of hardship from South Asian Migrant Workers in Singapore.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Seven reasons why the FAO has got it wrong about distress migration

“Migrants are a potential resource for agriculture and rural development as well as poverty reduction in their areas of origin. However, distress migration of rural youth can result in the loss of an important share of the most vital and dynamic part of the workforce, with obvious consequences for agricultural productivity. This infographic describes the root causes of rural youth distress migration and how out-migration and remittances can contribute to rural development, poverty reduction and food security.”

Predictably this has led to tweets such as “Distress #migration of youth saps agric workforce & undermines food security”; “Agriculture #RuralDevelopment can help #DistressMigration” which can easily be read to mean that migration by those who come from poor families is a problem and agriculture is always adversely affected by young people’s migration.

There are several problems with the rationale presented in the infographic:
1. Young people migrate for both economic and non-economic reasons. In the graphic the causes for distress migration of youth are identified as food insecurity, poverty etc. These may well be the proximate economic causes but inextricably bound up with these are other aspirational causes such as wanting to become an urban person and changing one’s identity; wanting to move away from traditional norms and cultural restrictions on behaviour and life choices.  Our research on migration from chronically poor areas illustrates the complexity of the migration decision calling into question simplistic categories such as distress migrants. For example boys and girls in Ethiopia migrated for a variety of reasons including the desire to continue with higher education, adopt urban lifestyles, escape early marriage and save money of their own to start a business and move away from farming.

2. The situation described is based on cross-sectional analysis, frozen in one point in time. As such it does not consider how the situation of migrants and their social and economic position might change over time. An approach grounded in the analysis of the temporality of migration drivers and outcomes would show how migration is incorporated into the life course of individuals and households and how short term deprivation and hardship may be traded against social and economic repositioning in the longer term. Emerging findings from our research in Ghana and Bangladesh on the migration of young people from poor households shows the transformative potential of migration over time.

3. An underlying assumption seems to be that reducing poverty at source can reduce migration. But we know from experience that this is not the case at all and in fact migration tends to increase with improved access to resources as both Skeldon and Martin have demonstrated years ago.

4. The experience of rural employment programmes in reducing migration is mixed. It cannot be assumed that creating jobs in rural areas will reduce migration. We need to ask what kind of jobs are being created and whether these are in sync with young people’s vision of who they want to be?

5.  People in remittances receiving households withdraw from work but this doesn't necessarily indicate an unhealthy dependence on remittances.  As has been argued by Clemens, instead it could mean that those left behind no longer have to work in degrading and demeaning occupations.

6. It is not clear whether the negative impacts of “distress migration” shown in the infographic are based on empirical evidence or whether they are  purely hypothetical based on old theories such as lost labour theory. The migration of young people from labour surplus situations or large households may not have such consequences. Even in households where other able bodied adults are not present, there may be community or kinship based systems of sharing labour.

7.  If distress migration is defined as migration that is undertaken when it is perceived to be the only option out of poverty this suggests that staying at home is a worse option. So it begs the question – how is migration then a worse outcome than staying at home?