When it comes to doing development properly, the role of remittances in helping the poorest in other nations plays a pivotal role and yet is considered by many to be a cost to the UK economy - a resource that would otherwise have been spent in the UK, being diverted elsewhere. The efficacy of remittances is also questioned: developing countries have been receiving remittances for years, and what do they have to show for it? These are all false questions and positions.
First, the net cost of remittances to the UK is negligible. In 2013, remittances from people in the UK to people outside of it totalled $2.2bn (outflows). Inflows (remittances into the UK from people outside of the UK) totalled $1.7bn. The net impact on the UK from remittances is $510m, which represents 0.0195% of the UK’s nominal GDP in the same year. Hence, the impact of belonging to a world where remittances are possible, and belonging to one where remittances are condemned, is “negligible” by my reading.
Bearing in mind it is low-cost to us, the only other plausible objection is that it doesn’t do any good. One example of how this criticism is levelled is when it is argued that all remittances do is increase consumption amongst recipients, and is not invested in such a way as to create long-term opportunities for growth.
It’s not clear to me that this is a proper criticism. For one, increasing the amount of resource that is available to an otherwise poor family may result in more consumption, and potentially better consumption. Imagine if the consumption takes the form of food stuffs: although the immediate effect of remittances is on non-investment purposes, these can be seen as an investment in the individuals’ long-term health. And, ultimately, a world in which people eat until they are full rather than going to bed hungry is a better world to live in. But lots of other types of consumption are also effective at improving people’s quality of life - for example, if a family has more resources with which to buy more sources of light, they may be able to work longer in the day and avoid health risks associated with working in more dangerous (i.e. unlit) conditions. Even if there are no such gains, increased consumption is associated with increased welfare - which is in itself good, particularly since the welfare gain is enjoyed by people on the lower end of the income spectrum. It’s not evident a priori that spending remittances on consumption is a bad thing.
But the evidence indicates that remittances have significant supply-side effects, and aren't solely consumption-affecting. A study in Ghana found that remittances were spent in the same way as any other income - split between investment and consumption, rather than focused on consumption. In Mexico, households without healthcare insurance spend on average 10% of remittances on healthcare. Remittances substantially lower the likelihood that children in El Salvador do not enroll into school at all, or leave before the 6th grade. A study of 11 Latin American nations showed that in households with relatively low levels of schooling and healthcare, households receiving remittances had higher health outcomes and were more likely to keep their children in schools.
When it comes to poverty reduction, current studies may, in fact, overplay the impact. The study of Latin American nations argues that many research papers assume a higher impact on poverty than is really plausible, because they do not factor in the fact that the emigrant who is sending their remittances back to the home country would likely have been working had they not left. Nevertheless, even when controlling for this, they find a modest positive effect of remittances on poverty reduction.
The fact that remittances cost the UK relatively little in net terms, combined with the improvements in lifestyle metrics in recipient nations, is a convincing case for them. If we want to do good for those in need, on a global level, we must be committed to permitting remittances and avoid the rhetoric that posits them as being ‘bad’ for the UK. They enable us, as the source nation, to benefit from the skills of the migrants coming to the UK to work, whilst providing welfare and investment opportunities elsewhere. Remittances earn developing nations three times as much as they are sent in aid - rather than forcing transfers via tax, they enable workers to make their own spending decisions with their own earnings from their own labour.