Managed Labor Migration Can Help Unlock Nigeria’s Unrealised Economic Potential

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Shubham Chaudhuri

When the world was desperate for a COVID-19 vaccine, one breakthrough came from a collaboration between the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech. Their vaccine proved to be 94.5 percent effective in preventing the impacts of COVID-19.

One of the key figures involved in the development of the vaccine was Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu of Yale University, a Nigerian national who had completed his medical training from University of Calabar in Nigeria and had interned at the Ebonyi State University Teaching Hospital, before moving to New York to work at the globally renowned Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Nigerians contribute to the world in so many ways. Our hats off to Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu at Yale who helped develop a Covid-19 vaccine,” read a statement from the US Embassy in Nigeria.

Nigerians are not only creating a vibrant and dynamic society within Nigeria but are also leaving their footprint across the globe. Despite the noteworthy accomplishments of Nigerians abroad, international migration has become a contentious issue of late. Much of this is due to the rise in irregular migration from Nigeria. Worsening economic conditions have contributed to young Nigerians taking perilous journeys to search for greener pastures abroad. But aspiring migrants are often forced to return empty-handed, suffering the scars of abuse and exploitation in the process, and often heavily indebted to human smugglers and criminal networks even after they return.

Irregular migration in all forms and shapes must be discouraged. To that end, the Government of Nigeria, with the support from international partners, has put stronger border control measures in place. It has also raised public awareness against the ills of irregular migration. But focusing solely on curtailing irregular migration without also presenting aspiring and qualified youth with legal avenues for regular migration is a missed opportunity.

Many high-income countries, such as those in Europe, are facing skills shortages and rapid decreases in their working-age population. At the same time, low- and middle-income countries, such as Nigeria, are facing a youth bulge, with the population growth outnumbering the available jobs in the economy. Solving these spatial mismatches in the availability of labor can lead to improved outcomes for both countries of origin and destination. But in order to facilitate this, Nigerian jobseekers need to be equipped with skills that are in demand in countries of destination, and the migration management systems in Nigeria need to be able to support their mobility.

Working with stakeholders from Nigeria and abroad, the World Bank, with support from the Center for Global Development (CGD), recently assessed Nigeria’s policy and institutional frameworks aiming to support international labor migration and explored the feasibility of expanding new and innovative labor migration partnerships with countries of destination in Europe, culminating in two recently published reports.

Despite making significant recent improvements to its managed migration framework and continuing to draw on the support of stakeholders for policy making and implementation, Nigeria has not been able to enter into labor agreements with countries of destination to provide overseas employment opportunities to their growing youth population. In comparison, Nigeria’s peers such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines have benefitted from such structured agreements for many decades.

The labor migration management system is also hampered by weak oversight of Private Employment Agencies, who are in charge of negotiating with foreign employers on behalf of the migrants, absence of Labor Attaches in countries of destination to promote the welfare of Nigerian migrants, and the high cost incurred by Nigerian migrants to send remittances back to Nigeria. Lack of timely, disaggregated data on those who travel abroad further adds to the cloud in policymaking and fuels misinformation. These gaps need to be filled.

Nigeria also stands to benefit from entering into migration partnerships with countries of destination, providing jobseekers with the opportunity to migrate safely, regularly, and orderly while also catering to the needs of Nigeria’s labor market. We outline the feasibility for one such modality, the Global Skill Partnership. Countries of destination would provide technology and finance to train potential migrants with targeted skills in Nigeria, prior to migration, and get migrants with precisely the skills they need to integrate and contribute best upon arrival. Nigeria agrees to provide that training and gets support for the training of non-migrants too – thereby turning “brain drain” into “brain gain”.

These ideas need to be piloted, adapted, and scaled depending on the needs in both Nigeria and abroad. But it does offer an alternative to the current discourse of focusing solely on irregular migration. The economic and demographic context in Nigeria firmly highlights the limited job opportunities in the domestic economy. While the majority of Nigerian youth entering the labor market will need to be supported through domestic job creation initiatives, it is important to acknowledge the growing migratory pressures and to find innovative solutions to address it. Managed international labor migration can be one of the many strategies that can help unlock unrealized gains for Nigeria’s economy.

Afterall, without the option of safe, orderly, and regular migration, Dr. Ogbuagu and many others industrious Nigerians like him would not currently be plying their trades abroad, and the world might still be looking for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Chaudhuri is the World Bank Country Director for Nigeria.