Ian Goldin


On his book Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future

Cover Interview of May 31, 2011

The wide angle

Current debates about migration are generating a great deal of heat, but very little light.  The book argues that migration has been a key driving force for economic growth and development.  We ignore the contribution of migrants at our peril.

Governments are focused on managing and controlling migration, which is seen as a problem rather than an opportunity.  All our societies, not least the United States of America, are built on previous waves of migration.

At various times in the past, levels of out-migration from various countries was greatly in excess of current levels—with up to a third of parts of Italy, Ireland and Scandinavia leaving.  The levels of in-migration have also at times been much higher than is currently the case.

I am sensitive to the legitimate concerns of communities and individuals that feel threatened by migrants.  And the book seeks to address these concerns.

But we also need to ensure that these voices of concern do not undermine the broader benefits that migrants bring to societies.  To place walls around our countries or states would be counterproductive; in the longer term, this would stall growth and dynamism.

Exceptional People seeks to contribute to more effective discussions and policies on migration.  And our aim has been to address non-specialists.

While I draw on my perspectives as an economist, the book is informed by a very broad set of materials, including the evidence of historians, anthropologists, demographers, and medical and other disciplines.

The ethical and philosophical underpinning of the book is based on my view that migration has a powerful role to play in poverty reduction and providing a more level playing field for distributional and intergenerational justice.

This is especially clear in the case of asylum seekers who require refuge to escape death or persecution—although the ethical arguments for migration go well beyond these extreme cases.

Historically, migration always was the means for people to escape dire poverty, persecution and famine, and for communities to seek to establish networks to foster growth and diversify risk.  The widespread adoption of passports over the past 100 years, together with a quadrupling in the number of countries and increasingly stringent border controls, has broken this historical pattern.

While capital, goods and services can move more freely than ever before, the movement of people has never been more constrained.  This has curtailed economic dynamism and growth everywhere, undermined poverty reduction, and led to a great deal of unnecessary human suffering.

Migration is a natural and irrepressible social process that will intensify in the 21st century.  In a world more interconnected and unequal than ever before, an increasing number of people will have the means and motivation to move.  We need new approaches to migration governance that embrace the latent opportunities of greater international mobility.