The female remittance economy: A hidden global network of mothers and money

The female remittance economy: A hidden global network of mothers and money

A foreign domestic worker looks after her elderly client. Photo: <a href="">Jerry Wong (flickr)</a>
A foreign domestic worker looks after her elderly client. Photo: Jerry Wong (flickr)

Developing-world mothers, too poor to feed their families, are increasingly finding work abroad and sending the fruits of their labor to the children they will not raise.

Their payments, called remittances, are a significant part of an unofficial global aid network worth $325 billion last year. That’s three times the size of official foreign development aid spending, according to an article in the New York Times.

The women who choose this life aren't just redefining the foreign aid landscape. They are also redefining motherhood, says the Times.

Across the world, millions of mothers have made this sacrifice for their children — forgoing a life with them in hope of ensuring a better life for them. These women venture far, often into the uncertain world of undocumented domestic work that in effect keeps them hostage in their host countries.

And yet, in spite of the hefty financial contribution and personal toll, remittances — and remitters — remain a relative blind spot on the global development map. But their invisibility may not last long. Remittance flows worldwide keep swelling: The World Bank project they will reach $374 in 2012, or nearly $50 billion more than last year’s total.

India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines are the world’s top four remittance recipients, says the New York Times and in a number of smaller developing countries, remittances make up more than 20 percent of GDP and provide the largest source of foreign exchange.

Striking though these figures may be, it’s clear that remittances alone cannot fuel development. They may funnel developed world-sized wages into the developing world. But most of these micro-transfers are themselves not sufficient and, more importantly, not coordinated enough to support the large-scale projects that aid and development institutions traditionally take on. In short, remittances may enable the children left behind by migrant mothers to get an education or access health care. But unless they are strategically pooled and channelled, they probably won’t create jobs or fund the construction of schools and hospitals.

Nonetheless, "women migrants have become a formidable force for development,” says the New York Times. "When permitted, migration is a major economic equilibrating mechanism" and an important instrument for poverty alleviation, according to the World Bank.

While there is relatively little formal data on remittances, anecdotal accounts abound. Recent analyses of these sources are revealing interesting trends, particularly about the special role and behavior of female remitters. Women, who constitute 51 percent of developed countries’ migrant worker population, generally earn and therefore remit less than men, yet the fraction they send home tends to be higher and more consistent, even during crises, according to the New York Times article. Women usually channel their incomes to necessities such as food, health care and education, while men tend to spend more of their wages on recreation.

There is another reason remittances should be acknowledged as promising contributors to development, emphasizes the New York Times: they work.

By cutting out institutions and (often corrupt) governments, remittances more nimbly [address] needs like raising birthweight or lowering [the] number of school drop-outs. They [are] also a powerful cushion in times of conflict or natural disaster, when remittances tend to increase, driven by an empathetic diaspora.

The world’s remitters care for their own by leaving them for strenuous lives in far-away places. And they are also thinking bigger, forming associations and networks to pool the aid they send home and to create space for solidarity and cultural expression with other women who tell the same story. Their efforts have been unexpectedly effective and significant, if not (yet) widely appreciated as powerful agents of development and aid.

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