Opinion

Technology has changed migration patterns, but Western aid policies are stuck in the 1980s: Andrew MacDougall

Can aid-spewing governments be more nimble than the technology that helps migrants flee? Not likely, writes columnist Andrew MacDougall.

Technology is more than an enabler — it is also a ferocious inducement to migrate

Can aid-spewing governments be more nimble than the technology that helps migrants flee? (John Woods/Canadian Press)

One of the first memories I have of the news is of the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s. The brutal images of starving children and their families was a stark reminder that I was lucky to be born in Canada.

No matter its cause, the solution to the famine seemed pretty straightforward: send more food to the poor Ethiopians. Our school raised money to help. So did the Canadian government. There was also Live Aid, Band Aid, and aid bodies like the Red Cross and United Nations ready to help.

But Western help was predicated on the assumption Ethiopians would be happy to stay put until that help arrived. It was a safe one, as far as assumptions go: what choice did they have? The idea that a famine-afflicted Ethiopian could up sticks and journey to Canada was absurd. You had to have the ways and the means by which to make that long journey. In the pre-internet age almost, no one did.

Now, many more people do, thanks to the smartphone. It provides the ways, and allows those with the means — if means are required — to contribute to the journey. And it's turning the question of foreign aid into a more complicated one.

Smartphone-facilitated migration

The recent journey to Canada of two Somali men — Abdikadir Ahmed Omar and Guled Abdi Omar — helps illustrate the point.

A generation ago, these men would have been trapped in Somalia waiting for help, or at best, able to move to a neighbouring refugee camp, as Abdi had done by fleeing to the Dadaab camp in eastern Kenya. A refugee application would have been their only route to Canada.

Now, armed with a smartphone, migrants like Ahmed and Abdi are able to: research a destination; plot a journey; find other migrants willing to make it; keep in contact with friends or relatives while on the move; send and receive money electronically along the way; arrange passage with smugglers at key transit points; and (if necessary) evade the authorities.

A generation ago, these men would have been trapped in Somalia waiting for help, or at best, able to move to a neighbouring refugee camp. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

Technology is more than an enabler, however, it is also a ferocious inducement to migrate. What the mid-'80s famine sufferer knew of the West was limited; it was certainly nothing like the info now gleaned from a few minutes on the internet. Only those with absolutely no means — or the most committed patriot — will now wallow in misery while a better life is on display (if not on offer) somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is culturally and geographically a long way from home.

This tech-fueled hypermobility presents a number of serious policy challenges to governments in the developed world.

Some are obvious, and pressing: European leaders have been under acute stress for three summers now thanks to the massive numbers fleeing the likes of Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia. The resulting issues around borders, benefits and terrorism have torn at European solidarity.

With the United States now providing a less attractive welcome thanks to Donald Trump's controversial "Muslim ban" and apparent overall hostility to immigration, Canada is also experiencing an uptick in migrant arrivals. And they're arriving to an asylum system that's already struggling to cope with demand, thanks, in part, to the recent decision by the Trudeau government to drop visas for visitors from Mexico.

Part of the (longer term) answer both in Canada and Europe is to stabilize war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan, but, as we've seen for decades, the West hasn't exactly been nailing this kind of work.

And even if they are successful, Canada's efforts won't produce results quickly. Can the fix go in before the locals decide to leave the problem behind? Can aid-spewing governments be more nimble than the technology that helps migrants flee?

Not likely. Governments are a target for disruption for a reason: they're slow to react and hidebound in their ways.

The Trudeau government has pledged to recast its foreign aid spending through the prism of women and girls. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Western aid and development tools are still, by and large, designed for 1980s problems and powered by 1980s delivery. They are overly bureaucratic, too reliant on government-to-government relationships (where the recipient government is often corrupt) and predicated on a grateful and fixed recipient population.

The Trudeau government has put down its marker, pledging to recast its foreign aid spending through the prism of women and girls. This approach is grounded in the data that shows female participation in work and government produces better social and economic outcomes. And it might be the correct one, assuming the women and girls are willing to stick around to make it work.

Of course, it is conceited to assume everyone wants to come to places like Canada, Europe or the United States. And the scale of Syria's displacement is likely an outlier. A good many migrants now trapped in bureaucratic limbo in Europe and elsewhere would prefer to go home should the circumstances allow it.

And even with the sharp uptick in migration over recent years, these hardy souls are but a tiny sliver of the overall populations of their home nations. Most remain wedded to their geography.

Rethinking foreign aid

Nevertheless, the shift in the reasons for, and practice of, migration augurs for a careful rethink of foreign aid. If the disruption forecast by the effects of global warming are correct, mass migration of distressed populations could become the new normal.

Should foreign aid continue to be directed to countries? Or should it follow the persons in need? Do we need to limit the allure of more prosperous countries to provide time to solve problems abroad? Or do we need to invest more in accommodation and integration at home?

Wherever you stand on these and other difficult policy questions, recent European history demonstrates that it is better to wrestle with them in advance of a crisis, rather than in the midst of one, when few are thinking clearly.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Andrew MacDougall

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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