Rajini’s experience is not unusual in South Asia, raising her children alone with her husband away for very long periods. In India, young migrants often marry women from their own communities and leave them behind, so that they can simultaneously start a family, ensure that somebody cares for their aging parents and provide better living conditions for everyone.
In these circumstances, marriage may be reduced to two and a half months of joy every two years, and to children who hardly know their fathers. But there are some positive effects. Circumstances force “Gulf wives” to make decisions on their own, and take responsibility for managing the family income and running the household. They acquire a sense of independence and judgment that raises their social status in the community and provides a positive role model for their children. This experience may empower the younger generation of girls in turn.
A large research project has shown that increased income through remittances has led to several changes in lifestyle and consumption patterns for the wives left behind. These include ownership of land, housing and household amenities; the nutritional and health status of their households; their social status; and the quality of their children’s education.(1) During the last two decades, there has been more analysis of remittances and their impact on the wellbeing of families left behind. For some developing countries with high migration flows, worker remittances now represent the largest source of external finance, surpassing foreign direct investment.(2)
The Caribbean and Asia are the two regions of the world with the highest share of remittances as a proportion to GDP,(3) followed by the Middle East and Northern Africa.(4) In the Caribbean, remittances represent around 20 per cent of GDP.(5) In the Philippines, where over 10 per cent of the 84 million total population is abroad, annual remittances are over $US 10 billion, which does not include money sent through friends, relatives and couriers. These remittances are bringing better food, clothing and education to an estimated 30 million dependents.(6)
Although there are no estimates of the proportion of remittances sent by young people, a recent review concluded that young male migrants who are married are more likely to send money regularly.(7) With increasing numbers moving abroad, young women also tend to contribute regularly to their families, particularly if their children are left behind.
The clear benefit of remittances is to mitigate the effect of poverty on families back home and to raise living standards. A study conducted in Latin America has shown that they are most commonly used to complement household incomes that are otherwise insufficient to cover living expenses.(8) In fact, it is estimated that for most families left behind, remittances go most towards basic needs such as housing, food and health care.
But for many young people and children, remittances also allow them to continue their studies and get a better education. A study conducted in 11 Latin American countries shows that education ranked third in the overall use of remittances sent in 2002 after housing and food.(9) The same is probably true for other regions.
National diaspora organizations often co-ordinate efforts to send “community remittances” home. Over half of 174 remitters from the Somali community in London had donated an average of $US164 each during 2005 for village schools and universities throughout the country.(10) Remittances have also been used to help migrants’ children start businesses such as shops, cafes, bars, or construction firms. In Tajikistan, about 5.2 per cent of overall remittances in 2003 had been used in this way.(11)
But migration does not necessarily lead to the expected rapid improvement in the well-being of individual families left behind. Studies have shown that remittances have little impact on wealth disparities within societies. Migration has neither led to the substantial individual accumulation of wealth, nor accelerated the pace of domestic small and medium business development.(12)
However, it is agreed that remittances contribute to a country’s economy and improve the well-being of those left behind. Many countries with high migrating populations are trying to direct remittances towards investments in development. The “three by one” programme in Zacatecas, Mexico, is an example. The federal, state and municipal governments invest one dollar each in community improvements for every dollar invested by the Zacatecan community in the US.(13) With increased interest and availability of information about the use of remittances, countries have now an opportunity to promote the use of remittances for local development.