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The Global Forum for Responsible Recruitment 2023: Keynote Address by LaMP’s Rebekah Smith

LaMP’s Executive Director Rebekah Smith gave the keynote address for The Global Forum for Responsible Recruitment‘s 2023 annual conference in New York City.

Keynote Address Transcript: 

Privilege to be here with you all to present a vision for a professionalized recruitment industry that can be the key to unlocking migration and transforming the lives of millions of workers and their families.  

This conference and our community have traditionally focused on the dangers of unethical recruitment and how to stop them. Today I want to shift our view to the transformative positive potential of migration done well. 

We live in a unique era where the dynamics around migration will be transformed by two parallel and historic trends: 

First, the era of “forever labor shortages” in high-income countries. With more older people and fewer young people in countries like the US and Europe, we are entering an era of aging societies where all industries suffer from a severe lack of workers.  

In the last few years, we have all felt this in many parts of our lives – think of all the long waits at the airport, people struggling to get care for children and aging parents, the breakdown of supply chains driving inflation because there are not enough truck drivers and port workers. 

These worker gaps are already costing the global economy 3-7 billion dollars every day and are going to get far worse from here.  

Without migration, by 2050, OECD countries will lose 92 million working age people and gain 96 million elderly people, meaning that they will need an additional 400+ million workers beyond what we can expect from native birth rates by 2050 jut to maintain their social structures.  

In the past, our response to labor shortages in a given sector has been to raise wages and make that sector more attractive. In a world where there are too few workers to go around, you can’t solve labor shortages by simply recruiting workers away from another sector – that just creates another shortage. Here’s how bad it is already: in the US by 2028, the number of new workers in the entire economy will not be enough to fill labor needs in JUST the elderly and child care sector, let alone the rest of the economy.  

Increased recruitment of foreign workers is the only realistic solution, since the other solutions – like making elderly people work longer or having more children – are not viable. This means that thinking about recruitment has to shift from cleaning up supply chains alone to securing and cleaning supply chains if businesses are to remain functional.  

At the same time, low-income countries face the exact opposite problem of high-income countries – not enough jobs for their workers.  

The number of workers is growing far faster than the number of jobs in countries where underemployment and poverty are already defining features of life for far too many. In the same time frame that high-income countries need an additional 400M workers, low-income countries will have an additional 1.4 billion workers, 600M of whom are not likely to be able to find jobs in their home countries. In Africa already today, between 10 million and 12 million new youth become working age each year, but only 3.1 million jobs are created. 

Think back to what I said – the global economy is already losing 3-7 billion dollars every day because of jobs going unfilled, and at the exact same time, 9 million African youth each year are entering the workforce with little to no hope of finding a good job at home.  

Hopefully the sheer waste is obvious, but it is also fundamentally a matter of justice – when we look at what explains differences in income between people around the world, where they are is the single most important factor. As my co-founder Lant Pritchett likes to say, it turns out there are not poor people but only people in poor places. And as we just covered, there’s going to be a lot more of them in the coming decades. This means that one of the most powerful things companies can do to strengthen global equality is to hire more workers from abroad, and yet we have often viewed this as a risk to manage rather than something to celebrate.   

Let me try to put into context what the opportunity to work abroad means for a migrant worker. On average, the exact same worker, born in a low-income country but doing the exact same job abroad, can expect to increase their income by 5 to 15 times, even adjusting for higher expenses living in a high-income country. Think about what you would do to multiply your current salary by 10. 

For workers and their families born into poverty, the chance to work abroad represents food on the table, life-saving healthcare, sending their children to school. The impact of it dwarfs all foreign aid and charitable giving.  

This means that the demographics I told you about earlier represent a historic opportunity to transform labor markets to the benefit of the most vulnerable: if we were to fill the jobs that need to be filled in high-income countries, by bringing in workers from low-income countries, we would create additional trillions in increased global income, largely accruing to people born into poverty.  For me personally, this is why I’m at this conference today.  

But at the same time that these trends create a historic opportunity, they also put significantly more pressure on recruitment systems. Far more workers would like to work abroad than are able to under the current system. Recruiters in many contexts control who gets access to this golden ticket, putting much of the power in their hands and driving many of the issues we are here to talk about at this conference. 

The pressure of increasing numbers of young people unable to get good jobs in their home country, paired with lucrative but empty jobs in countries like the US and Europe, will increase risks of recruitment fraud and human trafficking if we don’t act effectively and swiftly.  

Many of the problems we see in recruitment systems – and that we are gathered around today – are a direct result of these pressures, as well as recruitment systems that are designed in a way that actively creates incentives for fraud and malpractice. 

These bad outcomes have delegitimized migration, such that the first thing people think of is not its enormous potential for good, but the risks and abuses migrants so frequently face. 

So, recruitment is both the challenge and – to some extent – the solution to unlocking the potential of migration. 

It won’t surprise anyone in this room that politics are the primary barrier to letting these workers fill needed jobs.  

But in the course of our work, we’ve learned two things that might surprise you: 

The first is that – for the most part – political resistance to foreign workers isn’t driven by racism or xenophobia – its driven by very valid concerns about the way that migration is currently happening, the same concerns that brought you to this conference today. Most voters fall into what is called the “anxious middle” – people who are not very for or very against migration, but rather are concerned about abuse and exploitation of migrants, irregular migration, and visa overstay. As we just discussed, many of these challenges are driven specifically by problems within recruitment systems.  

As long as voters and policymakers see the movement of people as dominated by human traffickers and smugglers and recruiters and employers who take advantage of those who move, a massive opportunity for improving the human condition around the world will remain off the agenda. The flip side of this is that by building a professional and responsible recruitment industry, we can directly answer these concerns and build political support to expand migration. 

The second thing that might surprise you is that even when access is not limited by policy, it is limited by [practice]. Many countries are beginning to open up their migration systems – Japan, Germany, Canada have all made major strides in the last 3 years to welcome significantly more foreign workers. And yet workers are not moving through these visas, because missing infrastructure and services has rendered them inaccessible. These visas are unfilled because the systems are too complex for employers and workers to navigate without support, and we haven’t developed a professional industry delivering these the support services in time to take advantage of these opportunities. 

This is where we get to the positive role of the recruitment industry. We’ve spent so much time focusing on the harms caused by today’s recruitment systems, that we sometimes lose sight of the critical and positive role of recruiters in well-functioning migration systems.  

A sustainable responsible recruitment industry is core to ensuring that we can scale migration while managing it in a way that workers are well prepared, placed, and protected throughout the migration experience.  

There is plenty of evidence that recruiters play a significant role in reducing barriers and frictions for both workers and employers throughout the entire migration process by building and circulating specialized knowledge of migration opportunities and how to navigate these complex systems. As immigration processes in receiving countries become more complex, the assistance of an intermediary who can help migrants navigate processes which are time-consuming and costly has become increasingly essential. 

It is also critical to ensuring that employers of all sizes are able to hire foreign workers – with growing need to recruit foreign workers, companies traditionally not acquainted with the immigration system will require extensive support to navigate the systems and hire the people they need. 

There’s a strong economic case for this industry to exist at scale: The economic gains to employers and workers from filling half of the need would look something like 3 trillion dollars annually. If only 1 percent – a conservative estimate – of the aggregate gains were spent on mobility industry services, this would imply a 30 billion dollar per year industry. 

As a community, we need to shift the timeframes we center our work on. By focusing mainly on present day harms of irresponsible recruitment, we risk designing solutions that miss the opportunity to catalyze the future transformative potential of well-managed and supported migration. We will not succeed if we focus mainly on suppressing and reforming the activities of our present undesirable industry – the draw of migration is simply too powerful. The way we will succeed in transforming recruitment is by building a strong foundation for the growth of a professional, sustainable, responsible recruitment industry.  

We can look to the evolution of other sectors to envision the emergence of such an industry.  

Many of you likely took a plane to get here – being able to travel safely across countries or even hemispheres is something we take for granted as part of our daily lives. But in the 1930s, air travel was dangerous and unreliable, to the point that one might have easily pointed to the overwhelming challenges of creating a safe, reliable, convenient, and affordable airline industry. We can think of today’s recruitment industry in much the same way – decentralized, without proper regulation or enforcement of standards, leaving the clients – workers – at significant risk. 

So, what happened to turn the airline industry from a small-scale and dangerous operation, to the vast and reliable industry that it is today?   

The answer is decades of concerted, dedicated, (and government supported) effort to create all of the necessary infrastructures: standards, monitoring, enforcement mechanisms, and the consolidation of airlines competing to provide the best value proposition to their customers. They recognized that an airplane accident happening anywhere was an accident happening everywhere, and worked together to build a competitive industry that jointly reinforced standards of safety. 

We have made notable strides in recent years in international recruitment; the launch of IRIS was an important step to articulating quality standards; we have seen companies take on additional local staff to guide their suppliers, training on better recruitment practice for recruiters and suppliers, and companies making repayments to workers who are found to have paid fees. Governments are taking the notable step of embedding recruitment quality requirements in trade agreements like the recent one between US and Taiwan. 

But as demographic pressures intensify and immigration policies open, it is a matter of increasing urgency to transform the industry and deliver professional recruitment services at scale.  

This requires new scalable and sustainable solutions:  developing economically viable responsible recruitment models through financial solutions to reduce risk and timing issues for employers and recruiters, building technology that increases transparency and worker feedback, building recruitment models that give workers greater power as clients, and associations of responsible recruiters with a vested interest in holding themselves accountable. We envision a global responsible recruitment industry that, much like the airlines, sees abuse in one corridor as a threat to business in every corridor. 

The people in this room (and online) are well positioned to help guide us to this new world. More than anyone, you have given deep thought to what a better recruitment industry would look like. It is up to us now to expand the tent and invite new types of partners in – from worlds like finance and incubators and accelerators to support new recruitment startups, getting all hands on deck and expanding our skills to build this industry.   

We need to counter narratives that portray migrants only as victims by designing mechanisms that increase their agency and acknowledge the powerful impact of migration on their lives, and as businesses we need to own our part of this impact and advocate for expanded visa pathways not only to address labor needs, but as part of a robust global economic inclusion strategy that acknowledges that in today’s world your economic opportunity depends on where you are much more than who you are. Together, we can build a good industry and an industry for good, and transform labor markets so that – for all workers around the world – their opportunity reflects their potential, not just the circumstances of their birth. Thank you. 

Labor mobility opportunities in IberoAmerica

LaMP conducted a scoping and assessment project to develop a pipeline of proof-of-concept projects in the Ibero-American region that can demonstrate quality labor mobility with the potential to mature into long-term, large-scale pathways. Through our research, we have identified a diverse range of initiatives related to labor mobility in the region, while also identifying gaps and unmet needs in establishing effective pathways. Building on this landscape, we produced a set of four high-potential projects and an additional five emerging opportunities that expand upon existing promising efforts in the region or pilot new labor mobility pathways.

High-potential projects span North, Central, and South America as well as Spain, and respond directly to the needs of essential industries with major labor shortages, including aged care, hospitality, supply chain and logistics, and agriculture. Emerging opportunities lay the groundwork for amplifying existing efforts to improve labor market integration of migrant workers and refugees already in destination countries, as well as to fortify industry use of regular labor mobility channels, guaranteeing labor market integration even before leaving the home country.

These projects and opportunities could have transformative impacts for some of the region’s most vulnerable people. We have focused especially on projects which represent positive innovations in labor migration management and advance the field towards more humane, effective, and efficient systems. As a result, we believe the projects emerging from this work can demonstrate tremendous positive impact of better models of labor migration and catalyze new ideas and responses to migration flows, both within the region and around the world.

LaMP team is working to design and implement potential pilots for the high-potential projects identified and actively seeks to collaborate with local stakeholders so that the project’s design reflects their needs. 

LaMP’s work on labor mobility opportunities in IberoAmerica has received support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.  

Please find here an Executive Summary of our work in English and Spanish.


Starting in 2024, LaMP has begun to publish briefs on individual high-potential programs identified within this project.


Brief 1: Unlocking Cruise Jobs for Central American Workers 


Stayed tuned for updates on progress of the design and implementation of these programs in our newsletter and website.


For more information, contact:

Kim Geronimo

Catalyzing Labor Mobility Solutions for Ibero-America: A Regional Assessment of Opportunities for Innovative Demonstration Projects (Executive Summary)

Large-scale, orderly, and safe labor mobility is an untapped opportunity for Latin America, which encompasses some of the poorest countries in the world with high levels of informal and precarious employment. With this in mind, LaMP undertook a scoping and assessment project to develop a pipeline of proof of-concept projects in the region that demonstrate effective labor mobility and can mature into long-term, large-scale pathways. The projects emerging from this work could have transformative impacts for some of the region’s most vulnerable people, resulting in an estimated additional 50,000 to 70,000 people moving through safe and regular channels over the next 10 years and roughly USD$640M in annual income gains. Put into practice, these projects can demonstrate the tremendous positive impact of better models of labor migration and catalyze new ideas and responses to migration flows, both within the region and around the world.

Available in English and Spanish.

Download the PDF

The Global Forum for Responsible Recruitment 2023: Session Moderated by LaMP’s Elicia Carmichael

On June 13-14 the LaMP team was in New York City for the Global Forum on Responsible Recruitment along with businesses, governments, NGOs, trade unions and academics from around the world. This session – titled “State of Play: Where are we in Establishing the Employer Pays Principle as Normal Practice. What More Needs to Happen?” –  provides an overview of current recruitment practice; it examines initiatives and improvements to recruitment whilst also considering what more needs to be done to implement the Employer Pays Principle.

Elicia Carmichael, Labor Mobility Partnerships, Director of Financial Solutions and Corporate Partnerships

Hannah Newcomb, Stronger Together: Co-CEO
Tom Smith, Walmart: Director, Global Government Affairs and Business Diplomacy
Ben Bostock, Impactt: Principal Consultant

People over robots: How policy distorts decisions around automation



Lant Pritchett, LaMP Co-founder and Research Director

Simon Johnson, MIT Economist a co-author of  his latest book “Power and Progress



Matt Yglesias, Vox Co-Founder



We live in a technological age full of machines promising to transform every aspect of our lives. As such, we often treat technological change as something to be adapted to—almost as a force of nature—and the pace of change seems irrepressible. However, while technology and automation have significantly improved our lives, what impact do these radical changes have on our societies and workers around the world? How much does the world miss out on the real economic and humanitarian gains that would come from allowing people to go and work where they are needed instead of trying to use technology to replace humans?

On Monday, June 12, the Global Economy and Development program at Brookings and Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP) hosted Simon Johnson, an economist at MIT, to discuss his latest book “Power and Progress,” which argues that technology has, in most eras, been used by a class of elites to further enrich themselves and consolidate their power. He was joined by Lant Pritchett, an expert on matters of labor mobility and development, who highlighted the key ideas from his latest piece “People Over Robots” published in Foreign Affairs magazine, claiming that automation is a choice people make—not an inevitability or a necessity—and one they make based on labor markets distorted by restrictive immigration policies.

The speakers engaged in a discussion moderated by Vox Co-Founder Matt Yglesias to discuss the idea that progress depends on the choices we make about technology, and how our policies influence these choices. The conversation focused on the intersection of technology and labor mobility, and the unexplored potential that already exists among people around the world.


Historic Shift in the Global Development Agenda: Celebrating the New World Development Report 

Most migrants and their families have skills and attributes that strongly match the needs of destination societies. The social and economic benefits associated with their migration are typically much larger than the costs – and this is true for both destination and sending countries. These are key takeaways from the World Banks’s new World Development Report (WDR) titled “Migrants, Refugees, Societies. 

Centering migration in its annual flagship publication is a significant shift in the Bank’s relationship with migration. Historically, the Bank (and broader international development community) has approached development with a much narrower lens, focusing its efforts on localized development initiatives. Rather than a powerful tool to be harnessed for sustainable economic development, migration has been seen as a negative byproduct of poverty, the effects of which need to be mitigated.  

The WDR mirrors a broader shift in the global consensus on the need for migration. Faced with population decline resulting from decreasing birth rates, wealthy countries are starting to suffer from crippling labor shortages. Meanwhile, over a billion people are either living or want to live across international borders, and the number of people born in low-income countries is growing far faster than the number of jobs.  

The World Bank now acknowledges that well managed migration can be a powerful force for prosperity with benefits for all: economic migrants, refugees, and those who stay behind, and for origin and destination societies. Rather than engaging in ideological debates about whether migration is good or bad, it tries to answer a different, and much more important question: how can migration work better for global development? 

This is at the heart of LaMP’s work as we help address market failures and regulatory barriers that impede safe and effective labor mobility. We do this by proposing and delivering innovative and market-compatible solutions that create sustainable labor mobility systems worldwide. 

The WDR argues that when people bring skills and attributes in demand in the destination country, there are net gains for themselves, as well as for both their countries of origin and destination. These gains materialize regardless of migrants’ motives, skill levels, or legal status but both destination and origin countries can design and implement measures that further increase the benefits of migration and effectively address its downsides 

The WDR finds that “by far the largest” group of people on the move do so in response to economic interests, motivated by the knowledge that there are employers demanding their skills and attributes. This is an important acknowledgement, as it allows us to focus on the tremendous opportunity in front of us. High income countries have large unfilled labor demand and low-income countries have the right labor supply to meet this demand. We now need to find ways to translate these words into action.  

At LaMP, we work to expand opportunities for migrants with strong skill matches, maximize gains during their journeys and help mitigate any related negative effects. For example, we are developing a program to connect workers across Latin America with the 150,000 jobs cruise employers need filled; building and implementing a low cost worker voice mechanism to monitor and improve recruitment practices; and designing training and financing solutions for potential migrants in India, Colombia, El Salvador and beyond.  

The WDR marks a historic shift in recognizing the potential of well-managed migration as a powerful force for global development. This shift will have far-reaching impact, as it paves the way for vital funding to be directed towards labor migration, unlocking immense development opportunities that far surpass even the most effective development tools we know. We have a long way to go, however, as labor migration currently receives less than 0.4% of official development assistance and 0.5% of private foundation money for sustainable development. 

We need to translate the powerful insights contained in the new WDR into action by directing more operational funds from the bank towards labor migration. As we embrace this new era, organizations like LaMP are at the forefront, building a field that is committed to helping create sustainable labor mobility systems, lifting millions of workers and their families out of poverty.  Our partner, the People on the Move Initiative is looking to help donors incorporate mobility into their giving, Malengo is pioneering educational pathways, Imagine Foundation is removing barriers for tech workers, Talent Beyond Boundaries is opening doors for displaced people, and Por Causa is working to change narratives.  

We hope many more will join the effort. By embracing the potential of migration, addressing its challenges, and maximizing the gains for everyone involved, we can harness the transformative power of labor mobility for the betterment of individuals, societies, and the world as a whole. 

Aged Care Sector Calls for Governments to Act on Labor Shortages. Migration Can Help.

Severe worker shortages continue to threaten the health care sector in OECD countries. Ongoing demographic shifts pose a double challenge to long-term care providers: as populations age, there will not only be more seniors in need of adequate care but also fewer working-age individuals to fill the jobs. As Dutch Health Minister Conny Helder put it, we may face a future in which “old people will have to rely more on themselves and less on professional caregivers.”

At the same time, there are many workers in developing countries willing to take on these jobs. The ongoing demographic shifts will inevitably lead to the need for workers from abroad to fill jobs in OECD countries. More and better labor mobility programs must inevitably be a part of any solution to the long-term care sector’s worker shortage issue. The time is ticking. It is up to the governments to take action and open more and better migration pathways for workers from abroad to fill the openings that employers desperately need.


The Growing Labor Scarcity


The recent strikes of U.S. nurses over understaffing and the resulting concerns about ability to provide patients with adequate care are just the latest drop in the bucket when it comes to health care worker shortages around the world. Other OECD countries, from the United Kingdom to Spain, Belgium and others, have been seeing similar trends in the sector for years. As a result, the lack of workers is not only actively undermining labor conditions for existing workers but also creating unsafe conditions for the patients.

The long-term care (LTC) sector specifically faces the direst challenges. Latest estimates show that essentially all high-income countries, regardless of their demographics, are facing a crisis within their respective social care workforces. By 2040, the number of LTC workers in OECD countries will have to increase by 60 percent. In South Korea and Cyprus, providers will have to find ways to hire over 120 percent more workers given current levels of productivity.



In an effort to put pressure on their countries’ policymakers, representatives from the LTC sector issued a joint call to action earlier this year, urging policymakers to find solutions to the problem of worker shortages. Published by the Global Aging Network (GAN), an organization representing a wide variety of LTC stakeholders, the call stressed various workforce issues, including sustainable funding systems within the LTC sector, recruitment and retention of staff, and training of employees.

Aside from the lack of workers, the LTC providers have also faced the other result of aging within the OECD societies – the increased need for their services. In 2019, there were 703 million people older than 65 years in the world. Projections suggest the number will double to 1.5 billion in 2050 — one in six people around world will be at least 65 years old.

While recruitment difficulties in the LTC sector are linked to low pay, inadequate working conditions and a lack of appreciation for healthcare workers, the changing demographics in OECD countries clearly point to another fundamental problem. As societies get older due to declining fertility rates, their overall workforce shrinks, making it harder for employers to find enough workers to fill the gaps. Rather than “labor shortage,” the more fundamental trend is the one of “labor scarcity.” In the U.S., for example, the number of new jobs in the care sector alone will be higher than the total number of workers in the labor market by 2028. Simply increasing worker wages will not solve this issue.



Although improving working conditions and making the sector more attractive to local workers is an important step in the right direction, the demographic data clearly show that this alone will not fully address the underlying problem. Even with all local workers employed, there simply won’t be enough workers in OECD countries to fill the job openings in the LTC sector.


Labor Mobility as Part of the Solution


It is without a doubt that labor mobility, allowing workers to move across borders in a safe and reliable way, will have to become one of the key instruments within the governments’ tool kit. Currently, less than a handful of OECD countries operate dedicated labor migration streams for care workers. And those that do exist are either often operating at just a small scale or prone to issues around worker exploitation and continuity of care.

Stakeholders around the world have finally begun to recognize the need to include quality labor mobility as part of the solution to labor shortages in the LTC sector. In fall 2022, the European Commission set it as one of its priorities highlighted in the 2030 Strategy for caregivers and care receivers. The Commission will map the current admission conditions and rights of long-term care workers from non-EU countries and consider developing EU-level schemes to attract more workers to the sector.

The GAN call to action also pointed out the importance of staff mobility. Specifically, the providers highlighted the need for sufficient skills and language training as well as countries’ better ability to internationally recognize diplomas and credentials. However, labor mobility as one of the key solutions to labor scarcity has yet to take a major role in the industry’s global agenda despite the indisputable effect it would have on reducing the growing worker scarcity.

Interested stakeholders around the world have already recognized the potential of labor mobility to meet the sector’s needs, taking promising steps towards creating more and improving the quality of migration pathways for the care industry. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) successfully piloted two new pathways for workers from Samoa and Fiji to come to Australia, including intensive aged care training before or after arrival. The Germany-based organization Care with Care helps to connect unemployed or underemployed nurses from across the world with healthcare institutions in destination countries with labor shortage, focusing on quality, training and integration of the workers. While the U.S. currently doesn’t have any migration pathway for LTC workers, LeadingAge, a community of U.S. nonprofit aging services providers, proposed the introduction of the “H-2Age” temporary guest worker program for certified nurse aides (CNA) and home care aides.


The Win-Win Scenario


Labor mobility is mutually beneficial for both sending and receiving countries. It helps to solve the worker scarcity in destination countries while promoting the development of poor sending countries. For example, a recent study showed that enrollment and graduation of Filipino nurses had grown substantially in response to increased demand from the U.S. At the same time, the supply of nursing programs expanded. For each nurse that left the country, there were nine additional nurses who obtained their licenses.

A well-designed migration model could provide mutually beneficial solution, supporting the health care sector in sending as well as receiving countries. The Global Skills Partnerships (GSPs) is an example of a program under which some trained workers stay at home while others leave for abroad. As a result, both sending and receiving countries benefit.

Labor mobility must be a key component of any strategy to address worker shortages within the LTC sector. The future of the sector is now in the hands of OECD governments. Finding a solution will not only benefit the LTC providers and workers, but serve a vital role for the aging populations in need for care. The time to act is now.

Ongoing Demographic Shifts Provide Unique Opportunity for the Global South to Advocate for More and Better Labor Mobility

Since the global poor have been excluded from earning opportunities in rich countries for so long, nearly all development programs simply assume this is how it will always be. Historically, virtually all poverty reduction and development programs have been focused within the low-income countries, rather than trying to provide the people more and better economic opportunities abroad. And yet, labor mobility holds vastly more promise for reducing poverty than anything else on the development agenda. It allows workers from low-income countries  move into higher earning jobs abroad, and thus support themselves as well as their families and relatives back home.

The ongoing demographic changes, resulting in lack of workers in high-income countries and youth bulges in low-income countries, provide a historic opportunity to finally address the single largest driver of income inequality in the world: the birth lottery. The time is now to deploy problem solvers and advocates from low-income, or the “Global South”, countries to start building more and better labor mobility. The alternative includes increasing high-risk irregular migration, labor trafficking, and declining OECD communities and economies.

As the rich world has started to wake up to a future of crippling labor shortages and aging societies, the Global South has a chance to openly advocate for the Global North to open its doors to more workers through expansion of their visa regimes.


The Ongoing Demographic Shifts

Millions of people around the world are trapped in poverty as a result of where they were born. More than half of variability in income globally is explained by country of birth; making it the most important determinant of your opportunity in life and meaning that mostly, “there are not poor people but only people in poor places.”

At the same time, these low-income countries of the “Global South” face significant increase in the numbers of young people due to the ongoing demographic changes. Estimates show that the working-age population in these countries will increase by millions by 2050, and in the cases of sub- Saharan Africa and South Asia, hundreds of millions. Within Africa alone, between 10 million and 12 million youth enter the workforce on average each year, but only 3.1 million jobs are created. This poses significant risks associated with youth underemployment, as the governments struggle to create the number of jobs needed to absorb their growing youth populations.


Since the opposite demographic challenge is happening in high- income countries that face crippling labor shortages and aging societies, this also represents a historic opportunity to start building more and better labor mobility. With a shrinking working-age and growing elderly populations, high-income countries will need additional 400 million new workers over the next 30 years in order to maintain their safety nets and economic systems. This massive need for workers offers a path to quality employment for a large share of new working age people from the Global South who are not projected to currently be absorbed by their domestic labor markets.



The two opposing demographic trends provide a historic opportunity to bridge international labor markets. Improving the quality, scale and effectiveness of labor mobility programs between low- and high-income countries can address the labor scarcity – the situation resulting from demographic decline in high-income countries, in which simply increasing worker wages will not address the worker shortage issue. At the same time, such program would help increase the share of youth from the Global South that are engaged in quality employment and providing some transformative benefits for them and their families.


Labor Mobility as Poverty Reduction Strategy

Allowing people to leave their homes to work abroad through quality labor mobility, and thus secure better life for themselves as well their loved ones, has proven to be, the most effective tool to reduce poverty among people in low-income countries. When workers find employment abroad, estimates show they can increase their income as much as 6 to 15 times for their wage in their home country. Overall, implementation of effective policies, allowing for well-regulated migration programs, is far more effective than any other poverty reduction tool. It achieves powerful poverty reduction gains without an upfront investment from governments or donors, unlike other anti-poverty interventions.

Beyond offering quality employment opportunities for their workers, associated remittances and skill accumulation can lead to a powerful positive change on development outcomes in low-income countries. Remittances are as large or larger than foreign aid in many sending countries. In 2021, global remittances estimates stood at USD 773 billion, USD 605 billion of which went to low- income countries. This is approximately at the same level as foreign direct investment (FDI), and when excluding China as the biggest source of external financing, remittances are even larger than FDI. Nepal, for example, was able to reduce its poverty headcount from 45 percent to 15 percent over a 20-year period, despite low growth rates. This was in large part due to remittances, which accounted for 40 percent of the decline in the poverty headcount. The tremendous positive impact of remittances on well-being in sending countries in comparison to other external financing is given also by the fact that they flow directly into households who are able to use them to bolster their consumption and education and health spending.

Workers employed overseas also accumulate skills which they then bring back upon their return home. Return from abroad often allows returnees to capitalize on their acquired skills to secure a more highly skilled job – often with a better salary – than they would have if they had not migrated. As many as half of the skilled migrants working abroad eventually come home, bringing these new skills and connections with them. As an example, returnees to Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica have been overrepresented in highly skilled occupations and underrepresented in least-skilled trades. This challenges the traditional ‘brain drain’ claim that skilled migration depletes the stock of human capital in sending countries and hurts their prospects of economic development, an argument that has often been a barrier to sending countries engaging on labor mobility.


Why Have Global South Countries Not Advocated for More Migration Programs?

Despite the positive benefits of migration programs, low-income countries have not been widely vocal in calling for labor mobility to expand opportunities for their people.  Several factors have been contributing to the skepticism about labor mobility although as shown below, these concerns have not proven to be valid.

First, since government officials in low-income countries often view promoting labor mobility as a way to a better life for their people, it is perceived as admitting failure of their own development as migration is commonly believed to reduce with rise in income. However, this belief is not supported by evidence, which instead has shown an ‘emigration life cycle’ in which migration first rises, then falls as GDP per capita increases in low-income countries.

Second, a key concern among sending country governments is the risk of worker abuse and violations of their rights. This has concretely manifested as a political and reputational risk in sending countries, where cases of worker abuse have had direct and strong repercussions for government officials. Many times, such as in the Philippines, Ethiopia and Indonesia, cases of worker abuse have resulted in a complete ban from the sending country on recruitment of workers to a particular receiving country. However, these bans have largely served only to encourage even more risky irregular migration; for example, within two years of Ethiopia banning labor mobility to the UAE, as many as 30,000 Ethiopians were detained there for irregular migration.

Third, concerns around ‘brain drain’ are another reason low-income countries choose to not pursue labor mobility as an employment strategy. However, evidence shows more of a ‘brain gain’ than ‘brain drain.’ Migration opportunities increase earning potential within specific sectors, which in turn increase the return to skilling in that sector. This creates demand for training in this sector, which results not only in the emergence of specialized schools and vocational training institutes, but incentivizes more people to train than actually migrate.  The most vivid example is the Philippines, where the migration of nurses increased the country’s stock of nurses and nursing enrollments increased so much that for every trained nurse who migrated, 10 additional nurses were licensed.


It is the Perfect time for the Global South to Begin Advocating for More and Better Labor Mobility

All the factors mentioned above contribute to the common belief that labor mobility as a solution to the ongoing demographic changes is politically impassable. Sending country officials with mandates to open new foreign labor markets for the country’s workers report the primary constraint to be knowing which countries to approach and, within those countries, which individuals and government bodies to approach and how. This ultimately leads to competition between sending countries that are trying to attract and convince high-income countries to open more pathways for their workers, resulting in hampered overall benefits and lowering of labor mobility standards.

However, it is clear that if the Global South countries are committed to the well-being of their people, they should consider labor mobility a viable and positive strategy. Bridging their labor surpluses with significant labor shortages in high-income countries alleviates risky employment pressures from their growing youth populations. Meanwhile, they stand to benefit from increased inflow of remittances and skill accumulation, both of which are powerful forces for bettering living standards in sending countries. However, all these benefits are lowered by the ongoing competition between the sending countries.

The ongoing demographic changes provide a historic opportunity for the Global South to build a coalition openly calling for a dramatic increase in the number and quality of labor migration opportunities in the high-income countries. Such cooperation would allow the sending countries not only to increase their bargaining power with the high-income countries, but also provide space to share lessons learnt and collaborate on creation of labor mobility programs. Ultimately, it could help unlock more life-changing opportunities for millions of workers from low-income countries and their families.

BCG’s A New Migration Strategy for Growth and Innovation

The following excerpt was originally published by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and co-authored by LaMP’s Executive Director Rebekah Smith and board member Janina Kugel, as well as Dr. Johann Daniel Harnoss, Marley Finley, Dany Bahar, and Hillel Rapoport on March 31, 2023 here

Few of us would imagine it: innovation, perhaps the most pondered, probed, and pursued of business and societal imperatives today, is on the decline.1 Solutions to the critical challenges we face depend not only on a handful of exceptional individuals with breakthrough ideas, but on the broad array of people who help realize those ideas by keeping the engines running and greasing the wheels of progress. An essential ingredient in this mix is migration: a country’s blend of talent offered by populations drawn from beyond its borders—their brain power and brawn, their genius and common sense, and their creativity and fresh perspectives. Countries and cities that optimize their migration mix for economic potential can reap significant competitive advantage, now and in the decades ahead.

Yet most policymakers have failed to recognize this opportunity. In this report, we present a three-factor framework that can help public leaders stimulate economic growth through migration policy. BCG’s Global Talent Migration Index (GTMix) describes the elements of a winning migration mix—one that correlates squarely with greater productivity and innovation, as well as with public acceptance of immigrant workers. This novel, research-backed framework can help policymakers understand the current state of their migration strategy, benchmark it against the corresponding strategies of other countries, and ultimately design policies that will make their economy more vibrant, more innovative, and more resilient.

1 Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen & Webb (2020), “are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” American Economic Review 110(4): 1104–44.

EconoFact: Automation or (Immigrant) Labor? Responding to Labor Scarcity

Featured on EconoFact’s podcast, LaMP’s Research Director Lant Pritchett spoke with host Michael Klein about the economic sense of allowing foreign workers from labor-abundant countries to fill job vacancies in other countries, while also addressing the political and social concerns about expanding labor mobility. The following is an excerpt from the podcast transcript published by EconoFact on March 26, 2023 here

Michael Klein

Going back to the issue of technology and the scarcity of labor, you talk about in your Foreign Affairs article an example of self-driving trucks as an example of sort of a strange response to an absence of truck drivers. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Lant Pritchett

Yeah, it’s just a great illustration where the scarcest resources on the planet, which are high-level scientific and technological knowledge and entrepreneurship, are economizing on something that’s globally abundant. The number of people in the world that would drive trucks in America if they were legally allowed to is enormous. But, since they’re not allowed to, the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos and Larry and Sergey of Google are all working on developing technology of self-driving, but they’re driven to that by the lack of available labor. This isn’t a natural technological impulse. There’s nothing intrinsically happening in technology that would lead to this. This is the response to their inability to satisfy their demand for workers, but there isn’t a global scarcity of workers or truck drivers. It’s an artificially created scarcity by lack of, again, legal mechanisms for people to move from other countries and drive trucks in America.

Michael Klein

So that speaks to the advantage in America of allowing people in. What about the advantage to those potential American truck drivers who are living abroad? They would benefit as well, correct?

Lant Pritchett

Oh, and as you said in the introduction, I’m a development economist. I’ve worked most of my career on how can we make people better off, and how can we increase their productivity, and the wage differential between truck drivers in most of the world and that in the US is at least four to one. And the reason it’s four to one is that truck driving is just a more productive value producing activity in a rich, highly productive country than in a poor country. So just by allowing these workers to move, it creates gains to them that are just enormous relative to anything else on the development agenda. There’s no development project or program that can increase people’s wages by a factor of four, but allowing them to move from a low productivity to a high productivity place does it instantaneously.

LaMP Flights: Coordinating Public, Private, and Non-profit Sectors to Prepare El Salvadorean Workers for the Cruise Industry 


“We want to pull the youth out of gangs’ hands by providing them with better opportunities, like those offered by the cruise industry.” –  

Captain Guillermo Jimenez, Executive Director of El Salvador’s Maritime and Port Authority 



El Salvador is well positioned – by proximity and capabilities – to competitively deliver workers to maritime industries, especially to US cruise companies via C1/D “crew” visas.  These visas can represent a significant safe and legal occupational mobility channel that mitigates against the pressures for irregular migration. Additionally, the global cruise industry is looking to quickly ramp-up operations following the COVID-19 operational halt, which is generating a big worker demand where labor has already been scarce, with industry insiders citing a need to hire 150,000 workers.  Furthermore, stakeholders in El Salvador want to build the country’s capacity to supply workers that meet the demand of the industry. However, preparing workers with the requirements that meet the industry’s specific skill requirements is currently a challenge.   



The LaMP team participated in a two-day workshop to co-design a vision for preparing job seekers from El Salvador for cruise industry jobs. The workshop constituted of local and international entities interested in preparing merchant marines for cruise jobs, including El Salvador’s Maritime and Port Authority and its Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Labor Mobility Unit; a private training company, Aquila Center for Cruise Excellence; and a non-profit training organization, EXSAL Naval Training Institute 


 We want to eliminate investment barriers that prevent job seekers from accessing necessary training to secure jobs. There are a number of key capabilities that cruise workers need, including: certain level of English language proficiency, maritime certification, and hospitality-at-sea training. These all involve significant investments of time and money by potential workers, without a guarantee of work. Indeed, hiring from the industry in Central America has been low to date, precisely because there are few sufficiently trained workers and there have been no dedicated hospitality-at-sea courses. This dynamic creates a market failure, requiring coordination to address.  


Together with the participating stakeholders, the LaMP team seeks to bridge the gap between skilled workers and industry demanded jobs. Aquila Center for Cruise Excellence – a Caribbean Cruise Association – presented their industry-demanded and newly developed “Preparing for Life at Sea” training curriculum. The job readiness training prepares workers in three steps: preparing for life onboard, foundational English and ship terminology, and service excellence and understanding the cruise industry. With the help of LaMP, Aquila and the EXSAL training institute will develop a model to help EXSAL absorb the training and ensure long-term sustainability. The government and philanthropic support can help and scale the program with early funding to defray costs of initial training and development of a long-term financing model.  


Preparation for cruise industry jobs involves high training costs for individuals and a lengthy training engagement.  The initial investment for most aspiring cruise workers is over $2,000 (including certifications, English courses, and living costs while training). This up-front cost represents over five months of work at minimum wage in El Salvador. During the visit, the LaMP team was able to estimate these investments and conceptualize a program that would make the return on investment worthwhile for the worker and the industry. LaMP seeks to design a financing mechanism to reduce a worker’s risk in this kind of investment, while ensuring long term sustainability by transitioning from grant funding to investment capital