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Economy

Changing G-20's approach to African migration, development

Group needs to examine three areas relevant to EU

Men and women wait to disembark a navy which transports several immigrants in the port of Messina, on the island of Sicily, on April 17   © AP

The Group of 20 major economies has recently turned its eyes on Africa. Its finance ministers have launched a "Compact with Africa", aiming to support economic development and strengthen relations with the continent. For Europe, Africa is particularly relevant because of its geographical proximity.

The G-20 and the European policy establishment have become more interested in Africa recently because of the fear of ever increasing migration inflows that are unpopular in domestic political debates. And indeed, irregular migration into the European Union, mostly by boat, has increased substantially since 2008. But this irregular migration is still only a fraction of total immigration, which is actually fairly stable at around 500,000 per year.

At the moment, annual migration from Africa to the EU only represents 0.1% of the EU population. But the numbers will likely increase in the future. The population of Africa is expected to more than double by 2050, reaching 2.5 billion. The demographic pressures are most strong in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility rates are exceptionally high at 5 children per woman and where the average income per person is below $3,500 in terms of purchasing power parity. For these reasons, Europe will continue to be an attractive destination for immigration.

Many explain migration through the large difference in income between Africa and Europe. But that does not mean that with development, migration numbers will fall. In fact, empirical evidence suggests that up to incomes of $7,000 - $9000 per capita, migration increases.

Out of 47 sub-Saharan countries, only seven are currently above the $9,000 GDP-per-capita level. 39 have a GDP below $7,000 per capita. And even with 2% annual per capita growth, 35 countries would still be below that level in 2030. Meanwhile, the population of these countries will have reached 1.05 billion. Not all who can leave will do so, but that is a large number of potential emigrants.

Three key conclusions jump out. First and foremost, economic development in sub-Saharan Africa is a critical objective. The G-20 is right to emphasize the need for private investment, as development aid alone is not suitable and not enough to meet the funding challenge. But to foster private investment, the key precursor will be political stability and well-functioning institutions. Without these, private investors will stay away and the continent's potential will be squandered. Multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the European Investment Bank can play a role in promoting good governance, but ultimate responsibility lies with the governing class of the concerned countries. Nevertheless, Europe has also a commercial interest. A growing continent of some two billion people would be a significant nearby market for European producers.

Second, while development is critical, it will not be a panacea for migration worries. In fact, it will take several decades until countries have reached income levels where emigration numbers will start to fall. This means that Europe needs a coherent strategy for at least the next two decades at least to deal with immigration pressures from Africa. This will create major societal tensions and challenges all across Europe. We need the right policy mix of legal and direct immigration routes into Europe, coupled with socioeconomic integration policies and firm border control. Much must be coordinated at the EU level, and this will doubtless be one of the most contentious debates in 21st-century European policy.

Last but not least, we need to focus our attention on women. We were surprised to see that that the "Compact with Africa" paper to finance ministers made virtually no reference to female empowerment in Africa. But there is convincing evidence that better education and women's rights reduce fertility rates, and thereby ease demographic pressures. There is also evidence that woman empowerment is highly correlated with inclusive growth. G-20 finance ministers should make promoting women's rights and education a central tenet of their set of development policies for Africa. A plan for Africa without this is missing the obvious.

Maria Demertzis is Deputy Director and Guntram Wolff is Director of Bruegel, a think tank based in Brussels.

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