Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Migration and Remittances will be Critical in Post-Earthquake Reconstruction in Nepal

With nearly 30% of its GDP owed to international remittances, and a significant proportion owed to internal remittances, Nepal is already heavily dependent on migration and remittances. If the experience of other disaster-affected countries in Asia (e.g. Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the Tsunami) is anything to go by, migration will probably increase in the aftermath of the recent earthquakes a) because opportunities for local employment will have been badly affected b) because remittances will be needed to rebuild lives and c) because there will be a need for labour in reconstruction. This increase in migration will be both internal and international.

There is ample evidence to show that remittances are counter-cyclical, peaking after disasters and providing much needed finance directly to those who need it. We could see an increase in both national and international remittances flowing into Nepal in the coming months. There were between 2-4 million Nepalis working abroad before the earthquake hit and hundreds of thousands circulating between rural and urban areas working in construction and other low paid jobs. Newspaper reports suggests that many workers returned home after the earthquake struck; roughly a million people in Kathmandu returned to their villages and many of these were circular migrants who were temporarily in the city to work.  There were also reports that contractors and agents had taken teams of workers back to the rural areas that they came from. But this will probably be short-lived - it is very likely that there will be a spurt in people migrating internally for construction work once the pace of reconstruction picks up.

Migration for construction work is an important type of rural-urban migration, absorbing large numbers of poor and poorly educated people from lower social strata in rural areas. It provides a vital source of income in the agriculturally lean season and helps to sustain and augment rural incomes.  Research conducted under the auspices of the Migrating out of Poverty Consortium in Kathmandu and two rural locations (a typical “Hill” village in Kavre district and a “Plains” village in the Terai plains in Saptari district) shows how important migration for construction work is for rural livelihoods in Nepal. Interviews at destination with 150 migrant construction workers revealed that despite insecure and dangerous working conditions, a majority remitted money to their families which helped them to improve consumption, educate their children, fund marriages and ceremonies, buy durables and in a few cases, purchase land and houses.  In both villages households with migrants were better off than those with no migrants. Income and expenditure figures, as well as land and asset purchase, show that there is a clear correlation between migration and greater material wealth, as well as more spending on education.  The research also shows how cultural and gender norms determine whether or not women can migrate and who, within the family, decides how remittances are used. While Tamang women from the indigenous communities of the Hill village had no cultural restrictions on migration, very few women among the Hindu Madhesis in the plains migrated for work due to cultural norms and stereotypes about women’s work.  It was also reported that Tamang women have more control over how remittances are spent compared with Madhesi women, although the data were too limited to see any specific outcomes of these differences. 

These findings are useful to inform the current reconstruction and rebuilding effort. It is critically important that government and aid agencies work with migrants rather than against them first and foremost by not obstructing or trying to limit mobility. It also means providing complimentary and supportive services based on a sound understanding of 1) the importance of internal migration and remittances for rural households, especially the poor 2) the gender dynamics of migration and remittance use so that interventions target the right people. While official channels such as banks and money transfer companies are likely to be adversely affected by the disruption to their infrastructure and computers, personal and informal channels assume greater importance.  It is important that these mechanisms for transferring money are not penalised and criminalised as is the wont of the paranoid official financial monitoring systems.

For further information contact Priya Deshingkar, University of Sussex. 
The full paper by Jagannath Adhikari and Priya Deshingkar (2015) How Migration into Urban Construction Work Impacts on Rural Households in Nepal. Working Paper 27, Migrating out of Poverty Consortium, University of Sussex can be accessed here: How Migration into Urban Construction Work Impacts on Rural Households in Nepal