The Trump administration continues to push for large cuts to foreign aid, prompting sharp criticism from lawmakers as well as former military leaders. The president also calls for U.S. aid to focus on “friends,” despite widespread criticism of this proposed change. Unlike these much-discussed policy proposals, there has been little public focus on the possibility that the government will reallocate aid to address migration concerns at the expense of other policy priorities. Yet this is a likely outcome, in the United States and across many donor countries.
Migration policy and foreign aid move together
Our research shows that when donor governments take a more restrictive stance on migration, they are likely to cut overall aid. They are also likely to direct remaining funds more heavily toward recipient countries that send large numbers of migrants to the donor.
In addition to the current U.S. administration, Britain, Austria, Australia, France, and Scandinavian countries as well as new Central European donor nations have passed or considered more restrictive immigration policies. Collectively these donors represent more than half of aid flows from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.
Redistributing aid to complement migration policy can be counterproductive. It diverts aid from other purposes and increases the disadvantage felt by some of the poorest countries. And it likely does little to further the migration goals of donor governments.
The logic for using aid as a form of migration policy is simple, but flawed. As we show in our article, policymakers in Europe and the United States advocate enhanced development, financed through foreign aid, as a way to increase satisfaction in the home country. The theory is that increasing education, providing job opportunities and generally increasing economic growth will lower the desire to leave.
From Prime Minister David Cameron and now Theresa May, who backed the increase of British aid to 0.7 percent of GDP, to the Obama administration’s establishment of the Alliance for Prosperity aid program with Central America — a program that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently reaffirmed — governments often justify spending on foreign aid as a means to lower migration by increasing well-being in likely migrant-sending areas.
Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel show that this approach is unlikely to be effective. At many levels of development, slight increases in well-being lead to an increase, rather than a decrease, in the likelihood of emigration. As the authors note, “greater economic opportunity at home might reduce the incentive for workers to invest in migrating abroad for work, but also increases their ability to make that investment.”
Using aid as migration policy comes at a cost
Despite lack of evidence that foreign aid deters migration, donor governments do link aid and migration policy. We show that donors, on average, provide large migrant-sending states with substantially more aid compared to states that send fewer migrants. This general effect of migration on aid is even larger when a donor adopts more restrictive migration policies. Thus recent donor reforms on migration will lead to changes in the distribution of foreign aid away from other purposes and toward migrant-sending countries.
Shifts are already occurring. Within U.S. aid programs, workers are gearing up for an 80 percent decrease in funding to fight infectious disease epidemics in developing countries, most with low levels of migration to the United States. This will hinder the ability to detect disease early, ultimately increasing the risk of pandemic disease in the United States.
In addition to detracting from other priorities, the reallocation of aid will have a negative impact on poorer, more disconnected states. States connected to donors through migration — the countries that benefit from the remittances sent back by family members who emigrate — are also likely to receive more aid. The poorest countries send fewer migrants and will see their aid cut, reinforcing a trend of less aid to least-developed states.
Weighing the impact of proposed aid changes
The distortion created by using aid as migration policy may end up having a larger impact on aid spending than the Trump administration’s proposals to redirect aid to “friends” or drastically cut the U.S. aid budget. The FY19 budget proposal belies the idea that aid will dry up for many of the countries that voted against the United States on the U.N. resolution regarding Israel, contrary to remarks in the State of the Union address.
Congress will almost certainly soften the administration’s proposed cuts to foreign aid — this is how the budget scenario played out last year. These reforms proposed by the Trump administration may have limited effect in the end, as Congress controls the purse strings. And they obviously only affect U.S. aid.
On the other hand, in this time of restrictive migration policies across many countries, multiple donors will reallocate aid in a fruitless attempt to decrease migration. This will divert funds from critical areas such as food security and health in some of the poorest countries. It will have a negative impact on other donor priorities and significantly affect the distribution of aid across recipients.
Sarah Bermeo is assistant professor of public policy and political science, and faculty affiliate of the Duke Center for International Development at Duke University. She is the author of Targeted Development: Industrialized Country Strategy in a Globalizing World (Oxford, 2018).
David Leblang is a professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a professor of politics and public policy at the Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy where he directs the Global Policy Center.