Integrating Migration and Remittances into LDC National and Regional Development Planning, including through a Gender Perspective

Date: 12 May 2011

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet delivered the opening address at the event titled “Integrating Migration and Remittances into LDC National and Regional Development Planning, including through a Gender Perspective, during the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV), Istanbul, 12 May 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Honourable Ministers, Excellencies, Distinguished Colleagues,

It is a privilege and pleasure to partner with the International Organization for Migration; the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States; the Governments of Benin and the Philippines; and Women's World Banking on this panel on Integrating Migration and Remittances into LDC Development Planning, including through a Gender Perspective.

Migration and development is attracting attention of more and more players, particularly as it affects LDCs. For UN Women this has two essential elements: protecting migrant women's rights and enabling them to contribute more fully to economic development.

Perhaps the best known aspect of the migration and development nexus is remittances, the money that migrant workers send back to their families or use to invest in small businesses. There are many stories of women migrant workers, even poor women, who migrate for domestic work — who have returned from these jobs to start up small businesses — auto-rickshaw rentals in Nepal, small grocery stores in Africa, purchase of farm land, investing in agricultural technology and enhancing farm incomes in the Philippines, tour guide businesses or dive shops in the Caribbean — or play an important role in family and community decision-making. These women are positive role models for young women in their communities, helping to improve standards of living for families and communities, enhance human capital and play leadership roles at local levels.

For governments, remittances are also an important source of foreign exchange, serving to offset trade deficits and reduce pressures on local currencies. In the last decade, remittances have emerged as the second largest source of external funding for developing countries, with transfers far exceeding the volume of official aid and foreign direct investment flows to many developing countries.

For families and communities, remittances also represent long-distance links of solidarity and obligation that connect female and male migrants with their relatives and friends at home. Further, migration also facilitates the transfer of ideas, skills, innovations, culture — social remittances — that change ways of thinking and relating.

However, we have yet to grasp and maximize the full potential and impact of migration and remittances on development, factoring in, among several things, both the costs and benefits to migrant women and their families; the social, economic and political risks of becoming remittance-dependent; and the potential inequalities that migration and remittances can generate in contexts of origin.

A key marker of today's global migration flows is the entry of women, who constituted about half of an estimated 215 million international migrants in 2010 [1]. Between 1960 and 2005, the proportion of women migrants increased from 46.7 percent to 49.6 percent [2]. Most of these are now migrating in search of work, whether temporary or more long term. They are being recruited into a growing number of woman-specific jobs in the formal and informal manufacturing and service sectors, but the bulk of poor migrant women workers are concentrated at the lower ends of the unprotected job hierarchy in domestic work and the hospitality sector.

Despite this, women contribute significantly to countries of destination by way of their labour, skills and expenditures, and to countries of origin by way of economic and social remittances. In most countries, however, the data on remittances is not disaggregated by sex, making it hard to get a full picture of the volume of women migrant workers' contribution to development in countries of origin.

Where data or studies do exist, they point to the untapped potential of remittances by women migrant workers. Data from Nepal suggest that women working abroad sent home 7.6 million rupees in 1997, 11 percent of the total [3]. More recent estimates suggest that women's remittances constitute about 23 percent of Nepal's GDP [4]. A 2006 Asian Development Bank study in East and Southeast Asia found that nearly 2 million migrants, mostly women, remitted over US$3 billion from Hong Kong, China, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, averaging from US$300 to US$500 per month [5].

Studies by UN Women and others show that women typically save and send home a greater share of their earnings than men; they are more frequent and consistent remitters, continuing to support children and extended families, even in the face of marital breakdown; and they are more willing to respond to unforeseen needs, including those of extended family. Regardless of who is remitting, women tend to be the major recipients, either because they are in vulnerable situations — widowed, divorced, ill, or disabled — or because they are seen as better managers, tending in most cases to invest not in themselves but in household or community wellbeing. By contrast, men tend to spend more on consumer items or to make investments in property or livestock — which often do not pass on to women in the event of widowhood or divorce, or whose benefits are often unequally enjoyed within the household [6].

Many migrant women, especially those in higher-skilled occupations, also benefit from cultural exchange, exposure to new ideas, skills, attitudes and knowledge. They develop independence and self-confidence. Their roles as financial providers or managers of remittances have enabled them to enjoy greater status and decision-making power within their households and communities, transforming relationships between men and women. This, however, depends on several factors — the economic success of women migrants; the opportunities for women to organize for change; the extent of efforts to engage with men; and the receptivity of communities to embrace, own and sustain that change.

Challenges to protecting migrant women's wellbeing and optimizing the development benefits of migration, however, persist. The predominance of women, many of whom are undocumented, in the unprotected, low-wage informal sector, trapped in debt bondage and frequently subject to abuse, the high costs of remittance transfers, and difficulties in negotiating institutional procedures are some factors that reduce women migrant workers' productivity and wellbeing, and lower the amounts they would otherwise earn and transfer.

Further, there are several structural barriers to women investing remittances outside of the family — the commercial orientation of banks who do not see poor women with small savings as target clientele; collateral requirements or the need for documentation bearing signatures of male relatives that obstruct women's independent access to credit; a lack of financial products that women can invest in or women's lack of financial literacy; women's lack of access to enterprise development mentoring and market training tailored to women's businesses. When women do invest remittances in businesses, these tend to be small because of a small capital base; dependent on unpaid family labour; encumbered by women's multiple, especially domestic, roles; unable to grow or generate employment. Finally, development initiatives by diaspora communities are often not targeted at women, nor are they developed and implemented in consultation with local women.

So what can be done to address these challenges? UN and other partners can work together to support governments to:

  1. Compile and analyse sex-disaggregated migration and remittance data, much of which exists in household surveys, and use it to design policies and programmes that can harness women's contribution to development.
  2. Implement policies and programmes that protect migrant women's wellbeing at all stages of migration. Examples of good practice include Sri Lanka's programme to reduce undocumented migration by providing gender-sensitive information on using legal migration channels, low-cost loans to avoid debt bondage; pre departure training programmes in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, which also focus on how women can protect themselves, save and transfer remittances safely; and gender-sensitive labour laws and contracts like those covering domestic workers in Jordan, South Africa and other countries.
  3. Advocate with banks and money transfer companies to lower the transaction costs of remittances, and open the market to more players, such as microfinance institutions — who are permitted to distribute remittances in rural areas and are hence more accessible to poor rural women — and to new technologies such as mobile transfers and card-based transfers, which might be particularly beneficial to women in certain contexts.
  4. Promote women's financial literacy, facilitate the introduction of an array of financial products in which women can invest; promote women's businesses through gender-sensitive policy, regulatory, institutional service environments.
  5. Encourage diaspora investment in gender-sensitive or woman-targeted development initiatives in consultation with local women.

Remittances can contribute most effectively to sustainable development, if policies and programmes harness these and other resources to address the structural constraints and inequities, including gender inequities, to promote equitable human development. Important aspects of such policies must be women's improved access to and control over productive assets, employment-oriented training and the creation of more and decent jobs for women. Because, for instance, while women invest remittances to educate their children, including girl children, a lack of employment opportunities means they too are likely to migrate in search of work, perpetuating the cycle of migration.

In closing, I want to say that UN Women stands committed to strengthening its collaboration with partners working on women's migration, remittances and development, including governments, the private sector, UN and regional organizations, to realize these results. I especially look forward to deepening the partnership with IOM and to working with partners on this panel.

Notes:

  1. IOM, 2010. World Migration Report.
  2. United Nations, 2006. Trends in Total Migrant Stock: The 2005 revision. CD-ROM Documentation.
  3. Seddon, D, et al., Foreign Labour Migration and the Remittance Economy of Nepal, Critical Asian Studies, 34:1(2002); in UN Women, Claim and Celebrate Women Migrants' Human Rights through CEDAW.
  4. Presentation by P.C. Bhattarai, Joint Secretary, Nepal Ministry of Labour and Transport Management, at UN Women Regional Consultation on Empowering Women Migrant Workers, Aug 2010, Delhi, India.
  5. ADB, 2006. Workers Remittance Flows in Southeast Asia.
  6. UN Women, Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores y de Coordinación, AECID, 2008. Crossing Borders II; Migration and Development from a Gender Perspective; and 2008; and UN Women, 2009. The gender Dimensions of Remittances: A Study of Indonesian Domestic Workers in East and Southeast Asia.