Making the most of emigration

Moldova is losing its people through migration. How can we tap the potential of the diaspora?

June 19, 2018

Emigration from Moldova is the eleventh highest in the world. Photo: UNDP

When I first arrived in Moldova, I was surprised to learn that a quarter of its population lives abroad either temporarily or permanently. Between the last two censuses - in 2004 and 2014 - the population decreased from 3.3 million to 2.8 million. Some 20,000 children now have both parents working abroad, while 80,000 children have at least one.

Emigration from Moldova is the eleventh highest in the world. Two thirds of the people who left the country are from rural areas and most of those are also young people. Combined with low fertility and high mortality rates, the country’s demographic future looks grim.

Moldova is far from alone in facing these challenges. Many countries in our region and around the world struggle with high rates of migration that can leave gaps in families and in entire societies. But with an inventive approach, emigration can also bring significant benefits for the home countries.

In Moldova, migration has had a particularly severe impact on education and health. Between 2011 and 2016, the public health sector lost 7 percent of its medium qualified medical staff and 6 percent of its nurses. Alarmingly, around 27 percent of the medical staff is above retirement age.

Take the Causeni district, which has a population of 87,000. Based on WHO standards, there should be 7.2 family doctors for every 10,000 inhabitants, but in Causeni we have half: 3.3 family doctors for 10,000 inhabitants.

Why would a country that is not at war lose its every fifth citizen in 10 years? As the Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Moldova, I see these figures as symptomatic of a pressing development challenge.

Lack of decent job opportunities is a major problem. With over 1 million Moldovans granted Romanian/EU citizenship, labour markets abroad generate more diverse income sources and higher salaries. Even our UNDP office in Moldova has experienced these challenges first hand, with many of our best national staff seizing opportunities abroad. Lack of adequate public services is another pressing issue, which affects rural areas disproportionately.

Both the government and development partners are pursuing and promoting reforms and continue to push for investments to improve the job market. But it is not enough. Many Moldovans are not willing to wait for 12 years for the Moldova 2030 development vision to come true: they want a better future now, or they will choose to emigrate.

In 2016, more than 20 percent of the GDP of the country came through remittances. While the money sent from abroad contributes to reducing poverty, less than 10 percent of remittances are invested productively. The remaining amount often fuels private consumption and investments in real estate.

So, we at UNDP asked ourselves: Could we nudge the diaspora to invest in their communities of origin? And could we work with them to contribute to the development of the country, making it more attractive for people to visit and even stay? 

This is why we experimented with the Swiss approach (coined “Making the most of migration”), which linked migrants with their native communities in Moldova through a five-pillar approach:

Two thirds of the people who left Moldova are from rural areas and most of those are also young people. Photo: UNDP

(1) appointing local migration focal points acting as connectors between the diaspora and their communities of origin;

(2) creating databases that map the impact of migration and make it easy to capture investment opportunities;

(3) listening to migrants’ voices and consulting them on local priorities, integrating their suggestions in development plans;

(4) establishing Hometown Associations that bring together local governments, local populations, internal migrants and the diaspora to collaborate on local development initiatives; and

(5) strengthening transparency and building trust between the diaspora and the local governments in the process.

I am proud to say that our experiment has yielded some very impressive results. Through the 38 Hometown Associations established so far, we have consulted Moldovan migrants from all over the world in the last two years. Together with local populations they have defined challenges and priorities, identifying and owning solutions at the local level. It is inspiring to see more than 20,000 migrants taking part in developing local socio-economic development strategies.

An example is Chiscareni village with a population of 5,000 people, where one quarter of its population resides abroad. To make sure migrants’ voices were heard, the mayor’s office held consultations online (via surveys) and offline (via various campaigns and events) to identify the most urgent local development needs and priorities. Four hundred migrants expressed their views and voted overwhelmingly for better recreational and sporting facilities in the village, especially for children. As a result, a local park was renovated and equipped, with substantial financial contributions from the diaspora.

The dedication and hard work of Moldovan migrants has translated into 250 small initiatives, including scholarships and school equipment for children from vulnerable groups, promotion of local brands and products abroad and cultural events.

Close to 9,000 migrants have contributed financially, through a crowdfunding platform, to 36 local projects, bringing better services to more than 300,000 people. Contributions reached more than US$200,000.

To increase the impact of the funds provided by migrants, we blended them with funds from the Swiss Development Cooperation and local governments.

According to the central government, the model is a success and has been institutionalized and legally framed by a government decision so it can be replicated throughout the country. So far 100 communities have expressed interest in setting up Hometown Associations outside our programme using our methodology, and 50 of these have already been established. The model is also being experimented in a handful of other countries.

The question you might ask yourself is whether these types of initiatives will really make a difference, whether the challenging migratory trends can be reversed? In the short term, probably not.  In the medium to long term, if coupled with reforms, investments and other support, maybe. What we can say with certainty is that this initiative has mobilized tens of thousands of migrants for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of Moldovans back home – and that is a good start.