Does Development Reduce Migration?

52 Pages Posted: 22 Jun 2014

See all articles by Michael A. Clemens

Michael A. Clemens

George Mason University; Peterson Institute for International Economics; IZA-Institute for the Study of Labor; Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration; Center for Global Development

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Date Written: March 18, 2014


The most basic economic theory suggests that rising incomes in developing countries will deter emigration from those countries, an idea that captivates policymakers in international aid and trade diplomacy.

A lengthy research literature and recent data suggest something quite different: that over the course of a “mobility transition”, emigration generally rises with economic development until countries reach upper-middle income — at least until countries reach upper-middle income level, like Algeria or El Salvador. Only thereafter, as countries become even richer, do emigration rates typically fall.

This note quantifies the shape of the mobility transition in every decade since 1960. It then briefly surveys 45 years of research, which has yielded six classes of theory to explain the mobility transition and numerous tests of its existence and characteristics in both macro- and micro-level data.

This evidence suggests that donors to low income countries have little hope of using assistance to deter migration, unless the determinants of migration undergo rapid change in the future. Policy research might be better directed toward understanding how to shape rising migration flows for mutual gain. The note concludes by suggesting five questions that require further study.

Keywords: emigration, mobility, economic growth

JEL Classification: F22, J61, O15

Suggested Citation

Clemens, Michael Andrew, Does Development Reduce Migration? (March 18, 2014). Center for Global Development Working Paper No. 359, Available at SSRN: or

Michael Andrew Clemens (Contact Author)

George Mason University ( email )

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IZA-Institute for the Study of Labor ( email )


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