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Migrating platforms: the remittance economy of migrant workers

Remittances from migrant workers hailing from the Global South are extremely important for both hosts and home

Panos 00213315

Panos 00213315

Source: Sven Torfinn

In rural Kenya, this small kiosk, lit by solar energy, serves as a community bank. It is one of many simple structures addressing the chronic lack of infrastructure across much of the continent

Migration from African countries has increased substantially in the last three decades, during which it went from 1 per cent in the 1990s to 31 per cent in the mid-2000s, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2017, approximately 25 million sub-Saharan migrants lived outside their country of birth. Africa accounts for nine out of the 10 fastest-growing international migrant populations since 2010, growing by roughly 50 per cent between 2010 and 2017. The majority of migrants are forced out by conflicts (South Sudan, Central African Republic, DRC and Somalia), including women and children fleeing intercommunal violence, economic decline and hunger; but migration also occurs from peaceful and economically stable countries such as Namibia, Botswana and São Tomé & Príncipe. The European ‘migrant crisis’ or ‘refugee crisis’ is the term given to a period beginning roughly in 2013 when rising numbers of people arrived in the EU, either by crossing the Mediterranean or overland through south-eastern Europe. The numbers include asylum seekers and economic migrants, terms that are both contested and complex. Over the past decade, migrants accounted for 47 per cent of the increase in the workforce in the US and for over 70 per cent of the increase in Europe, as reported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Contrary to populist depictions in the right wing tabloid press, of migrants as spongers who ‘add £1bn to the National Health Service bill’ or ‘undermine British culture’ (Daily Mail), migrants play a crucial role in the labour market, making up 22 per cent of entries in the fastestgrowing occupations in the US and 15 per cent in Europe. According to the OECD, migrant workers contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits, but only a relatively small percentage of the workforce entrants into the US and Europe come through managed labour migration. The vast majority come through other channels, including family, humanitarian and free-movement migration (notably the European Union). Statistics notwithstanding, public sentiment in the developed world towards migrant workers from the developing world in particular is overwhelmingly negative.

Telecommunications geography amp meteorology maps amp cartograp

Telecommunications geography amp meteorology maps amp cartograp

A Ugandan stamp publicises Western Union, one of many American companies with tentacles spreading through Africa

One important area of migration studies is centred on remittances, usually understood as the money or goods that migrants send back to family and friends in their countries of origin. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank estimate that international remittances to low-income and middle-income countries increased by 8.5 per cent in 2017, reaching an astonishing US$466 billion, and were predicted to reach US$485 billion in 2018. These funds outnumber the Official Development Assistance figures (defined as government aid designed to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries). The ODA list is periodically updated and currently contains more than 150 countries worldwide where per capita incomes are below US$12,276. A long-standing United Nations target is that developed countries should devote 0.7 per cent of their gross national income to ODA. Aside from the fiscal capital transfers, social remittances, defined as ‘the ideas, behaviours, identities and social capital that flow from receiving-country to sending-country communities’, include innovative ideas, valuable transnational networks, knowledge, political values, policy reforms and new technological skills.

In Sarah Lopez’s fascinating article, ‘As Remittances Flow to Mexico, a New Architectural Style Blooms’, first published in The Architect’s Newspaper in 2018, she explores the geographical and social networks along the US-Mexico border, the largest migration corridor in the world. Lopez looks at what she calls the ‘remittance house’, a term she uses to ‘describe houses built in Mexico by workers performing unskilled or semi-skilled wage labour in the US’. These edifices, often built piecemeal over several years and even decades, are simultaneously aspirational and nostalgic, reflecting the complex, complicated web of longing and hope that characterises both the senders’ and receivers’ social status relative to their former and current locations. As Lopez notes, ‘in the remittance house, architectural style carries great symbolic weight, as design ideas are pulled from various corners of migrant experience and journeys’.

While Lopez’s work focuses on the Mexican-US experience, the same architectural and urban tropes can be found in almost every corner of the developing world where the remittance economy plays a vital role, not only in monetary terms but, increasingly, in the wider built environment. From the import of second-hand cars that clog transport arteries in Lagos to the rise in Western-style shopping malls springing up across West Africa; from the rise of roadside kiosks that offer everything from online banking to warm bottles of Coke Zero to the proliferation of gated suburban communities that are indistinguishable from Kampala to Karachi, the tastes and aspirations of billions of city-dwellers are profoundly shaped by this capital flow that is shown to be more stable than both private debt and portfolio equity, and several times larger than international development aid.

However, there is a side – or, perhaps more accurately, an underbelly – to this narrative of aspiration and dynamic change: the often ineradicable gap between the technological and formal infrastructure required to deliver on the promise of never-ending upward social mobility. That gap is eloquently expressed in language, as, for example, in the proliferation of ‘imported’ words into a native language for which there are no equivalents – car, computer, emoji, App, smartphone and so on – but also in the radical behavioural changes that are a result of the traffic between ‘here’/local and ‘there’/ global. In much of urban Africa, where public transport is poorly organised with chronic infrastructural inadequacies, private investment, either in the form of global capital (Uber) or local initiatives (shared taxis and combi-vans), has been quick to fill the gap. Where local taxis may be deemed risky for single women travelling to and from home late at night, even taking factors of cost and affordability into account, Uber allows young, urban and aspirational women in Abidjan, Accra and Abuja access to the city in ways that even five years ago would not have been possible. These changes have incremental and often rapid consequences. In many African cities where the absence of a verifiable cartographic representation in the form of reliable city maps at different scales has had a knock-on effect in terms of services – postal, online delivery systems, reliable transport timetables and so on – GPS now takes over as the most efficient means of circumnavigating lack.

Although these observations may only apply to a relatively small percentage of the urban population – those who often make the transition from rural to urban within the space of half a generation or less – access to technology and increased telecommunications coverage in particular across Africa means that the combination of aspiration and the sudden increase in income that often follows when a family member emigrates and begins remitting has an impact that is difficult to quantify in terms of its material and its cultural capital. With politicians and human settlement organisations across Africa and the Third World engaged in an often desperate struggle to bridge the gap between cities in the developing world and their ‘world-class’ counterparts in the Global North, architects, economists, anthropologists and sociologists have more in common than might at first be assumed. The increased complexity of the conditions in which architects are routinely asked to intervene requires a different lens or tactic through which the condition or ‘problem’ may be viewed. As Muhammad Yunus noted, ‘to overcome poverty we need to envision our social life. We need to imagine what has never happened and write social fiction. We need to imagine things to make them happen. If you don’t imagine them, they will never happen’.

An excerpt from a longer text in Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture (2019), Edwina Attlee, Maria Smith and Phineas Harper (eds), published by the Architecture Foundation and Oslo Architecture Triennale

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today