UNITED NATIONS, (IPS) - Any credible discussion of sustainable development must include
an abundance of statistical data, and the United Nations World Summit this week has
been no exception.
But amid the onslaught of figures describing populations, resources and finances,
two numbers in particular are worth keeping in mind: 78.6 billion dollars and 125.8
The first amount represents the total official foreign aid that the world's 22 wealthiest
governments gave to less developed countries in 2004, according to the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The second, from the World Bank, is the money migrant workers worldwide sent home
last year. It exceeds Gross Domestic Product estimates for many countries, including
Malaysia, Israel, Venezuela and Singapore.
Though commonly known as remittances, a more descriptive term might be "migrant
worker foreign aid". This figure has been increasing annually since serious
record-keeping began about 10 years ago.
How much of the increase comes from improved data collection, as opposed to more
money being sent, is a matter of some debate. And it is the least contentious of
the many talking points emerging as remittances attract more attention. The scale
of the money involved, coupled with its role as a last-ditch attempt by hundreds
of millions to improve their lives, makes it worth a closer look.
The presidents of Spain and Brazil both raised the topic - albeit briefly - during
a press conference about development financing Wednesday, making a serious examination
all the more pressing of just what this money is and what it is not.
Some argue that remittances could or should replace official foreign aid since the
money is taken out of wealthy countries' economies. But Donald Terry, the director
of the Inter-American Development Bank's Multilateral Investment Fund, recently summed
up the flaw in this proposal during a conference two weeks ago in Mexico City.
"This money does not belong to governments," he said. "It belongs
to migrants, who are sending this money home to their families and communities."
A large body of work pioneered by the IDB indicates that most of the money goes toward
immediate needs, such as food and medicine.
Others argue that the ease with which migrant workers send money across borders creates
a potential money laundering mechanism for financing drug trafficking or terrorism.
A cursory look at the facts renders this suggestion totally unrealistic: the average
individual remittance to Latin America in 2004 - which as a region received 46 billion
dollars, making it the largest remittance market in the world - was 300 dollars a
month, and that's at the higher end of worldwide averages.
At the Mexico City conference, sponsored by the Spanish-language edition of Foreign
Affairs, the Central Bank of Mexico said that more than 80 percent of individual
transactions to Mexico last year were for amounts less than 500 dollars.
With numbers like these, and a U.S. law requiring the submission of a "Suspicious
Activity Report" for sending any amount above 10,000 dollars, a rogue outfit
would need at least tens of thousands of co-conspirators to conduct business without
Members of the U.S. Congress are beginning to see the light on this point. During
a June conference in Washington, Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland remarked on testimony
given to the Senate Banking Committee, which he chairs, regarding the topic.
"Testimony confirmed the finding of recent studies that show remittance-senders
to be relatively low-wage earners who have limited formal education and little experience
in dealing with this country's complex system of financial institutions," he
"They are therefore more likely to be the targets of unscrupulous actors who
take advantage of them by charging exorbitant fees, often through the mechanism of
the exchange-rate conversion."
There also have been calls to tax remittances. But in the U.S.-Latin America corridor,
recent investigative reports have revealed a rising business in pirated and unused
social security numbers and other forms of identification for undocumented workers,
allowing them to find employment that is above-board in practice, if not in theory.
This implies that at least some migrant workers are already paying taxes and propping
up a social security system whose benefits their legal status prevents them from
Experts say the real potential of worker remittances, however, lies in how individuals,
local governments and businesses are harnessing this money.
Banks in developing countries are increasingly using remittances as a form of collateral,
allowing them to raise capital at lower interest rates.
Hundreds of entrepreneurs have entered the market in recent years, offering prepaid
cards through which migrant workers can send money home at costs approaching zero,
some of them bypassing traditional wire transfer mechanisms by using the internet.
Observers ranging from academia to Wall Street speculate this phenomenon could revolutionise
the way people think about moving money across borders.
Throughout the United States, community-based organisations formed by migrant workers
pool funds from members to send home en masse for financing projects that repair
schools, generate electricity and build irrigation systems, to name just a few.
As a result, some Latin American politicians now regularly campaign north of the
border. This has also inspired governmental collaboration, one of the more notable
examples being Mexico's "tres por uno" programme in which the municipal,
state and federal governments match the funds sent by community groups abroad.
Whether remittances are a collective answer to bureaucratic sluggishness, the inevitable
outcome of a constantly evolving global labour market, or both, is a question that
may never be answered objectively.
It could be an equally long time before it is possible to quantify with any certainty
how much any of these responses - including those crafted at the United Nations World
Summit - contribute toward reducing poverty. What is evident, however, is that those
most affected cannot afford, in all senses of the word, to wait any longer for a
few extra tenths of a percentage point of official foreign aid.