Migration statistics: our biggest weak spot

May 27, 2009

gurria-birdsallcomposite— Angel Gurría is Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Nancy Birdsall is President of the Center for Global Development. The views expressed are their own. —

All financial crises end. The question is not if we will recover, but how we can build a resilient global economy to speed and bolster that recovery. While many immediate dangers remain, now is the time to look beyond the exigencies of today.

We must take a hard look at weaknesses in the international system that might stand in our way as we rebuild. There are several, but we take this opportunity to highlight one weakness in our ability to build a resilient global economy for the future: the inadequate state of comparable data on international migration.

This is our biggest weak spot on globalization. While many countries collect and publish detailed data on who legally enters or leaves their territory, they do not do it in the same way. In consequence, it is difficult to know clearly and to compare across countries how many persons immigrate and emigrate, for how long and for what reason.  Strangely, it is much easier to get a good picture of global movements of textiles and Treasury Bills than global movements of human beings. Vast disparities in income per head between countries mean that small changes in labor mobility may have large effects on the global economy. But we cannot begin to manage such changes well if the community of nations is not counting even legal migrants in the same, systematic way.

The main obstacle to good statistics is not that labor mobility is such a hot-button political issue. That would tend to raise interest in better data. Rather, the main obstacle is that statistics are a classic “public good”: the benefits are generalized, but the costs are localized. Everyone would gain from better statistics, but the individual governments that must bear the cost of compiling them have competing priorities. Result: decades of international recommendations for better and more comparable migration data have gone largely unheeded. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United Nations, the World Bank, and many others have made great strides towards compiling better public global data, but much more is needed.

That is why, last year, the Center for Global Development in Washington convened a blue-ribbon commission to tackle this issue. It was co-chaired by Patricia Santo Tomas, a former cabinet minister of the Philippines and current chairwoman of the board at the Development Bank of the Philippines, and Lawrence Summers, a Professor at Harvard University prior to joining the Obama administration. The commission brought together a small, stellar group of some of the world’s top experts on migration data. It asked the group to name five ways to improve international migration data in the short term, within existing institutions, at the lowest cost.

The resulting report, Migration Counts: Five steps toward better international migration data, starts with the simple recommendation that every census on earth include a small number of questions relevant to migration.  These include, “In what country were you born?”  Answers to this simple question, asked in every country, can be a powerful tool in systematically tracking all types of international movement. The 2010-11 round of censuses is already beginning, but this basic question is still not even asked in many countries where migration is important and growing—including Japan, Mexico, Korea, the Philippines, and Egypt.

The other recommendations suggest ways to compile and release data that governments already collect but that are often not easily accessible,  and ways that existing household surveys in developing countries can help us learn more about migration at low cost. At every stage the commission makes it clear exactly who should execute each step. One recommendation proposes that the OECD compile and house a database of existing Labor Force Surveys from around the world and the Organization is already working to do that.   Implementation of all of the Commission’s recommendations will require international collaboration and national support.

If the crisis has taught us anything, it is that we cannot address issues of international migration in the global economy on the basis of inadequate data. We cannot build a stronger world economy for our children without better information about one of the significant forces that will shape that economy. There is much that national governments and international agencies can do. The time for perfect migration data is still far off, but the time for better migration data is now.


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Gaining good migration statistics also means having a government that can effectively track where everybody goes and when. In an ideal world, we are better off not having a government with that kind of ability. Just look at the situation right now with the economy. The government controls the house (using a casino analogy), interest rates, the flow of information, the bloggers on Reuters and therefore stock prices.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

“Implementation of all of the Commission’s recommendations will require international collaboration and national support” I suspect is where this ideal will succeed or fail.
I’m not entirely convinced that the various governments around the world will collaborate and at least in the UK the government will need to rebuild it’s credibility to get national support.
I’m sure there will be lots of people who will look with suspicion for ulterior motives behind a political system that has blotted it’s copy-book and wants information on your ethnicity.
(I left the country I was born in, Australia, when I was 1.5 years old, and have lived in quite a few different countries for forty something years, so how would that fit in? My mum was born in the Argentine and has lived in many different countries, my dad was born in the UK and has lived in many different countries… although I must admit that possibly wouldn’t be the experience of the majority of the world’s citizens. I’m not too worried by say the US, UK wanting my ethnic info, but what about in say 15 years time when a different world may exist? Would I want an Adolf Hitler type leader having my ethnic info?)

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive