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Up migration to make the world richer

BY: Dr Bjørn Lomborg

There is a way to make the poor of this world $500 billion better off, but this solution is rarely discussed.

This matters because the international community is gearing up to produce the next set of development goals for 2015-2030. $2.5 trillion in development aid plus unknown trillions from national budgets hang in the balance of these goals so getting our priorities right is vital. Spending money on poor targets is possibly a wasted opportunity to do much more good elsewhere.

To do the most good, my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, has asked 63 teams of the world’s top economists to look at the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of all the top targets.

Some of these are obvious like health, education, food, water and environment, but some are less so, not often discussed in the development community. One of these is the transfer of technology from rich to poor and middle-income countries as an aid to sustainable development.

Reasons for technology

The reason technology is so important is that it makes people more productive, so boosting overall economic growth. Not just that, but once knowledge has been gained, it is embedded in society and can be used as a stepping stone for future growth.

Countries with a reasonable technical or research and development base are in a better position to absorb and make the best use of more new technologies as they become available. 

Professor Keith E. Maskus from University of Colorado has written an extensive paper on what works and how much good it will do. As he rightly points out, the UN’s technology-related targets are simply too general and bland. Instead, using the economic literature, he puts forward two proposals. 

The first proposal is straightforward: If our goal is to get more technology available for the poor, maybe we should simply increase investment in research and development (R&D), especially in the developing world.

The point is the benefits from R&D do not just go to the company doing it; there are also broader societal benefits as productivity gains occur elsewhere in the economy and other people learn on the job or see the possibility for more innovation.

After Apple produced an innovative touch screen on its first iPhone, the knowledge is now available to lots of products in many different areas. 

This broader benefit justifies governments supporting research, either through tax credits or direct government spending on research in public institutions. On average, the developing countries spend just 0.2 per cent  of their GDP on R&D and perhaps 0.3 per cent  in 2030.

If we instead aim at 0.5 per cent  of GDP by 2030 and 1.5 per cent  for emerging economies, this would naturally increase the direct government costs, but it would also increase the long-run technological innovation and capabilities. For comparison, Ghana spends less than 0.4 per cent  and will need to climb to 0.5 per cent .

The models estimate in total that for every dollar spent, we could likely end up doing $3 worth of good. That is not bad.

However, there is another, and much more effective way to increase technological capabilities in low-income countries. Instead of focusing on innovating more technology to make people more productive, we could focus on getting more people to places where they would be productive.

While allowing the free mobility of goods (free trade) can add several percentage points to global GDP, we have long known that free mobility of people could add anywhere from 67-147 er cent  to global GDP. Allowing free mobility could essentially double the world’s income.

This is because people in poor areas are not inherently unproductive but their circumstances mostly make them unproductive. So, if they were to migrate, from say, Guatemala to the US, they would become much more productive.

Absolute free mobility

Of course, absolutely free mobility would result in a massive relocation from poor to rich countries, which would likely engender huge political issues. But professor Maskus suggests that we could start off with a modest goal of increasing current skilled migration by five-20 per cent  with 10-year visas. Since we have the best models for the Americas, he estimates the outcome for this region, but it is likely the results can scale for the rest of the world.

Five per cent increase in skilled migration would mean extra 136,000 managerial and technical workers, with 97,000 going to the US. Although other research shows the migrants would only become half or less as productive as Americans, this would still make them much better off. The model shows they would earn $15 billion more over the next 25 years. Moreover, as they would bring with them new ideas and concepts, they will increase productivity in the US and elsewhere by $1.5 billion.

This will also mean an outflow of skilled workers from poorer countries. For instance, 30,000 people will leave Mexico for 10 years. But they will send back money – about $3 billion in total. And while many worry about a ‘brain drain,’ there is actually more evidence for a ‘brain gain’: If there is an opportunity to go abroad and make more money as a doctor or engineer, it will induce young people to invest in a professional education, meaning more doctors and technicians in the long run. And as these skilled professionals come back after 10 years, they will also bring back new ideas and higher productivity.

In total, the costs, mostly in lost tax revenue are significantly outweighed by the gains. For every dollar spent, this target could do 10-20 dollars worth of good. With the Americas making up one-third of the global economy, the potential benefits could go as high as $500 billion. That should make the target of higher labour mobility a strong contender for the world’s next set of goals.

The writer is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, directs the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, ranking the smartest solutions to the world’s biggest problems by cost-benefit. He is the author of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ and ‘Cool It’. His new book is ‘How To Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place.’