Alex Massie

The 3% Solution & the Case for More, Not Fewer, Foreign Workers

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So the Tories have announced their new international development policy. Apparently it's going to be "results-based" and fit for a "post-bureaucratic age" (this latter being, mind you, the kind of phrase coined by bureaucrats). Iain Dale likes the sound of it and so does Tory Bear. I'm sure there are plenty of good ideas lurking in the new paper, but I'm also pretty sure that there's not much sign of the Tories moving towards a truly radical approach to international development: open borders.

Actually, it's not quite open borders, more a question of creating a worldwide guest-worker programme. Harvard's Lant Pritchett is perhaps the leading proponent of this sort of idea. He calculates that increasing the developed world's labour force by 3% could be worth more than $300bn to citizens of the Third World and their families. That's a hell of a lot more than OECD countries spent on foreign aid last year. It's also a lot more than would be produced by eliminating trade barriers (though this too would be a good thing and a subject worth pursuing.)

Pritchett was profiled by the New York Times a couple of years ago and the question asked in the paper's headline is a good one: Should We Globalize Labor Too? This is no panacea, for sure, but then nor is any other approach to international development. However, since the single most important factor in anyone's life is the country and society into which they are born, chipping away at the barriers to international mobility and migration at least does something to help poor people and, in the end, poor places.

Politically, this is a tough sell, not least because, as Fraser's latest post outlines, there are plenty of people who think foreigners make up too large a part of the workforce now and not many, I suspect, who wonder if the problem might be that we don't have enough foreigners working in this country.

For that matter, it may be that we have too many people from europe and not enough people from sub-saharan africa or south-east asia working in Britain*. Pritchett's proposals start off pretty small - just 16 million people across the developed world - and they can't solve the development programme on their own. But they do at least recognise that millions of people are condemened to lives of poverty by the accident of their birthplace and, consequently, that there's a moral argument for doing something to reduce that inequality.

Micro-finance may well be part of the solution but so too might migration - albeit as regulated by a series of temporary guest-worker programmes, complete with the proper number of carrots and sticks to help ensure return migration. Politically,  this is all far too ambitious and dangerously left-field to happen but it might do more to help the world's poor than many of the ideas that are currently fashionable. And that's still true even in these turbulent economic times.

*However, labour mobility within europe is one of the best things to have happened in recent decades. Allowing Poles to work in Britain has, on balance, been good for Britain and, most certainly, good for Poland too. The sum total of human happiness and opportunity has been advanced. This is also one argument for admitting more countries, including Turkey, into the EU.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyafricaimmigrationtories