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Corporate responsibility and sustainability September 1, 2013

Migration, sustainable development, and the role of business

By CB Bhattacharya and Ursula Moffitt
A person's hand touching a small globe atop a passport
In order for business to harness these and other positive contributions of migration to sustainable development, cross-sectoral collaboration has to occur, engaging both the public and private sectors.

Over the past decades, business has begun reacting to growing societal pressures by broadening its focus from profit maximization alone to the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit. In the years since this concept was first introduced, people- and planet-focused sustainability initiatives have become standard practice amongst businesses across the world. Yet, migration is often overlooked as a factor within a company’s overall sustainability strategy. Such an oversight is critical, as migration invariably impacts business, and ensuring that its influence remains positive requires both awareness and engagement amongst corporate leadership. Migration can offer opportunities within each aspect of the triple bottom line, for instance, by creating a diverse and competent workforce, fostering innovation across borders and creating possibilities for globally integrated strategies in the realm of environmental sustainability.

Each of these facets can, in turn, enhance the long-term viability of a company, thereby promoting development. Yet, in order for business to harness these and other positive contributions of migration to sustainable development, cross-sectoral collaboration has to occur, engaging both the public and private sectors. The recognition of migration as a factor within the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals underscores its importance in the global fight to end poverty, but the overall pathway towards achieving a positive intersection between migration and sustainable development remains ambiguous. This paper aims to elucidate some key issues within this intersection, highlighting both the negative and positive effects of migration on development in sending and receiving countries. Following the breakdown of the triple bottom line, Figure 1 lays out such challenges and opportunities of migration. This paper will build off the issues listed in this chart, outlining ways in which businesses can act upon opportunities and overcome challenges while incorporating migration into their sustainability plans.



Sending country
  • Challenge: Brain drain; exploitation
  • Opportunity: Return of highly skilled workers; direct engagement through partnerships
  • Challenge: Lack of infrastructure to address extreme climate events
  • Opportunity: Collaborative adaption and regional projects
  • Challenge: Lack of workers to stimulate labor force
  • Opportunity: Remittances enable local entrepreneurship, leading to economic development
Receiving country
  • Challenge: Higher competition in labor market
  • Opportunity: Sustained economic growth; influx of workers to fill labor gaps; innovation
  • Challenge: Rapid development harmful to environment
  • Opportunity: Structured investment; green growth; skills transfer
  • Challenge: Greater market pressure can lead to inflation and unsteady growth
  • Opportunity: Inflow of workforce boosts economy

Figure 1 Challenges and opportunities of migration on sustainable development


Although migration can offer ample benefits to sending countries, for instance, through collaborative partnerships of businesses and public sector institutions, or through an increase in trained workers, such opportunities are often realized following the return of migrants. Conversely, the challenges migration poses frequently occur in both sending and receiving countries while migrants are abroad. For instance, in areas with large populations of migrant workers, such as the Gulf region, where more than 40 percent of the workforce is foreign, the risk of exploitation is very high. Many migrants face steep fees for recruitment, poor working conditions, a lack of sick leave or vacation time, and the confiscation of identification or travel documents. Aside from the human rights abuses and legal violations such actions can present, they also greatly affect worker engagement and retention rates. Additionally, they set the stage for negative backlash amongst a company’s global stakeholders if such practices become public knowledge. These negative consequences of migration occur in an under-regulated market, affecting both basic rights and development.

In order to engage in more sustainable business, employers can start by cutting out the middle man and limiting the outsourcing of recruitment contracts. By eliminating this specific step in the supply chain, companies become more accountable, thereby increasing pressure for transparency and better labor practices, while also encouraging governments to follow suit in ramping up regulations. Moreover, companies can set up programs to cover other expenses of migration, such as those for visas and passports. This may present upfront costs, but will pay off in the long-term by fostering a supportive environment, raising employee retention rates, and creating opportunity through an improved image and progressive business model. Such actions can have positive reverberations across multi-national branches of a business, as research indicates that employee perceptions of sustainable corporate citizenship promote organizational identification and increased trust, which lead to greater employee engagement and improved job performance.

However, sometimes long-term strategies are difficult to implement, as migration itself is often short-term either out of choice or necessity. Many countries, therefore, employ schemes for temporary or circular migration, in order to fulfill specific labor gaps while attempting to avoid competition in other sectors of the labor market. Though such programs have been around for decades, newer variations attempt to factor in the societal impact on sending countries, particularly the “brain drain” phenomenon of educated and skilled workers flooding out of a given country due to a lack of opportunities or other hostile circumstances. One example of a short-term program can be seen in France, where a so-called Skills and Talent Visa was created in 2006, which encourages the in-migration of highly skilled workers, while regulating that they must return to their country of origin within six years. This program has been touted as a way to spur innovation and advancement in France while also encouraging that skills be transferred back to migrants’ sending countries, thereby creating a more sustainable cycle of migration.

By having such legislation in place, the private sector in the sending countries can act on the opportunity to build support systems for migrants upon their return home, creating platforms for the direct application of acquired skills or training. This can occur, for instance, through paired research institutes, hospitals, or universities, as well as through the foundation of local branches of companies where returning migrants can enter more advanced positions. The framework created in Taiwan in the late 1980s to attract emigrants back home offers the most successful example of such a system, with a return rate of 33 percent by 2003 as compared to 8 percent in 1979. While the strong diaspora networks and subsidization of education cannot be cited as the sole mitigating factors in the successful drive to encourage the return of migrants, their impact cannot be discounted. The push, in this case, came from both the public and private sectors, underscoring the importance of concerted collaboration in order to engage the issue of migration within sustainable development.


Collaboration is also necessary when it comes to issues of the environment, as ecological sustainability is inherently a global issue. Rising consumption, increasing numbers of extreme weather events, worsening drought, and a myriad of other climate related changes are all factors shaping both sustainability and migration patterns. It is estimated that by 2050 more than two hundred million people will either volitionally migrate or be permanently displaced as a result of climate related circumstances. Such mass movement can have adverse effects on both sending and receiving countries, but business has the potential to positively contribute through wide-reaching climate adaptation and mitigation efforts, amongst others. Environmental catastrophes often have the greatest impact in the developing world, which represents the majority of sending countries, as a result of basic geography combined with a lack of infrastructure and resources. Conscientious adaptation efforts that take a regional focus can help to lessen both the human and environmental toll, such as the Planning for Resilience in East Africa through Policy, Adaptation, Research, and Economic Development program run by the for-profit organization Global Climate Adaptation Partnership (GCAP). This and other GCAP initiatives integrate environmental factors into the rapid development occurring in many regions of the world—in part driven by migration—thereby creating more sustainable growth by safeguarding both livelihoods and ecosystems. Moreover, the GCAP offers a strong example of business working with and alongside the public sector at the local, regional, and global levels in an effort to address challenges arising in the nexus of environment, development, and migration.

Another example of such collaboration can be seen in the Transdisciplinary Training for Resource Efficiency and Climate Change Adaptation in Africa. This international academic mobility scheme supports both students and faculty researching climate change adaptation and natural resource depletion. Such a program offers businesses the opportunity to tap into the innovations produced by a highly skilled workforce, directly incorporating their output into sustainability agendas. Moreover, programs like this promote development across borders, as migrants bring benefits to the economies of receiving countries through their research while the implementation of climate adaptation and mitigation measures promote long-term sustainability in home countries.

By incorporating migration into their business plans, companies involved in such endeavors create a model for future programs, underscoring the positive potential within the migration and development nexus. A different style of green-focused migration can be seen within the United States EB-5 visa program, which offers permanent residence to individuals who invest $500,000 (or in some cases $1 million) in the American economy. To aid in this process, regional investment centers were created to direct investors’ funds into local projects. While a small percentage of these centers already focused on sustainable development, this number is increasing as cities like Austin, Texas bid to target all funds in their region towards green jobs. A similar, albeit more direct example can be found in Panama, where the purchase of at least five hectares of land designated as part of a governmental reforestation project guarantees the investor permanent residence. These programs promote targeted migration, stimulate local economies, and offer a clear platform for sustainable, environmentally sound investment.


When discussing the intersection between migration and sustainable development, the people and planet components of the triple bottom line offer the clearest areas for opportunity, while also presenting the most pressing challenges. Though the profits created through this nexus might not be direct, they are abundant, if one takes a step away from a traditional business perspective and looks instead at both long-term and localized examples. For instance, remittances as a factor of sustainable development is perhaps one of the newest components to this discussion, yet its importance is staggering, particularly for countries with high levels of out-migration. In 2012 alone, global remittances to developing countries amounted to approximately $401 billion, according to the World Bank, totaling more than three times the amount of all official development assistance.

For migrants, lowered remittance fees can mean the difference between sending home enough money for basic subsistence versus providing the means for investment. In 2008, the G20 committed to reducing the average global cost of sending remittances by 5 percent over five years, but this goal has not yet been met. Through lowered remittance transfer costs, developing countries are more likely to qualify for lowered debt thresholds. Furthermore, greater numbers of diaspora bonds or remittance backed securities can be issued. While high out-migration can lead to a lack of qualified workers, local entrepreneurship enabled through remittances and related bonds and loans allows for engagement and empowerment amongst those still in sending countries. The related development can offer a foundation for the return of migrants, thereby helping to encourage stronger diaspora networks and creating sustainable benefits over the long-term.

Amongst receiving countries, the opportunities for harnessing migration as a positive contributor to sustainable development are as numerous as they are diverse. In countries such as the United States or Germany, economic booms of the past decades were possible in part because of foreign labor. While some fear that higher immigration levels lead to inflation, this perception has often been challenged, particularly as progressive regulation can help to ensure stable growth within the market. In currently booming areas such as the Gulf countries, China, and India the private sector needs to move beyond a focus on short-term profit and place greater importance on both environmental and social issues within business models in order to see sustainable returns. While overnight change is not conceivable, organizations such as the Qatar Foundation offer a step in the right direction. This group, created by the emir of a nation that currently relies on 94 percent foreign labor, offers certain human-centered reforms such as ensuring vacation time and access to washing machines. Such seemingly small assurances can have a robust impact for migrants. If enforced, they also ensure a level playing field for businesses, allowing for ongoing competition based on a more sustainable foundation.


Although migration is often at the forefront of public policy debates, its role as a component within the discussion of sustainable development is relatively new. Patterns of migration and types of migrants vary immensely, yet regardless of destination or description every migrant should be viewed as a potential contributor to development in both sending and receiving countries. By using the triple bottom line as a springboard for integrating migration issues into sustainable development plans, the private sector can break down the diverse ways in which migrants can and do affect business. Below are a few suggestions for how the private sector can harness its influence in order to promote migration as an opportunity, rather than a challenge to sustainable development:

  • Make your voice heard − push the public sector to create immigration policies that take into account both sending and receiving countries while maintaining a focus on sustainable development.
  • Harness international opportunities − engage cyclical migration and collaborative mobility schemes to create platforms for training, transferring skills, and cross-cultural innovation.
  • Recognize the importance of networks − make use of the opportunities diaspora networks create in both sending and receiving countries.
  • Focus on the long-term − incorporate the plethora of issues presented by increasing global migration and avoid short-sighted business choices, knowing that upfront costs can bring sustainable returns.


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