Feb/Mar 2011

The Global Edge

The new geography of immigration has remade the world economy

Jonathan Shainin


Before I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2007, one of the few things I knew about the United Arab Emirates was that it was home to a vast army of slave labor, imported from the Indian subcontinent to build Pharaoh's new glass-and-steel pyramids—not to mention staffing his grocery shops and gas stations, weeding his gardens, sweeping his floors, and paving his roads.

This impression—of subaltern workers oppressed and exploited by oil-rich Gulf Arabs—was not necessarily inaccurate: The worst-off of these laborers are housed in cramped compounds, defrauded by agents in their home countries and saddled with crippling debts, vulnerable to abuse by employers, and generally treated as fourth-class citizens. Even in the local press—whose primary function is to glorify and celebrate the country's rulers—one finds a regular diet of stories detailing the innumerable miseries visited on guest workers.

But this ugly picture is an incomplete one: In spite of these often-brutal circumstances, laborers continue to arrive in Dubai and Abu Dhabi by the planeload, working for years, and even decades, in a place where they will never be granted any form of citizenship. It may seem callous to observe that no one is forcing these men and women to leave their villages for the hardships of the Gulf, but the economic incentives are clear: A watchman, whose salary is likely to be appalling (to Western eyes), nevertheless could be earning ten times what he would have had he stayed home—which is where he proceeds to send most of his wages. Remittances from the UAE alone add up to roughly $10 billion per year—a figure equivalent to nearly 10 percent of the world's international aid—while total global remittances to developing countries now top $250 billion: Migration, in other words, is considerably more important as a factor in international development than foreign and humanitarian aid.

Hailing the infamously bad working conditions in the Persian Gulf as the best hope for lifting the developing world out of poverty is a notion that only an economist could love. And no economist loves it more than Lant Pritchett. A Harvard professor, World Bank alumnus, and protégé of Larry Summers—not a man usually regarded as a friend to the poor—Pritchett has become the world's most enthusiastic and persuasive evangelist for nearly unrestricted labor migration. Poor countries, he argues, have suffered outsize blows from every big idea in the development toolbox, from the macro-economic shock treatment of "structural adjustment" to feel-good innovations like microfinance. What they need now is simply for their citizens to leave for richer countries, make money, and send some of it home.

Pritchett's name doesn't appear in Arrival City, a new book by the Canadian journalist Doug Saunders, except in a couple endnotes. But Saunders, who has traversed the globe to assemble a magnificent anecdotal treatise on the virtues of migration, provides a persuasive illustration of the power of Pritchett's big idea. Poverty and wealth belong to people, not places, even though we talk of poor countries and villages. Pritchett dismisses this latter idea as "dirt-based thinking." Under this view, when a man leaves his poor village for a poor neighborhood in a city, neither place benefits; the village is still just as poor, while the city has one more poor person added to its ranks. The conventional method of keeping score, in other words, pays no attention to the increased wealth or well-being of the migrant.

This inherited wisdom is precisely what Saunders has set out to demolish. Looking at about twenty "arrival cities"—the neighborhoods or peripheral areas where rural migrants first touch down—he argues, in short, that rural-to-urban migration is the greatest engine for social mobility the world has ever seen. "The arrival city," he writes, with a partially justified utopian zeal, "is a machine that transforms humans." These marginal neighborhoods, often described merely as slums and usually looking every bit the part, are critical zones of transition, footholds for impoverished villagers to establish themselves, however tenuously, at the bottom of booming urban economies. Saunders is not lacking for examples: the Mumbai chai-wallah who supports his family back in the village with $32 each month, the family of Bangladeshi villagers who have gone "from a dirt floor to the centre of British life" since arriving in London less than forty years ago, or the Salvadoran immigrant in South Central LA who started as a day laborer, apprenticed at a Korean sign manufacturer, and today runs his own neon-sign-making shop.

In the next forty years, the world's cities will absorb another 3.1 billion people—and humanity, now evenly split between the country and the city, will become an urban species once and for all. These statistics invite dystopian paeans to the sub-Dickensian squalor of teeming squatter megacities like Lagos and Dhaka, of the sort evoked in the title of Mike Davis's apocalyptic Planet of Slums. But Saunders sees "the final great human migration" as an entirely positive development. There is no space here for romanticized evocations of the simple pastoral life: "Rural living," he notes, "is the largest single killer of humans today, the greatest source of malnutrition, infant mortality and reduced lifespans." "Thatched roofs may be picturesque," he writes elsewhere, before continuing with a nod to Thomas Hobbes, "but life beneath them is short, hard, disease-ridden, and prone to bouts of starvation."

If a misplaced nostalgia has occluded our vision of rural deprivation, as Saunders forcefully contends, the popular impression of arrival cities has been no less distorted. "We tend to see them as fixed entities," he writes, "an accumulation of inexpensive dwellings containing poor people, usually in less than salubrious conditions." These neighborhoods are poor, and they often stay poor; but when such portals into the new global economy work properly, poor people merely pass through them, taking advantage of cheap rent, squatted land, or improvised dwellings to partake of the intensity of urban commerce. The arrival city, in Saunders's account, is less a place than a "set of functions": It takes people in; connects them to others (often from their village or region of origin); allows the accumulation of social and real capital, through education, labor, and landholding; and spurs upward mobility, which often leads out of the arrival city and into the urban core. "If people are flowing through" the arrival city, Saunders concludes, "transformed into full-fledged contributors to the life of the city whether they leave the arrival city or stay there, then it is working."

Determining what makes the arrival city "work," however, is not a simple task. In his expansive tour of global arrival sites from Amsterdam to Toronto, Saunders finds failure as often as he does success. He attributes most of the dysfunction in arrival zones to government mismanagement: Authoritarian states like China try to block migration, aware that the rapidly massed political power of urban arrivals has sparked revolutions from Paris in 1789 to Tehran in 1979; xenophobic Europeans, as in France and Germany, obstruct integration both physically and politically, stranding new migrants in modernist concrete tower blocks and denying them citizenship. Most cities and governments continue to regard arrivals as a blight or a threat, failing to grant them crucial services such as streetlights, bus lines, and schools—that is, when bureaucrats don't simply bulldoze migrant slums and informal settlements outright.

Ostensibly well-intentioned government interventions fare only slightly better: "Slum-redevelopment projects" like the one Saunders sees rising in Kibera, an enormous slum in Nairobi, disrupt and dismantle the intricate networks of the arrival city in favor of sterile apartment blocks. The land-titling miracle cure hawked by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto—which was supposed to unlock trillions of dollars in capital under the feet of slum dwellers by granting them ownership of the land on which they were squatting—produced impressive results in a few places but made no difference or worsened matters elsewhere.

The problem for Saunders—and for the arrival city itself—is that, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, migrant hubs have many more ways to fail (or to be failed) than they have to succeed. Myopic policies, especially where migrants are concerned, serve as good politics; enlightened planning only wins votes when a polity is finally forced to address the legacy of planning's earlier absence. Saunders's success stories tend to begin with benign neglect—as the arrival city takes its emergent form, dense and improvised—and to end with carefully tailored state interventions. These efforts typically go well beyond legal measures like title granting, he notes, to include "a wide and expensive range of government-funded services and supports." One does not need to be a cynic, alas, to suspect that cities and nations may not apply their best policies to their worst neighborhoods. But for those who are wise enough to try, Saunders has written the manual.

Jonathan Shainin is an editor at The Caravan. He lives in Delhi.

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