Powerful Remittances

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Scott Robinson
Universidad Metropolitana

The amount of remittances that people working in the developed world send home to their families is huge, estimated to approach US$232 billion in 2006. This figure surpasses by far the total of direct foreign investment and overseas development aid. Many countries, in fact, around the world, now rely on remittances as a major source of foreign exchange. World Bank technical reports fret about how best to leverage remittance income. While remittance transfers has become a growth industry (e.g. “banking the unbanked”), public policy has to date been reluctant to regulate this phenomenal resource flow apart from the usual concerns about money laundering. Remittance transfers grow annually, but this growth curve is not indefinite.

Low-paid "guest workers" (many working "illegally", i.e. sans documents) in richer countries send a portion of their paychecks to their families back home. Their cheap labor allows many industries to remain competitive. In the recipient countries, this foreign exchange often represents a large percentage of GDP. While the amount of money is large, the percentage of funds siphoned off as commissions at various points during the transfer process is also significant, but steadily dropping. Five years ago the average transfer cost was often close to 15%, whereas today it is around 5.5%. Nevertheless, there is considerable room for further transfer cost reductions via innovative information technologies and regulatory reform. Remittance transfers from the migrant refugees from recent structural adjustment policies and "market failures" represent the flip side of global capital flows.


The poor countries generally have few job opportunities and their "best and brightest" leave the country in what amounts to a new form of resource extraction (if not a new form of inverse "colonialism"). This process seems to be self-perpetuating, as the respective national Diaspora circuits become consolidated and young men and increasingly women as well migrate Northbound, to the United States or Europe, or Westbound to the Gulf States, upon reaching adulthood. Migration patterns may vary significantly within countries. Village cultures, family and ritual life has adapted to these new circumstances, often less than a generation old. Transnational communities are now the norm in many regions of Mesoamerica, Mexico to Nicaragua, the Caribbean microstates, regional pockets in northern South America and sub-Saharan Africa, amongst South Africa


National elites quietly applaud these incoming resources; unfortunately, some would like to tax them as income as some US state legislatures also propose. This money is an aggregate of private, family funds that paradoxically provoke a positive multiplier effect for local merchants and economies, while reducing somewhat demands for social services from public funds and improving the balance of payments in national accounts. Remittance flows in hard currency reinforce central banks’ stock of foreign exchange, in effect reducing interest rates for the minority with access to credit. Banks and money transfer operators (MTOs to the financial community) now accept foreign government identification cards (e.g. Mexico’s Matrícula Consular ) thereby bypassing strict migration controls in some countries. Global remittance flows may be a contemporary form of social Darwinism whereby "remittances seem to be taking care of local needs." While in the job and remittance-generating host countries, workers from poor countries are often exploited, denied basic rights and services while paying local taxes, and increasingly, demonized by racist “seal the borders” ultranationalists.

Mexico has taken the lead in leveraging migrants’ remittances via a 3 for 1 program now operating in 16 states of its federal system. Begun in Zacatecas in 1992, for each dollar a migrant organization earmarks for investment in public improvements in specific locations back home, the municipal, state and federal governments contribute another dollar. Gradually, many municipios are paving their plazas, building sidewalks, refurbishing the churches, adding bathrooms to primary schools, etc. This program can be exported and other countries are discussing its implementation.

The emergence of these remittance economies is a function of emigration patterns that attest to the failures and limitations of the capitalist development model. Near monopoly MTOs (e.g. Western Union and Money Gram) dominated the early phase, but the profits to be made attracted many new players, including regional companies and most recently, commercial banks and credit unions. Workers deliver cash to a MTO receiving window, often in franchises located in small businesses and storefronts in migrant urban neighborhoods or small towns next to labor intensive industries (furniture, poultry and meat packing, fruit and vegetable farms). The licensed MTO moves the funds via their electronic network, situating the remittance at the assigned location on the receiving end in the migrant’s home country. Often the remitter is unaware of the foreign exchange rate used (US dollars or Euros to his/her local currency), and MTOs have been sued for offering exchange rates well below the market value on the day of the transaction. In addition to service commissions, exchange rate “spreads” are a major component of MTOs’ bottom line.

In the United States, undocumented workers often use a fake Social Security identification card and number. Employers accept them at face value and send obligatory salary deductions to the Social Security Administration that deposits these funds in a special Earnings Suspense Fund (ESF). This account now receives over USD$7 billion a year, a significant sum that will never be reclaimed by workers in the future. The ESF is a de facto migrant subsidy to the US social security capital budget. It remains an open question if this amount equals or is less than the value of social services non-tax paying migrants receive at the state and local levels.

This pattern of massive remittance transfers can be more transparent and cost efficient while leveraging resources for migrant families and organizations committed to growth back home. Information technology can substantially reduce remittance transfer costs and improve transparency if both financial and telecommunications regulatory reforms were in place. Experts in the field admit that commissions and exchange rate spreads totaling 2.5% of the amount sent home allows for a healthy profit for MTOs. Commercial and financial elites, both in the North and the South, at present profiting from the poor, are probably not going to willfully innovate in this fashion. Accelerating the citizenship process and then, mobilizing former migrant voter turnout may lead to immigration policy reforms in the North. Simultaneously, migrant organizations need to continue to fight for their rights, services’ access, job safety, and civic respect in the framework of each respective national "guest worker" policy. Also, there is immense potential in using the power that can be derived from the aggregated sums of small proportions of remittances to bring pressure to bear on political elites in the home countries. This is beginning to happen in Mesoamerica where returning migrants manage collective remittances, run for public office, win, often reconfigure local priorities and lobby for reforms at other levels. The power of leveraging this amount of money via political lobbying and policy reform will have impacts both in the North and South.


Non-profit foundations working with migrant organizations could set up alternative networks of cost plus transfer mechanisms and otherwise protect remittance transactions while lowering costs still more. Stored value cards will play a strategic role in this process. Voice over Internet Protocol free or low cost phone calls will contribute to lower communications costs, a significant aspect of each migration circuit. International financial institutions could offer matching funds for specific investments back home. There is room for innovation and experimentation for migrant organizations and their supporting transnational communities. Emerging remittance economies may reconfigure local politics over time.

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