Cultural norms in Pakistan may be one main reason for the emotional stress migrants face.
Photo: Friedrich Widner

Domestic migration raises incomes, lowers happiness

Domestic migrants experience a substantial decline in mental and physical health, despite a significant increase in their incomes at destination, according to a new study conducted in Pakistan.

Despite significant gains in consumption, migrants in Pakistan experience a deterioration in subjective well-being. This decline in subjective well-being coincides with decreased wealth accumulation and unrealised aspirations with respect to wealth. These are the main findings of a new study from researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, D.C., and The Ohio State University in Columbus/USA.

The research establishes, for the first time, the impact of internal migration on migrants’ happiness in a developing country. The results were even more pronounced for long-distance migrants, who experienced loss of happiness, calmness and physical well-being on one hand, and lesser asset accumulation and dissatisfaction on the other hand.

The study “Moving to Despair? Migration and well-being in Pakistan”, co-authored by IFPRI researchers Katrina Kosec and Valerie Mueller (also Assistant Professor, Arizona State University) and Ohio State University’s Joyce Chen, will be published in the upcoming edition of the journal World Development.

The longitudinal study, conducted over a period of 22 years from 1990 to 2014, drew data from a unique panel survey of households in rural Pakistan to evaluate the impact of internal migration, 92 per cent of which was to other rural areas, on migrants’ physical and mental health and aspirations.

Long-distance migrants worse-off than short-distance migrants

“Internal migration has the potential to substantially increase incomes, especially for the poor in developing countries, and yet migration rates remain low. Our research shows the emotional consequences from migrating long-distance may be quite high, providing another potential explanation for low spatial mobility within countries,’ said Kosec. Typically, migration is posited as a potential exit strategy for rural landless workers or the family members of agricultural households who remain at subsistence. However, long-distance migration not only deteriorates mental health but also takes a toll on their physical well-being, the study shows.

When it comes to accumulating assets such as television, motorcycles, washing machine, etc. and wealth, long-distance migrants are worse-off than both short-distance and non-migrants.

“Cultural norms in Pakistan may also explain the emotional stress migrants face. Migration in Pakistan is tied to major life decisions, such as marriage and starting a new household. Oftentimes, these decisions are made by other members of the family. Assets are hard to acquire without inheritance or support from local informal networks and, with distance, access to those assets may be relinquished and informal networks weakened,” said Mueller.

These findings suggest that migrants in other developing countries or low- and middle-income countries likely also assume significant costs to their mental and physical well-being by migrating. The aspects of the cultural environment that may inhibit migrants’ accumulation of assets in Pakistan are common throughout much of the developing world, where land remains the most common and most valuable asset for most households but land markets and land rights are ill-functioning, notes Chen.

According to the study, migrants also suffer an emotional setback due to a rising gap between their aspirations or goals for the future and their actual accumulation of assets. “Aspirations are increasingly becoming an important area of study given the powerful influence we are learning that they have on everything from the likelihood of making forward-looking investments to the likelihood of engaging in civic organisations and voting,” said Kosec. “Higher aspirations may be a positive development,” she elaborated, “but only if the opportunities that surround a person can reasonably enable him to achieve them.”

Policies needed to better balance rural-urban infrastructures

To overcome the mental health costs associated with migration, the authors recommend addressing regional inequality by shifting production — rather than workers — across space.

“One option may be to bring jobs closer to rural areas than in distant urban areas. Another option would be to improve transport so that rather than migrate to work, people can commute rather cheaply and remain with their families,” said Mueller.

The findings hold key insights into understanding the impediments to migration that will allow governments to better target policies aimed at balancing urban-rural resource allocation vis-a-vis policies targeting agricultural and manufacturing sectors. They also provide a word of caution for migration-related policies: unless the negative effects of migration on subjective well-being can be effectively addressed, even economically beneficial internal migration may not occur.



Joyce Chen, Katrina Kosec, Valerie Mueller: Moving to despair? Migration and well-being in Pakistan

Click here to access the full study online

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