Reshaping the root cause approach

Reshaping the root cause approach: Disentangling official development assistance and migration management

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Ariel G. Ruiz Soto is a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), where he works with the US Immigration Policy Program and the Latin America and Caribbean Initiative. His research examines the interaction of migration policies in a region that stretches from Panama to
Canada, as well as their intended and unintended consequences for foreign- and native-born populations.

The essay’s author Camille Le Coz is a senior policy analyst at MPI and MPI Europe, primarily working on EU migration issues. Her research areas include EU policies on development, legal pathways, protection, and climate change.

Destination states’ fixation on discouraging people from emigrating irregularly has had an outsized influence on official development assistance, yet, despite costing billions, has so far failed to entice would-be migrants to stay in their origin countries. Moreover, this fixation, centred on addressing “root causes” of migration, has left a raft of pressing development issues unaddressed. It’s time for a new kind of dialogue between governments at either end of the migration journey.


In the past decade, as migration management has climbed to the top of policymakers’ agendas in the United States and Europe, official development assistance (ODA) has increasingly been shaped by the goal of curbing migrant arrivals at US and European borders. Foreign and economic policy objectives have always influenced ODA, with donor countries directing money where they have priorities in terms of trade, investments, and security cooperation. What has changed is that ODA has become a fully integrated tool in Western policymakers’ strategy to elicit cooperation with countries of origin to stem migration.

The rationale in many destination (and donor) countries is that by tackling drivers of mixed migration—which range from poverty and conflict to gender-based violence, poor governance, natural disasters, and the negative effects of climate change—ODA can keep people at home. But despite the billions of euros and dollars spent on addressing the so-called root causes of irregular migration through programmes that are rarely designed to align with the national development strategies of origin countries, this approach has yet to deliver on its promise.

Migrants and refugees continue to leave their countries outside of regular channels and without adequate documentation, some of them are forced to move after a disaster or to escape violence and persecution. The dialogue between countries of destination and origin has been so fixated on curbing departures that some pressing issues related to development, security, gender equality, and climate change have been neglected. Moving forward, rethinking the effects of ODA on migration drivers and movements is necessary to reshape how Western governments approach the linkages between development assistance and migration. Indeed, a more realistic—and effective—approach to this nexus is to use ODA to better leverage migration for development, while also building the resilience of communities to prevent and respond to forced displacement.

1. The use of official development assistance to deter migration

Official development assistance and migration have long been connected. Since the 1970s, Western donors and development agencies have sought to maximise the benefits of migration for better development, by facilitating remittances and investments of diasporas in origin countries. These same governments in destination countries have often sought to leverage ODA to press origin countries to cooperate on border management, return, and readmission. In the past decade or so, a third approach has taken hold, with European and US governments hoping that development assistance could remedy the factors that drive people to leave their home and ultimately prevent irregular migration and forced displacement from happening.

In 2015, the sharp increase in spontaneous arrivals, even though they were primarily from the Middle East, motivated the European Union to establish an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). At the time, the European Commission and European Union member states argued that this fund (totalling €5 billion as of 2022) would create stability and economic opportunities for youth in Africa and discourage departures. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence to demonstrate that the EUTF has indeed stemmed the arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants, European policymakers doubled their bet in 2022: they launched a new initiative, the Team Europe Initiative for the Central Mediterranean migration route, which will also rely on ODA to address the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement. Released in 2021, the US Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America follows a similar logic, as did the previous US Strategy for Engagement in Central America going back to 2014.

These root causes approaches are built on the hypothesis that migration can be prevented, instead of managed. They postulate that irregular migration is the result of issues in origin countries alone and neglect the other factors that shape migrants’ decisions and migration routes. For instance, both European and US policymakers have advocated that by creating jobs in origin countries, young people (and vulnerable groups) will stop migrating northward irregularly. In Africa, the EUTF allocated nearly €1 billion to livelihoods and private sector development projects in top countries of origin. Likewise, a central pillar of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala has been seed funding for entrepreneurial projects and youth employment and technical training, with the objective of deterring economic pressures to emigrate irregularly to the United States.

These strategies have repeatedly been produced in highly charged political contexts in destination countries. Governments’ keenness to demonstrate that they are curbing arrivals may explain why policymakers have promptly banked on root cause strategies. For instance, the new US strategy was published shortly after the Biden administration took office to show it had a plan to respond to the significant increase in migrant arrivals at the US-Mexico border. Policymakers were under pressure to show their approach differed from the previous US government’s policy of suspending aid to Central America. But while these strategies aim to respond to political concerns in Western capitals, they are unworkable—and rarely align with the interests of governments and CSOs in origin countries.

2. Pitfalls of the root causes approach

Policymakers in Europe and the United States may consider ODA as a go-to instrument to curb migration, but this approach has not significantly reduced irregular migration in either region. Arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border recently reached a 22-year peak, while departures from sub-Saharan Africa towards Europe continue unabated. The shortcomings of this policy approach are due to three main reasons: development spending alone cannot stop irregular migration in the short term; migration decisions and destinations are shaped by other factors beyond local development in origin countries; and, finally, the focus on curbing departures in the cooperation between countries of destination and origin has further delayed progress in areas such as good governance, climate adaptation, peace, and security—all critical elements to prevent forced displacement.

First, development spending can influence migration decisions, but evidence overwhelmingly indicates that it cannot alone stop irregular migration in the short term. On the contrary, the EUTF and similar efforts in Central America may lead to more departures from the regions of origin over the short term. Research shows, for example, that a country’s emigration rate simultaneously increases as its GDP per capita increases—at least until the country reaches $10,000 in GDP per capita, when its emigration rate begins to fall. For countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, whose GDP per capita is at or below $5,000, it would take several years of consistent economic development for emigration rates to fall significantly. In practice, as people have access to more resources and become more educated, they are more likely to seek better economic and livelihood opportunities abroad. With added aspirations and ability, communities with rising incomes tend to see migration less as a need and more as a future investment to support their relatives and become more resilient to periods of economic instability.

Second, influencing migration decisions requires recognising that these depend on an intersecting set of diverse factors and that the economic and social situation in the origin country is just one of them. Access to information about migration routes and smugglers is in fact more decisive in shaping these choices. This knowledge is often connected with a tradition of migration and relations with diaspora networks. Diaspora communities may help migrants fund their journey, or at least share information about migration routes. People may also be more inclined to move to a country where networks of diasporas can help them find a job and access services and housing. Additionally, sometimes migration decisions are shaped by the sense that leaving home is a rite of passage.

In turn, the relative ease of finding a smuggler influences the decision-making process. In Central America and Mexico, for instance, smuggling activities are embedded in local economies, with communities in border regions relying on this business for lack of better opportunities. Migrants can easily connect with a smuggler, making the journey relatively more accessible than regular channels despite its risks. Finally, demographics contribute to chart the course for migration as countries with higher birth rates tend to have younger populations, and more of them are driven to migrate once in working age. This helps explain variations in migration trends between countries undergoing lower birth rates leading to relatively older populations, such as El Salvador, and those with relatively young and growing populations, like Guatemala and Honduras.

Third, development programmes geared towards addressing the root causes of migration are often designed in a hurry and are liable to be counterproductive for three main reasons: i) they result in programming that does not always address local issues; ii) they risk increasing tensions between communities; and iii) they involve cooperation with controversial regimes that threaten long-term progress on governance issues. Thus, in 2015-2016, European policymakers were under so much pressure to show they were tackling migration that many of the first EUTF projects were designed in European capitals, without meaningful engagements with recipient governments and CSOs. This meant that the local ownership of these initiatives was limited, threatening their impact from the start. Similarly, US engagements in Central America have been repeatedly criticised for being largely top-down and not reflecting the interests of communities and civil society.

Besides, these programmes have rarely followed a consistent do-no-harm approach. As a result, they have sometimes produced adverse outcomes. Projects aiming to improve border management, for instance, have been found to hamper cross-border trade, a main source of revenues for communities living along border regions. In Niger, the European Union worked with the government to enforce tighter control and curb smuggling networks. These efforts have contributed to limit departures from the northern city of Agadez towards Libya, but they also aggravated the region’s economic situation by decreasing opportunities for local communities and increasing grievances about misbehaviour of security forces.

Finally, the focus on curbing irregular migration has led donor countries to develop relationships and make compromises with some governments in a way that does not serve good governance (and development) in the long run. In Central America, for instance, the Biden Administration initially sought to establish close collaboration with the Guatemalan government, despite serious concerns about nepotism and political racketeering. Soon after, however, setbacks in anti-corruption efforts debilitated governance in Guatemala  and  consequently  deteriorated  the US-Guatemala partnership, resulting in a USAID decision to pause some of its assistance programmes in the country. The urge among US officials to keep working with the Guatemalan leadership on curbing departures complicated future collaboration and ultimately weakened the US government’s credibility in advocating for good governance and other structural reforms.

3. Rethinking development goals and migration management

Given the failures of strategies that rely on ODA alone to target migration drivers, CSOs and researchers have urged policymakers to reconsider how to maximise development benefits resulting from migration, prevent forced displacement, and strengthen the resilience of communities of origin, transit, and destination. Consequently, some parts of European and US governments have started shifting their approach. The Team Europe Initiative on the Western Mediterranean Route, for example, does not refer to “addressing root causes” in its primary objectives, mentioning instead the need for “making migration more of a choice and building resilience”. And in contrast to previous attempts, the new US Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration acknowledges that long-term development is required to provide Central Americans hope that they can be successful at home without needing to emigrate. However, these subtle shifts have not been socialised sufficiently at high levels of government and politics, nor have they been operationalised in country development guidelines. USAID Guatemala’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2020-2025, for instance, continues to focus on stemming irregular migration in the short term.

Instead, rethinking and expanding beyond traditional approaches to addressing root causes requires governments to commit and invest in three objectives. First, Western donors and policymakers need to establish more representative and equal partnerships with countries of origin, which is crucial for international assistance to work for communities of origin. At the heart of these partnerships is identifying and integrating the priorities of governments and CSOs in countries of origin into development strategies, even when these may be at odds with donors’ priorities. Some development projects in Africa have already deployed efforts to consult these stakeholders about their migration policy agenda. For instance, the French Development Agency and its partner Expertise France have since 2020 supported regional dialogues and capacity building efforts to enhance the dialogue between governments and civil society actors in seven countries in North and West Africa. Meanwhile, in Central America, there has been a growing donor interest in community-based approaches to development programming, especially with women, youth, and marginalised communities. Matching assistance to observed conflict points and fragility in communities can also support groups at risk of forced displacement.

A second objective should be utilising ODA to strengthen regional cooperation and provide technical assistance and capacity for migration management within Africa and Central America. This entails improving existing mobility mechanisms, expanding their scale and accessibility, and investing in new pathways that together may provide valuable and lawful alternatives to irregular migration. In West Africa, most migration takes place between neighbouring countries and more development initiatives like Support to Free Movement of Persons and Migration in West Africa, which provided capacity-building support, are needed to support the full implementation of the Economic Community of Western African States’ Free Movement Protocol. In the case of Central America, regional cooperation is needed to expand and establish new labour mobility pathways to Mexico, especially for Honduran and Guatemalan workers seeking temporary or permanent employment there. Funding to identify and harmonise shared policy interests and priorities among sending countries in both regions is another key component to strengthen migration coordination and management. Leveraging the combined influence of their shared interests—enhanced labour protections and reintegration assistance upon return, for instance—can be an important negotiating tool to facilitate regional labour agreements with the European Union or the United States.

The third objective of rethinking assistance models based on addressing root causes is taking advantage of migration as a catalyst of development by mobilising diaspora groups, decreasing remittances costs, and investing in innovative labour migration pathways. Recognising migration as a fundamental component of low-income countries’ development process allows migrants to be part of addressing the factors that force people to leave their home. In terms of development projects, this can involve initiatives that encourage entrepreneurship and knowledge transfers among migrant diasporas. There have also been repeated efforts over the years to decrease the costs of remittance transfers, as well as improve the financial inclusion of communities in origin countries. For example, Mission Guatemala USA, a Guatemalan migrant-led organisation in the United States, has designed a sustainable development initiative that seeks to establish a transnational partnership between migrants abroad and their origin communities to establish a migrant development bank that can amplify the investment of remittances in development projects, not just for consumption and services.

Additionally, supporting mechanisms such as global skill partnerships in Africa and Central America through ODA could help maximise the development benefits of migration. These global skill partnerships benefit countries of origin and destination by training workers in origin countries, meeting labour market needs on both sides, and facilitating the mobility of workers in a way that is safe, fair, and ethical. There have only been a few trials of such partnerships to date and, for instance, Australia, Germany, and Belgium have tested different approaches with partners in the Pacific Islands, Kosovo, Tunisia, Serbia, and Morocco. Development actors have drawn many lessons from these pilots and injected this knowledge to inform new projects.

4. Conclusion

Despite the continued political interest relying on ODA to address the root causes of mixed migration in countries of origin, evidence from Europe and the United States has shown that it alone cannot reduce migrant flows over the short term. This does not mean that development assistance has no influence on migrants’ decision-making process, but rather that destination and origin countries must reconsider how migration and development serve common interests, when to link development assistance to other policy areas, and how to promote local development and actors.

As a result of subtle shifts in traditional root cause models, a timely policy window appears to be opening in Europe and the United States to challenge how policymakers have used ODA as a blunt tool to curb migration. It is time to promote investment strategies that reflect local government and CSO priorities so they can cultivate more effective and balanced partnerships between destination and origin governments, and ultimately multiply the positive effects of development interventions. Supporting regional cooperation within Africa and Central America can further advance local development agendas, in parallel to expanding legal migration pathways to Europe and the United States. And equally important is leveraging migration as a catalyst of development and empowering migrants and diaspora groups to be meaningful actors of change in local issues in their host and origin societies.

In the coming years, reshaping how policymakers implement ODA in migration strategies will undoubtedly be a difficult task that involves calibrating expectations as to what can be achieved when supporting international development in countries with high emigration rates. Yet, global migration forums like the 2022 Summit of the Americas, where 21 Western Hemisphere governments signed onto the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, can chart a new route toward international engagements that envision addressing root causes as one element of a broader systematic response to migration cooperation and management, including expanding protection mechanisms and labour migration pathways. Meanwhile, European and US policymakers would benefit from carefully re-examining how their migration objectives are defined and operationalised within their development strategies to ensure these are realistic and can be successful.