Understanding migrant resource flows and its relation to ‘development’ of migrant sending regions: Evidence from South India

WESTERNUNIOn sanam roohi

In this piece, Sanam Roohi critically explores the notion and praxis/implications of migrant led development in the country of origin, in this context India. Going beyond the dominant discourse of studying this process through remittances, she argues there is need to delve deep into the multifarious ways a migrant is associated to the place of origin. A transnational perspective thus entails a grasp on the complexities of migrant resource flows and exchanges.

Globalisation in the current global context is understood as a process that is axiomatic of modernity and development, and it is important to critically look and question this grand narrative and engage with the challenges it face from different forces. International migration is seen as a key manifestation of globalisation, and migrant transfers, as an instrument of social and economic transformation. Globalisation cannot be taken as a point of departure in world history, but nonetheless it has certain attributes specific to itself. The time-space compression that Harvey talks of or the time-space distantiation that Gidden’s attribute to being a consequence of modernity, has coupled with the increasing demand for flexible labour for specific kinds of work especially after the 1970’s oil crisis and global economic restructuring, to fuel post Fordist economies in the West (Kearney 1995). These developments have made some scholars of migration to call for a renewed understanding of the transnational phenomenon of migration that is increasingly seeing a collapse of spatial differentiation between the centre and the periphery or the rural and the urban, and where production, consumption, ideas of community, politics and identities is considered to have become deterritorialised (Kerney 1995). Challenging this view, what I argue in this piece is that there is a reconfiguration of social and economic space occurring that rather than disembedding people and flow of ideas and finances on a global plane, tends to re-embed them in a different time-space combine.

Transnational migrants send back various forms of reverse flows to their home regions, perhaps as materialisation of the dual but congruent feelings of belongingness and uprootedness in relation to their place of origin. Over the years, there has been a shift in the ways migrants materially engage with their places of origin. While earlier studies only concentrated on remittances (Chami et. Al. 2005) today, migrant engagement range from religious charity, financial investments (from building houses to buying other land based assets) to ‘goal oriented’ philanthropy. Often, a neat demarcation between all these forms of financial flows is difficult to draw. For instance, though remittances are largely meant for family subsistence, remittances might also have an undercurrent of altruism or benevolence attached to it (Gardner and Osella 2003). Moreover, it has been argued that we cannot separate financial remittances from social remittances or immaterial resources that migrants send to their places of origin (Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2011).

Remittance receiving countries started relying on such resources as it became a significant source of the country’s GDP that often superseded foreign aid and investments (World Bank 2016). The Indian state, however, did not perceive its migrants and their remittances as vital, until early 2000s when a sharp policy break emerged under the A B Vajpayee government, which started viewing its migrants as strategic and economic asset (Kapur 2003). Today, within policy circles, migrant networks and organisations are considered as tools of development and migrants are regarded as agents of development (Faist 2008). Migrants interact with state institutions and the nature of this intercation determine the inflow of financial remittances, knowledge transfers, and political ideas. Migrants increasingly play a prominent role in policy making (Newland and Patrick 2004), without necessarily displacing the ‘state’ and certainly not the ‘market’ (Faist 2000). Examples of these states include but are not limited to Mexico (Orozco 2004), Bangladesh (Masuduzzaman 2014) and Phillipines (Solomon 2009) among others.

Most of these flows are considered to have cumulative and substantial impact on the ‘development’ of the receiving countries or regions (de Haas 2010). While it is understood that transnational linkages and flows have become significant agents of globalisation and socio-economic transformation throughout the global South (Vertovec 2004, Faist 2008, de Haas et al 2015), the nature of such globalisation can have both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ impacts on development. Rather than adopting a national or statist lens, a ‘bottom-up’ approach would enable scholars to study the linkages (transnational as well as regional) that are understood to exist between culture, politics, space, labour / professional mobility and development. In India, very few studies have critically looked at migrant led development to understand what ideas and practices of development are promoted on the ground (for exception see Taylor and Singh 2013).  Rather, drawing a link with increased financial flows and development, studies have tend to quantify migrant resources, making a positive co-relation with more remittances with the country’s development (Ratha 2005). Moving beyond this statist framework, a more nuanced view can be offered when we look at how these resource flows are used as a tool of development by the receiving communities and not just the state.

How do we begin to address the issue of diaspora or migrant led development? Faist (Faist 2008)  argues that migrant led development means different things to different groups – in the case of village communities, it is seen as the improvement of the infrastructure and the provision of local collective goods such as education and health; in the case of networks of businesspersons, it is considered as opportunities for investment and optimal interest; in the case of epistemic communities, as the unhindered flow of knowledge; and in the case of national communities a high degree of political autonomy, sometimes even involving the formation of an independent nation-state. Remittances (both financial and social) are also utilised for development projects for the ‘improvement’ of the migrants’ villages and towns (Roohi 2016). Moreover, media and NGOs are increasingly playing the role of a conduit between the diaspora and their home country through which information and notions on different forms of development travel back and forth or get reinforced. Such flows may create new aspirations or notions of mobility among the recipients (Gardener 1995, 2008). Processes of upward mobility are often a strategy to move beyond the ascriptive notions of hierarchy and prestige, yet, they may very well work to reproduce rather than alter existing social relations.

Borrowing from the Marxian concept of use value (that which has utility) and exchange value (meant for exchange in the market), I propose that transnational resources sent through different channels are not just meant for use value – they have exchange value too. Adopting a heuristic imagery can help us grasp how such values are generated simultaneously in a cylical way, allowing migrants to further accrue other more tangible and intangible benefits in the process. For instance, the symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1998) that transnational migrants garner by sending back resources – remittances, philanthropy or money for investment – to their places of origin can translate into intangible but equally important gains in terms of social capital – like gaining credibility (Fine 2015), but it my also lead to direct economic gains (like business partnerships with locals because of the migrant’s credibility). Because of the cyclical and simultaneous unfolding of use and exchange value of transnational resource flows, as my research[i] suggests, such migrant resources (including philanthropy and investments) while usually routed through more ‘traditional’ channels like kinship and caste networks, are increasingly transmitted in a more institutionalised manner (Roohi 2018). Not only do NGOs, foundations and societies solicit donations from NRIs and their families in the migrant’s place of origin, but as my research in Andhra suggest, businessmen seek NRI investors because of their ‘credit worthiness’, and the different forms of capital they possess. Even as formalisation of channels of transnational resources is taking place, the process of formalisation itself tend to draw upon or grow out of pre-existing social relations. As such, capital flows thought to be understood as disembedded (Upadhya 2004), soon reimbeds itself, both relationally and territorially.

Linking this to a post liberalisation scenario where private capital is increasingly targeted for public infrastructure, we can grasp how neo-liberalism itself does not always emanate out of policy diktats made through ‘Washington Consensus’. Situating capital accumulation within translocal processes generated by present-day neoliberal policies and financial capitalism, Jean and John Comaroff have presented strong arguments about the emergence of particular forms of translocal economic processes and practices in contemporary postcolonial and post revolutionary societies (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). In India caste emerges as a particular node of capital accumulation and as I argue, globalisation and migration does not weaken the node but transantionalise it. Within such backdrop, what is required is a thorough re-examining of the received ideas of migration-development nexus.

The disembedded and non-contextualised approach adopted by some academics and policy makers fail to grasp the complexities of migrant resource flows beyond the simple understanding that more remittances indicates more ‘development’ of the receiving regions. Adopting a transnational perspective (Portes et al 1999) can allow us to focus on the interplay of structure and agency of both the migrants and those ‘left behind’ to make sense of how migrant resources (including remittances, investments or philanthropy) embed within existing social relations of receiving regions. Migrants tend to reify the idea of ‘development’ as a public good, intended for ‘developmental’ goals like education, sanitation, infrastructure, health etc. Yet, while diasporas may universalise a certain notion of development (or education, community etc.), these notions are often open to contestations from within. Therefore, development not only has a polysemous meaning attached to it; what my research in Andhra suggests is that migrant financial flows (considered to be deterritorialised), reterritorialises itself within existing social relations, and tend to reconstitute and reproduce caste identities and structure of dominance in the remittance receiving regions in particular ways.


[i] My PhD research (2010 – 2016), was part of the ‘Provincial Globalisation Programme, a collaboration between the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR), University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, India, funded by the WOTRO Science for Global Development programme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).


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Image Courtesy: Thinking Aloud!

Sanam Roohi is an Assistant Professor at St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bangalore. She can be reached at sanam.roohi@gmail.com


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