Investing Remittances

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Much is made in policy circles about the role remittances can play in boosting economic development in Latin America. Proponents point out that the over US$60 billion in remittances that return each year to the region is far higher than foreign aid and often higher than foreign direct investment in a country. Yet so far this money has not greatly affected economic growth or economic opportunities at home. Instead, the vast majority of remittance money goes to consumption. Some believe it actually fuels dependency, as more local community members are incentivized or even have to migrate in order to support their families.

While these monetary flows often do lift recipients out of poverty – providing adequate food, clothing, and shelter – they do little to stimulate local or national economic growth through productive investment. And as private money, unlike foreign aid or even FDI, it has been hard for governments to direct this capital into development-oriented projects. How can governments stimulate investment through public policies without hurting these flows?

So far, governments have focused on reducing the costs of transmitting remittances through formal channels such as banks with quite a lot of success. The costs of transferring money abroad have fallen precipitously, allowing migrants and their families to keep more of the funds earned. Also, migrants and their families are beginning to put funds in local and international banks, leading to more savings and investment capital. But these changes, while beneficial, do not in and of themselves increase investment in productive activities in their home communities. The amounts in individual accounts are small, and still used primarily for consumption by local families. In addition, banks often pool these savings from remittance receiving communities and invest them in larger amounts in more attractive loan markets, such as the capital cities in each country. This limits local economic development in the places most starved for investment capital.

Another set of public policies, prevalent in Mexico, involves matching funds for local community investment. Dubbed “3 for 1” programs, migrant groups pool together funds for infrastructure investments – for instance local roads or schools – and the federal, state, and local governments each match a peso. While helping local communities, the actual size of these programs is quite small, estimated at roughly US$70 million in investment last year. Many also question why migrants are funding 25% of public infrastructure for which the state should ultimately be responsible.

Mexico recently announced another pilot program aimed at directing remittances into rural economic development (Houston Chronicle 12/24/07). Unlike earlier policies, this program targets productive private investment. And, it focuses on agriculture, ensuring that these funds go back to the communities of origin of many migrants. While obviously in the initial phases, this incentive structure is promising. It may actually get at the elusive goal of economic development in the hardest hit areas of the national economy – the areas most likely to send large numbers of migrants abroad. If tied to capacity building and technical assistance programs – either provided by the Mexican government, non-profit organizations, or international aid such as USAID – this type of program could become and important step in promoting economic development, and ultimately providing citizens the choice of staying home.