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The relationship between migration and poverty in Southern Africa

3. Thesis one: Poverty stimulates emigration and engenders inequality

Poor countries or societies all over the world generally produce generations of emigrants for richer or relatively richer counterparts. In the 1990s, research commissioned by the international organization for migration (10M) on emigration dynamics of developing countries applied a conceptual framework, which specifies the following relationships. Emigration (dependent variable) is influenced by five independent variables—demographic setting, economic setting, socio-cultural context, political systems and environmental conditions–operating through or in conjunction with intervening variables, namely world economic/political order, regional/ sub-regional economic co-operation and perceptions as well as policies of sending vis–a–vis receiving national governments (Adepoju, 19195:379). Of the five independent variables, the “economic setting” best fits our interpretation of effects of poverty on migration. It consists of GNP per capita, real GDP per capita, income distribution, structural transformation and human development index used in Human Development Report series published by UNDP since 1990. To some extent, these factors capture both absolute and relative poverty in Southern African countries. Table 1 presents some measures of poverty, which most likely influence international migration, particularly of labour, in Southern Africa.

3.1 Trends in economic performance

Two measures of national $ wealth–GNP and GDP–help to explain the economic performance of Southern African countries. In 1993, South Africa had by for the largest GNP measured in US $billions, followed by Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia as extremely poor second, third and fourth respectively. At that point in time, all these countries would theoretically be expected to be migrant–receiving countries, yet Zambia was already losing its population in brain drain and brain circulation and Botswana had not become the magnet of immigration it is today.

Table 1: Some measures of poverty and their potential impact on International Migration in Southern African Countries, 1993-2001

Country Trends in economic performancesGNP (US $ Billions) GDP per capita annual growth (%) Population below poverty line(%) $ /day Human Development Index Human Poverty Index
1993 1975-99 1990-99 1983-99 1990 1999 1998 2001
Botswana 3.9 5.1 1.8 33.3 0.655 0.261 28.3 -
Lesotho 1.3 2.4 2.1 43.1 0.572 0.569 23.3 25.8
Malawi 2.1 -0.2 0.9 - 0.363 0.397 41.9 43.4
Mozambique 1.4 1.3 3.8 37.9 0.311 0.313 50.7 48.3
Namibia 2.8 - 0.8 34.9 0.551 0.601 28.6 34.5
South Africa 118.3 -0.2 2.8 11.5 0.712 0.702 20.2 18.7
Swaziland 1.0 1.4 0.4 - 0.611 0.615 27.3 -
Zambia 3.3 -2.4 -2.4 63.7 0.466 0.431 37.8 40.0
Zimbabwe 5.6 0.6 0.6 36.0 0.598 0.563 30.0 36.2


UNDP (1996) Human Development Report 1996, Table 25, pp. 186-187
UNDP (2001) Human Development Report 1996, Table 11, pp. 178-181
UNDP (2001) Human Development Report 2001, Table 3, pp. 149-151
UNDP (2001) Human Development Report 2001, Table 2, pp. 145-148
UNDP, SADC and SAPES Trust (220) SADC Regional Human Development Report 2000, Table 2. 10, pp. 70
UNDP (2001) Human Development Report 2001, Table 3, pp. 149-151

Annual growth rate of GDP per capita for two periods depicts an interesting picture. The longer period of nearly quarter-century, 1975–1999 saw Zambia and Malawi (emigration countries) as well as South Africa (immigration country) where apartheid shrouded conditions register negative GDP growth. Botswana had an impressive GDP growth, followed by Lesotho whose growth was presumably spurred by remittances from Basotho employed in South African mines.

The shorter period of the 1990’s saw Zambia still languishing in the negative GDP growth, Mozambique and South Africa register an increasing trend, and Botswana and Namibia lose the momentum. This economic performance resulted in emigration of Malawians, Zambians and Zimbabweans as Mozambique’s economic upturn, returning Mozambicans and investments in Mozambique improved the country’s performance, thus reducing emigration.

3.2 Population below US$ a day

A better measure of poverty is the proportion of population living below US $ 1 per day, which captures poverty at household/individual level. In the sixteen years 1983-1999, the highest proportion was about 64 percent in Zambia, 43 percent in Lesotho and 38 percent in Mozambique—all well-known countries of emigration. Yet even Botswana and Namibia had more than one-third of their populations living below US $1 a day. A study of poverty in Botswana, using individual incomes, put the average poverty at about 47 percent of Botswana and 38 percent of households living in poverty in 1993/94 (Botswana, 1997:18). Surprisingly Botswana were not emigrating, at least in as large numbers as the citizens of other countries, though professionals envisioned emigrating at some stage to the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Namibia (Campbell, 2001:1:55). Other factors clearly enter the calculus of potential emigration from Botswana.

3.3 Human Development Index

From estimates of Human Development Index (HDI) at the beginning and end of the last decade, the net emigration countries (with exception of Swaziland and Lesotho) recorded lower HDI than the immigration countries with the exception of Namibia. Perhaps, changes in measuring HDI account for this situation. It should be noted that most countries of the region had declining HDI, attributed to HIV/AIDS epidemic which has drastically reduced life expectancy and eaten up national GDP.

3.4 Human Poverty Index

This is a measure of deprivation in economic provision (HPI) measured by: 1) percentage of people not using improved water resources and 2) percentage of under 5 who are underweight both which yield a probability at birth of not surviving to age of 40. Human Poverty Index (HPI) reflects the distribution of progress and measures the backlog of deprivation that still exists (UNDP, 2001:14). Except for Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa registered the lowest HP-I measures in 1998 and 2001. The situation has become more complex with the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, the countries devastated by HIV/AIDS often dispute UNDP measures for being higher than those made by their Central Statistics Offices. Nonetheless, the measures at hand suggest that human poverty compels nationals of a country to emigrate.

Unequally and economic growth bedevil South African countries, and even the three countries of emigration are affected. For instance, Namibia, at independence in 1990, inherited one of the most unequal societies, with its white population of 5 percent of the total enjoying affect lifestyles; the country is polarized with mining and foreign companies dominating the economy for creating few jobs, and most Namibians continue to struggle on the margins of economic progress. South Africa’s inequality is a product of the legacy of apartheid, with the poorest half of the population receiving only 11 percent of the national income; and apartheid created land hunger, rural poverty and other forms of inequality. Finally, Botswana suffers from income inequality, now entrenched by the HIV/AIDS epidemic (UNDP, 1998: 46-7). Although these countries receive migrants from other Southern African Countries, they experience increasing internal migration, particularly rural-urban migration which in some instances alleviates poverty and in others deepens it.

3.5 Household and Individual Perspectives of Poverty and Migration

As Emigration is not a national response to poverty or economic survival strategy of households or individuals, national measures mask the extent to which household/ individual poverty determines it in southern Africa. A number of migration surveys have provided useful insights of household–and individual-level factors at play.

In the seventies, several studies portrayed poverty as an important cause of emigration of individuals and from households in southern African countries to Africa. On the other hand, the studies found that migration to South Africa actually alleviated poverty in the emigrants’ countries of origin, considered in the second thesis of this paper. The latest evidence comes from SAMP studies made in different countries.

In the 1970s, Bohning (1981) edited Black Migration to South Africa which contains studies on conditions of migrant mineworkers and South Africa’s gold mines and on Swaziland and Lesotho and on effects of the unskilled labour in these countries and Southern Africa in general. As Africans in southern African countries became attracted to modern goods and saw possibilities of rearing livestock from earnings at the mines, they opted for recruitment as a means of fleeing poverty in their countries. In that socio-economic milieu, the rural subsistence sector gave way to emigration of males. Moreover, many Africans lost their land that was alienated by the white farmers, plunging the Africans in poverty which in turn pushed the landless outside their areas of provenance and forced them to emigrate. That was poverty engendered by colonialisation and one that lingered on up to in some countries even after, independence and majority rule. Later as South Africa adopted the “internationalisation” policy, which substantially reduced foreign labour (Bohning, 1981: 37-9), poverty struck in the former labour suppliers and stimulated clandestine immigration into the country.

Economic discussions of the causes of rural out-migration have centred on the Todaro (1969), Fei-Ranis(1961) and Lewis(1954) “push-pull” models that are superficial, historical and “indifferent to the specific structural circumstances of labour reserve economy (Clarke,1977, quoted in de Vletter et al., 1981:60). Among the structural circumstances are rural poverty, unemployment and underemployment. Yet Todaro’s probability of securing employment and higher income at the destination as the principal determinants of migration operate in a stronger more than that of urban unemployment. Studies in different Southern African Countries reported the need to purchase cattle, food and clothing building and household requirements as the perceived areas of expenditure by outgoing migrants, workers and returned (de Vletter, 1981:64). This explains why Basotho migrants on remittances and deferred pay has alleviated poverty, and why when the remittances fell 17 percent in real terms in 1987-1992, the dent sharply reduced national income (Sechaba Consultants, 1997:5)

Lack of employment opportunities constitutes the most important reason for emigration. As these opportunities dwindle in the countries of immigration, a number of ills bedevil the labour supplying countries: loses of valuable revenue (more than 50 per cent of GDP in Lesotho); worsening domestic unemployment; aggravation of rural poverty; destabilising of the social fabric; and intensification of rural–urban migration(UNDP, SADC and SAPES Trust, 2000: 142). Thus, these conditions aggravate poverty and cause further emigration, notably clandestine and fake refugees/asylum seekers.

The whole of Southern Africa is being plunged in an overwhelming poverty trap: that caused by HIV/AIDS. This pandemic is already drastically reducing life expectancy and changing the population structure; it is producing an increasing number of orphans and the widowed; and is eating into every fabric of the society including it unbearable health, economic and social costs. In the near future, Southern African countries will be lacking skilled human resources to run national economies. Instead, they might have to import more skilled labour from outside Africa given that other African sub-regions are being similarly affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

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