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Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Face That Launched A Thousand Ships

An unlikely Helen, Spain's deputy prime minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, that's for sure. Yet outside a few thousand years difference in timing the two seem to have been cut out for one and the same the same historical role: urging the boats to go back. Indeed the only thing which really separates them might be the magnitude of the problem to hand, since Coalición Canaria president Paulino Rivero suggested this weekend that what might be involved were not a mere 1,000 ships, but anything between 10,000 and 15,000 currently being built along the Mauritanian and Senegalese coastlines.

Joking aside this post is about tragedy, a human tragedy. According to the NGOs who are involved some 3,000 people have already died in attempting to make the hazardous crossing, a crossing which was actually completed over this weekend by a record 1,200 people in 36 hours.

As well as tragedy the post is also about folly, the folly of those economists who think low fertility isn't an important economic issue. This opinion was recently expressed by respected US economist Greg Mankiw, (on his blog) who described the very idea that it might be as 'wrong headed' and, to boot, suggested that a poll of the world's top ten economists would draw a blank on names who thought that low fertility was among Europe's major economic problems. I am sure Mankiw is right about the poll, and this is why I use the expression 'folly'. So what do I mean?

Well lets look at some of the facts. Firstly Paulino Rivero is almost certainly exaggerating, even sensationally so, but this aside, a lot of boats are in preparation. Spanish TV crews spent last week vising a number of makeshift shipyards in Mauritania, and one of the curious economic details you could notice was how the process was in fact exhibiting an increasing returns type feature, in that the incresed demand for boats incresingly meant that a number of would-be migrants were actually not sailing but staying since they could make a reasonable living in the newly developing artisanal shipyard industry, with the consequence that more boats were being built as knowledge and experience (human capital) was being accumulated. So the movement is growing, and whatsmore, feeding on itself. This thriving little industry is now being reflected in the numbers arriving, with more migrants reaching the Canaries in the month of August than in the whole of 2005.

The migrants in fact come from Senegal, and not from Mauritania itself, a fact which makes it virtually impossible to return them to a 'country of origin', since neither Morocco nor Mauritania want to get involved in accommodating long-term would be migrants. An attempt was made by Spain back in May to reach agreement with the Senegalese government to accept repatriation, but this failed at the first hurdle when the first group of 91 refused to disembark on arrival alleging 'ill treatment' by the Spanish authorities, and thus the issue became politically unsustainable for the Senegalese government who had to renounce the agreement. Since that time no-one can be repatriated from Spain to Senegal.

The issue is also about networking, since the recent rise in the number of crossings is more about the fact that a significant Senegalese community has established itself in Spain than about anything else. In order to move migrants need two things: money and information. Both of these they obtain by having famility members and relatives at the other end of the chain. These relatives send money and they also send, via mobile phones, information. Typically the first thing a migrant wants to do on landing is phone relative to let them know they have arrived safely.

So once they have arrived what happens to them? Well since they cannot be repatriated anywhere, and since the Canaries is a small place, they are normally flown in a matter of days across to the mainland where they are served with an expulsion order and then released. Since there is effectively nowhere to send them, and the Spanish authorities are reluctant to invest resources in building long term accommodation centres, they are really faced with very little alternative. On release the migrants normally go directly to the home of a relative, and very quickly they start to work in Spain's very fluid and extensive informal labour market, from whence they send more money home, so, of course, more can come.

The importance of the network component here can be seen in the fact that while in 1999 a mere 2% of maritime interceptions involved Senegalese, by 2004 Senegalese constituted 55% of those intercepted. Meantime the flow of migrants from Morocco has reduced itself to a trickle, and this despite the fact that Morocco is much nearer, and access accordingly easier. I shall return to this decline in Moroccan migration later.

Now, as I have indicated, as far as I am concerned this IS all about fertility, and it does have an economic substrate. Spain, as is by now well known, has long had below replacement (lowest low) fertility (currently in the 1.3 TFR range). Senegal, on the other hand, has high fertility which is stuck in or around the 5.1 range (ie it has barely started its demographic transition). This differential creates what could be called a 'fertility gradient' which, unlike its electro-mechanical equivalents, produces not a flow of protons or electrons, but rather a flow of people. In any event the end result is the same: work gets done which otherwise would not be.

Fertility in Morocco, in contrast, has been reducing rapidly (I have a post about this today on Demography Matters), and is now approaching replacement level. As such the steepness of the fertility gradient between Spain and Morocco has reduced sharply (Morocco is about to enter the demographic dividend growth stage) and the flow of people has accordingly declined significantly.

Now in one sense - aside from the human suffering involved - all this is well and good, since Spain's economy is booming, and the pensions system certainly looks a lot healthier than it did 5 years ago. This 'community of interest argument' has been being made for some time by US economist David Bloom (who is obviously not one of the top ten on Mankiw's list, since he does think that fertility is important to economics, and he is quoted to this very effect in this recent and relevant article by Malcolm Gladwell):

David Bloom, the Harvard economist, once did a calculation in which he combined the dependency ratios of Africa and Western Europe. He found that they fit together almost perfectly; that is, Africa has plenty of young people and not a lot of older people and Western Europe has plenty of old people and not a lot of young people, and if you combine the two you have an even distribution of old and young. “It makes you think that if there is more international migration, that could smooth things out,” Bloom said.

So in a way this process can work for Spain, and it could work for other parts of Europe who eventually will be on the receiving end, but what about Senegal? Well this isn't so clear, since this flow of people may serve to produce what economists call a 'bad equilibrium'. As I have said Senegal has yet to go through its full demographic transition, and allowing the outlet of remunerative migration (remember the remittances) might well serve to reduce pressure for change ( a semi corrupt government being able to maintain its popularity without doing too much) as well as pressure for fertility reduction, since the 'patriarchs' now have even more interest in keeping having those children as they will go abroad and send money back.

But why so much fuss, you might say, since Senegal is a relatively small country (some 11 million or so), and at the end of the day the numbers are never likely to become that massive. Well quite, but here I think it is the process more than the immediate product that matters. Today the flow is from Senegal since the initial network has been created from Senegal, but tomorrow it could be Mali, or Niger, and the day after, well who knows where. So this issue is likely to become more, not less, important with time, and it is an issue to which we need a coherent and rational response, and a response on an EU level (and here we return to Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, who is undoubtedly right in this). What we need is to face the realities of our demographic situation with a response which resolves existing problems rather than simply creating fresh ones. And meantime, even as I write, for sure the next boat is now being built.