Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact


Jacob Lawrence’s “The migrants arrived in great numbers” (1940-41)

People have migrated for millennia, mostly to escape poverty. Between 1880 and 1930, more than 27 million immigrants entered the US, most from Europe. Some six million blacks left the rural south for cities in the north and midwest between 1910 and 1970, in what’s known as The Great Migration. More recently, Hurricane Katrina prompted one of the biggest resettlements in American history.

Migration is “the simplest and most effective antipoverty program. Pretty much everyone wins,” says Nancy Birdsall, the founder and former president of the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank.*

And yet, when governments, foundations and nonprofits talk about alleviating poverty, they typically don’t talk about migration. The UN has produced many thousands of words about its sustainable development goals, mentioning migration only in passing.

This is an enormous missed opportunity, argues Michael Clemens, a Harvard-educated economist and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Clemens has been making that argument for more than a decade, notably in an insightful 2010 paper called A Labor Mobility Agenda for Development. He writes:

The globalization of labor—greater mobility for workers across borders—quickly and massively raises migrants’ living standards toward those of rich countries…No known schooling intervention, road project, anti-sweatshop campaign, microcredit program, investment facility, export promotion agency, or any other in situ [in place] development program can surely and immediately raise the earning power of a large group of very poor people to anywhere near this degree.


Michael Clemens

To his credit, Clemens has been doing more than opining. Working with Sarah Williamson, the executive director of a small NGO called Protect the People and the nonprofit US Association for International Migration, and with funding from the Open Philanthropy Project, Clemens guided and then studied a small-scale effort to bring Haitian farmworkers to the US on temporary visas. It enabled the Haitians to rapidly and dramatically increase their earnings.

“Migration does something that’s almost magical,” Clemens told me. “It immediately transforms the economic productivity of a person.”

Last year, some workers stayed in the US long enough to bring home $5,000 to $20,000, according to Williamson. Some invested that money in school fees for their children. Others had new homes built for their families.

Our program built more houses in Haiti than the Red Cross,” Williamson says.

Alas, after two years, funding has dried up for the Haiti project. That, it seems to me, reflects a dismal lack of imagination among philanthropists, who have poured many millions of dollars into Haiti and don’t have a lot to show for it. (See this and this and this.) Temporary migration, by contrast, has delivered benefits not only to Haitian farmworkers but also to the US economy –and, importantly, it has the potential to sustain itself after reaching scale. Yet its backers struggle to raise money. What’s wrong with this picture?

I have a soft spot in my heart for immigrants. My grandparents and my father were refugees from Nazi Germany who came to the US in the 1930s. I have good friends who are immigrants. The fact is, as  Clemens has written, “where you are born, not how hard you work, is today the principal determinant of your material well-being.” That strikes me as deeply unfair.

So what was the US response to the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010? Many Americans opened their wallets, the US government provided relief and recovery aid, NGOs and aid workers poured in–but Haitians were told to stay put. Hillary Clinton, who was then the Secretary of State, said: “Ordinary and regular immigration laws will apply…which means that we are not going to be accepting into the United States Haitians who are attempting to make it to our shores. They will be interdicted. They will be repatriated.”

Clemens, writing in The Washington Post, urged the Obama administration to admit more Haitians. Haitians were then ineligible for H-2A or H-2B visas, which are designed to admit low skill workers temporarily. In 2012, after securing bipartisan support from Florida US Senators Nelson and Rubio, Clemens, Sarah Williamson of Protect the People and their allies persuaded the Department of Homeland Security to add Haiti to the list of countries eligible for temporary H-2a visas.

But raising philanthropic funds to support Haitian migrants proved difficult. Clemens or Williamson or their partners approached just about every big NGO or foundation working in Haiti. “They weren’t interested in anything related to migration,” Clemens said. Including the Clinton Foundation, I wondered? “All of them,” he said.

A grant from the Open Philanthropy Project

Eventually, Protect the People and the US Association for International Migration secured a $1.4 million grant in 2014 from the Open Philanthropy Project, a collaboration of GiveWell and Good Ventures, the philanthropic arm of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna. They pitched a simple idea: Farmers in the US who needed labor but were unable to hire locally would to be matched with workers in Haiti, who would spend two to 10 months in the US and then return home wealthier.

Open Philanthropy had initially hoped that the grant, in its first year, would generate $1 million in additional income for Haitian farmworkers, while laying the groundwork for larger flows of Haitian farmworkers in the future. Things didn’t go according to plan, as Open Philanthropy reported with admirable candor:

The project encountered a number of obstacles, and ultimately fell well short of this goal. Recruiting employers for the Haitian workers was more challenging than anticipated, though by June 2015 our understanding was that the project had received job orders for 95 workers. However, a variety of regulatory barriers in the U.S. and a number of workers’ visa applications being rejected by the U.S. Embassy in Haiti led to only 14 people being able to participate in the program, for an average duration of ~2 months. Accordingly, our current estimate is that the project led to only ~$53,000 of gross income for the participants.

We think there is a decent chance that the project simply encountered bad luck in 2015 and would have been more successful going forward.

Undeterred, Open Philanthropy made a new grant of $550,000 to Protect the People early in 2016. This time around, more Haitian farmers–58 in all–came to the U.S., with some working on a large greenhouse operation in Alabama and others harvesting apples in Oregon.

Again, though, obstacles arose–difficulty in obtaining the visas from the US consulate in Haiti, higher than expected startup and transportation costs. Open Philanthropy declined to fund the program again this year. Williamson says the program needs “a really patient donor” who will give it time to scale. In fact, there’s evidence that the market, once established, will support temporary migrants: The state department reports that more than 108,000 H-2a farmworker visas were issued in FY2015, most to temporary workers from Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala, who are connected to US employers by labor brokers.

Mixed results

What, then, are the broader lessons to be drawn from the Haitian migrant project?

First, benefits to the Haitians were substantial, as predicted. In 2015, the first year of the project, poor farmworkers who earn about $147 a month in cash income in Haiti were able to earn about $2,300 a month by working at a plant nursery in Alabama or harvesting apples in Oregon. What each worker ordinarily earned in a week in Haiti, he was able to earn in the US in a couple of hours, as Clemens and Hannah Postel of CGD write here.

Second, it seems highly unlikely that migrants are taking jobs away from Americans. To employ workers with H-2a visas, employers must certify that they can’t find Americans to do the work. Interestingly, Clemens studied the use of migrant workers by the North Carolina Growers Association, which is far and away the largest users of H-2a visas in the country. Here’s what he found happened at the height of the Great Recession, according to a report from the CGD and a pro-immigration group called the Partnership for a New American Economy:

In 2011, there were on average 489,000 unemployed people in North Carolina and approximately 6,500 available farm jobs offered through the North Carolina Growers Association. Despite the fact that each of these jobs was in or next to a county with over 10 percent unemployment, only 268 of the nearly 500,000 unemployed North Carolinians applied for these jobs. More than 90 percent of those applying (245 people) were hired, but just 163 showed up for the first day of work. A month in, more than half had quit. Only 7 native workers – or 3 percent of US workers hired – completed the entire growing season.

For better or worse, Americans won’t do these jobs. (Why that is, and what it says about our country, is a topic that I hope to explore in a future post. I’ve just begun reading Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class, which addresses that question.)

Third, the US economy benefited from the Haitian migrants, just as it does from other migrant farmworkers. If migrant farmworkers were not available to do the work, it wouldn’t get done. Farmers can’t raise wages high enough to attract US workers and still profit from selling cucumbers, Christmas trees, whatever, according to Clemens.

Here’s a chart spotlighting the benefits:


Philanthropy can play an important role in enabling migration beyond Haiti.

“I hope it will inspire philanthropists to think about opportunities,” Clemens says. “Farm work is just one of the ways to offer life-changing opportunities in a mutually beneficial way.” He has written, for example, about potential “global skills partnerships” in which rich countries create training programs in poor countries. “It’s enormously cheaper to train nurses in Morocco, Malawi or Moldova than it is in Germany,” he says. Some newly-trained nurses could go to Germany, where there’s a shortage, and others could stay home.

In the US, meantime, a coalition of foundations has pledged an impressive $125 million to Flint, Michigan, much of it to serve children who have been poisoned by the city’s water system. But, writing in Alliance, Timothy Ogden says: “It is striking, given the situation, that none of the funds allocated are to help the children of Flint by helping them leave.” Yes, it is striking. It would be smart to structure government benefit programs in ways that make it easier for people to move within the US to find new jobs–and to somehow encourage the jobless to find the “get up and go” that has driven migrants for centuriwa.

Finally, here’s a video about the CGD/Protect the People work in Haiti:

*Birdsall’s quote can be found in Experimental Conversations, Timothy Ogden’s excellent book, which I blogged about here.

4 thoughts on “Migration: The oldest (and most effective) anti-poverty program

  1. Ron Booker says:

    I found it interesting that you said that doing farm work can help build a nonprofit organization. My friend was thinking about helping open a nonprofit organization for a church. I’m going to suggest to them doing some farming work.


  2. Kathy Stearns says:

    Marc, couldn’t agree with you more and always feel like this topic needs to be brought out in the open. Unfortunately, the winds seem to be blowing stronger and stronger in the opposite direction…..


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