Nepal | November 14, 2019

Return migration: Build nation, and they will come

Keshar M Ghimire

An effective way to influence the return of productive Nepalis living abroad would be to make a strong domestic push for government accountability in areas of infrastructure development, social justice and rule of law

Of late, the calls urging Nepalis working abroad to return home and help build the motherland have become more frequent than ever. As the older generations of politicians fail to convince Nepalis that the young republic is on a sustainable growth trajectory, many are left wondering if the hundreds of thousands of youths making their mark abroad should quickly return and work for their own country. At the macroeconomic level, however, it may not be wise, at least not just yet, to promote a return migration campaign among the Nepali diaspora.

Appeals for return migration often ask of migrant workers to sacrifice their immediate economic interests and come back to do something worthwhile for the country. But the reality is that most workers cannot afford to move back right away.

Moreover, a premature return in large numbers could prove to be economically and politically destabilising for the country.

Ratcheting up calls on migrant workers to return and build the country also does a huge disservice by shifting the responsibility for the country’s current troubles from the political class to the citizens in absentia.

One reason why many are upping their calls for return of the Nepali diaspora at this time is the high rate of return migration experienced by India and China during the last two decades. Unfortunately, a commonly overlooked fact is that while the return of skilled labour definitely complemented the growth of the two Asian giants, the former certainly did not precede the latter.

Substantial waves of return migration for these countries materialised only after the nations embarked on remarkable growth paths, thereby promising better economic prospects for returnees. India’s growth, for example, took off in the early 2000s, and the country experienced its first significant wave of return migration around the time of the Great Recession circa 2008, which has remained at a healthy level, thanks to the country’s booming economy post-crisis. Data consistently shows that the most important motivator for return migration is economic opportunity. It is no surprise that more than 60 per cent of Indian returnees, according to a 2012 survey, reported the availability of economic opportunities in their home country as a major factor encouraging them to return. In line with the survey’s findings, a large body of migration research concludes that a thriving economy is a prerequisite for successfully absorbing any significant wave of returnees.

Therefore, a hasty return en masse of the migrant workers abroad would not only deprive Nepal of its important foreign currency reserves and much-needed startup capital, communities would also have to cut back spending on several fronts, including health and education, as a result of reduced income.

For a country with almost one-third of its population under 15, the immediate cutbacks in areas like health and education would be detrimental in the long run. A potential social upheaval resulting from a large number of unemployed youth in the country would be another problem in the laundry list of things-gone-bad.

A more effective way to influence the return of productive Nepalis living abroad would be to make a strong domestic push for government accountability in areas of infrastructure development, social justice and rule of law.

One may bring about bigger change in the country by spending more energy on holding the powerful accountable than by calling on ordinary individuals to make sacrifices and give up jobs overseas. A strong local presence of the so-called ‘alternative parties’ with the capacity to enforce rules already in place would go a long way towards creating a sense of order, thereby incentivising people to find novel ways to stay at home.

Nepal doesn’t lack the attention of diasporas. If conversations that take place during formal and informal gatherings of Nepalis abroad are any indication, most, if not all, Nepalis wish to either permanently return home or contribute to Nepal’s progress in some meaningful way. However, neither the jobseekers are sold on the sustainability of new jobs created in a few growing sectors nor have the potential investors bought into the idea that Nepal is the safest bet for their hard earned capital.

Recent developments with regards to making Foreign Direct Investment hassle-free are a welcome change, but investors complain that changes do not go far enough. Nepal’s government can leverage its already available resources to encourage the Nepali diasporas and other foreign investors alike to invest in Nepal. Embassies and consulates abroad, for example, could organise seminars and workshops to inform Nepalis and foreigners about the economic opportunities in Nepal. When capital takes the lead, workers will follow.

To immediately repatriate skilled labour in selected priority sectors, Nepal has an opportunity to learn from steps such as China’s Thousand Talent Programme or India’s Overseas Citizenship Scheme.

When it comes to return migration, incentives matter more than good intentions. Therefore, Nepal’s focus should be on creating a climate that provides necessary rewards for return.

The political parties that promise a new Nepal must use their muscle to ensure accountability in every sector and to do away with the widespread culture of impunity.


A version of this article appears in print on August 20, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.

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