Tuesday, 3 October 2017

My PhD odyssey with Migrating out of Poverty

By Jon Sward,

In August, after five years of hard work, my PhD odyssey – which included a studentship with Migrating out of Poverty – came to a happy conclusion when I submitted the corrections to my thesis, following my viva voce exam in February.

When I started my PhD journey, I knew that I wanted to focus on the relationship between migration, poverty reduction, and the environment at migration destinations in low-income contexts. This was in October 2012, and I had spent a good chunk of the past half-year taking part in follow-up activities with key policy stakeholders in relation to the Foresight Report on Migration and Global Environmental Change. The report provided an overview of the state-of-science on climate migration, drawing on 70 working papers from scholars around the globe. Among the key findings of the report was that in future decades people were likely to be in increasingly moving into areas that are affected by dramatic environmental changes, and yet the nascent body of research evidence at the time on the ‘climate-migration nexus’ was mainly preoccupied with how environmental factors contributed to out-migration in migration ‘origin areas’.

I was interested in looking at how things were panning out for migrants at other end of the migratory chain, and how environmental change was part of this equation. These rather vague origins eventually led me to alight on internal migration to rural agricultural areas in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region. One of my supervisors, Prof Dominic Kniveton, suggested I consider using ‘complex adaptive systems’ (CAS) theory as a way to frame my research – and I’m glad I did as this framework helped my re-think the ways I saw migration and climate relations, and led me to a set of questions I probably would not have encountered otherwise. CAS theory is based on the notion that human systems and the environment are co-evolving, and that the actions of agents underlie larger patterns and processes. Rather than staying in equilibrium, however, human and environmental relations are continuously being re-formed through feedback processes and non-linear relations. CAS theory invites a thorough analysis of the positioning of social actors within wider structures, and an understanding of the ongoing dialogue between these social actors and the environment.  

As part of my PhD, I conducted qualitative research with three communities in Brong Ahafo, which were mainly comprised of migrant farmers from Northern Ghana. CAS theory gave me a framework to explore the relationships between in-migration, changing land tenure norms under which farmers were acquiring land, and the impact of environmental change (especially rainfall variability and bushfires) on these migrants’ livelihoods. Their  livelihoods were embedded in larger agricultural supply chains that link rural Ghana to global markets, while also being mediated by varying social, monetary and other types of capital on the local level and weather patterns which migrants claimed were becoming increasingly erratic.

I found highly differentiated livelihoods among my interview participants across the three sites. This suggested that those who had arrived in the region when land tenure norms were comparatively good, or who had significant social capital within these ‘stranger’ communities, had sometimes been highly successful since migrating to Brong Ahafo. However, many of their migrant counterparts were – as they put it – ‘farming at a loss’, and were struggling to eke out a living through tenant farming.

One of the things that struck me about the tenant farmers I worked with as part of my PhD research was how invisible they were at the level of national policy, to say nothing of international donors’ agendas. Despite the repeated refrain that development policy should help ‘the poorest’, often those who are truly at the margins are left unheard. In a round-about way, these insights led me to my new post-PhD line of work, which while building on my focus on environmental change, doesn’t have a migration element, at least for now. In August, I started a new job at the Bretton Woods Project, a World Bank and IMF watchdog based in London. As the Environment Project Manager, I am developing a new environmental advocacy focus that will build on the Bretton Woods Project’s historical focus on monitoring the Bank’s role in climate finance and investing in energy infrastructure projects in developing countries. We are entering a pivotal global moment in terms of efforts to deal with the existential threat that anthropogenic climate change poses. Although the Bank has been quick to identify the problem of climate change – probably shouting the loudest about it amongst multilateral development banks – change on its operational side has not been swift, and between 2008-2015 it poured some $25 billion into investment in fossil fuels according to Oil Change International.

Like all big institutions, adapting to climate change for the World Bank will be painful but necessary if it wants to carry out its mission of poverty reduction that will reach the poorest, who are often most at risk of climate change’s impacts. Too often, the solutions to these problems have been linear, technical solutions – we’re entering a tough new world, and we need to understand the complexities that underpin it.

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