All About the Bias, So Subtle

February 18th, 2015

By Manjula Luthria, Senior Economist, World Bank, and program leader for the International Mobility Program of the MENA region’s Human Development network.

While the Grammy’s gave us the title to this post, it was the Superbowl that made me think of last year’s controversial commercial. A one-minute Coca Cola advertisement featuring children and adults—mostly immigrants—from across the United States, singing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages. The advertisement sparked outrage with detractors calling it unpatriotic and swearing to never buy a coke product again. The contentiousness of migration became more apparent as 2014 progressed, with the election of anti-migration political parties in Europe and widespread disapproval of President Obama’s immigration reforms here in the States. At the onset of this year—spurred on in part by the terrifying attacks on Charlie Hebdo—some Europeans took to the streets not only to protest terrorism, but also immigration.

To those of us who work on migration, these events on both sides of the Atlantic pose a mystery.

Data show that the gains to global welfare from more international labour mobility are astoundingly large (much larger than the gains from other development darlings) yet public opinion appears to show a repeated rejection of the idea of more mobility. If this disconnect is cause for worry, the findings of the World Values Survey are cause for outright depression: in OECD countries the number of people rejecting migrants as neighbors rose from 1 in 12 in 1980 to about 1 in 8 in 2010, a 34 percent increase. Natives’ perceptions of a detrimental impact of more migration on their personal lives does not seem to match the mountain of evidence that points to it being globally beneficial.

Meanwhile, economists and demographers tell us that we need to prepare for more—not less—mobility than currently exists. In discussing why we should care about these challenges in his book Arrival City, Doug Saunders highlights the upcoming “mass movement that will change our world in the twenty-first century.”  The World Bank’s Maitreyi Das, in Inclusion Matters, describes migration as “one of the most potent forces of social churning” today. Indeed, migration is here to stay.

So with larger migrant flows imminent, the sources of all this resistance to migration require serious attention, which will no doubt take us into the uncomfortable territory of privately held views. This means that the binding barrier to entry needs to be recognized, even though it remains invisible in the form of implicit bias or perceptions. If we don’t devote this effort now, labour will remain trapped in locations that do not offer the best return on investment, or will end up choosing mobility at a great risk to their own well-being and lives. And our twin goals of reducing absolute poverty and achieving shared prosperity will continue to miss one of the most important weapons in its arsenal.

In an effort to lay the foundations for more labor mobility—not just international, but internal as well—we in the Social Protection and Labor Global Practice at the World Bank have fostered country engagements on increasing access to overseas markets as well as strengthening the institutional underpinnings that can support this greater access. As we scale up these engagements, we will also start to pay greater attention to policies and practices that can help reduce the resistance to migration, improve the reception that migrants receive, and ultimately improve their insertion into the unfamiliar labor markets of their new host communities in a way that fully utilizes their labor assets.

Identifying such policies and practices will involve a broader conversation amongst various specialists, from those working on hiring practices of employers to housing regulations in urban centers to service access. We are launching this conversation now, in partnership with the Social Inclusion Community of Practice, and will be reaching out to various stakeholders within and outside the World Bank to continue this important conversation.

Join us to discuss emerging work on these issues at Opening Doors and Minds: Urban Migrant Integration in Policy and Practice, a conversation between Maitreyi Das and Doug Saunders moderated by Omar Arias.

Manjula Luthria is Senior Economist and program leader for the International Mobility Program of the MENA region’s Human Development network. She is based at the Center for Mediterranean Integration in Marseille, France and can be contacted by email at: mluthria(at)


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