Monday, April 24, 2017

The Return Path: Making Reverse Migration Work

As much as we, expats, try to deny it, we are at an inflexion point. The great global wave of migration, that set off in the 90s and that many of us leave home and settle abroad, is beginning to ebb. And, this is not just about a Trump or a Theresa May, not just about some kinds of Visas becoming more difficult to obtain. This is as much about a cultural turn - street-level nastiness combined with resurgent national identities - that marks an ending, as well as a beginning, that we should take note of. 

This isn't unprecedented - global movement of people always ebbs and flows - but this time, it appears to be the start of a long term trend, a reversal of opportunities driven by growth in the other side of the world. The emerging markets may have been a mixed bag in the past, but we are perhaps entering the phase of relatively closed economics, which would make the large markets - such as India or Indonesia - a great receptor of local innovation. And, even in the markets where not-invented-here syndromes were strong in the past, like India, the demand for global standards and service levels is now ever higher. This is driven by reverse migration itself, but also as the awareness have risen through diffusion of ideas and imagery, as well as, perhaps ironically, because the barriers between countries are becoming more prominent.

What makes this emerging-market opportunity even more significant is that many of these economies are slated to undergo significant structural change in the coming years. This is partly because of the structural change in global trade - once the easy globalisation is over, a lot of new formats would have to be created to compensate for it - but also because of the technological transformation of the societies. 

Once the cost-arbitrage models of contract manufacturing or IT services are challenged, many of these economies have to readjust to newer models, with expanded manufacturing for local demand, digitisation of local services, and greater South-South trade facilitating what is going to be a painful process.

In this, the technological change is both going to cause trouble and help. At one level, the process of automation wouldn't be denied forever: The abundance of labour is no guarantee of low labour costs, as social and political frameworks rule out a return to Dickensian England or to the imagined nirvana of perfect market societies. But as automation eats up jobs, the process would also create opportunities for creating new products and services for domestic consumption, and when skill levels rise, for global competition. 

Overall, therefore, I am arguing that this is a great moment for reverse migration, not just because the visa changes would force some people to return, but because structural changes would create opportunities for others, who may not be disadvantaged by the visa changes but just disturbed by the cultural turn or inspired by the new economic opportunities. 

Now, I have been engaged in this conversation for far too long to have a rose-tinted view of the process of reverse migration. It is not easy. The countries themselves often don't want the people back: They demand fairer political systems, better public services and disrupt societies with their foreign habits, all the while their nice little remittances, which help the currency and allow the rich to buy their Land Rovers, disappear. Even the relatives too don't like it too much: Closeness, however sweet, makes the longing wear off pretty soon, while special gifts become rarer. The nostalgia about homeland, for the returnee, often lasts a few seconds on arrival, as everyone seems predatory and the imagined warmth fails to materialise. Worse, as they walk into workplaces, a kind of reverse nationalism hits them - they are derided as anti-nationals as they chose to stay abroad and fools as they chose to return.

There are economic arguments to be made why countries should welcome the returnees, which are rather identical to those to be made to the countries where they are returning from. These migrants bring skills and expertise, financial and intellectual capital and, most importantly, a new way of looking at the world. They often bring ideas that could be of big help in the inevitable structural transition of the economies. 

However, it is also important to think about what the returnees should do themselves to help this process. Often, the process of going back is all too abrupt, and all too disruptive because one did not want to give up the lifestyle of faster Internet and easier commute. Most returnees, therefore, do a disservice to themselves as they return, forever complaining about the inhospitability of the terrain, resenting the work environment and being too quick to proclaim their foreign heritage and specialness.

My point is indeed to change the conversation and make the process of return a deliberate, engaged and entrepreneurial process. Some returnees are well placed to do it this way - and those who do it, they are usually very successful in their return. The point is to think of this as a two-way process: Taking one's own country for granted isn't a very intelligent way to return. (And, since I have met many migrants who sought to go back for their mothers and came back double-quick because of their mother-in-laws, I suggest to prospective returnees a 'mother-in-law' approach: When returning, one should not treat their homeland as their mother, all forgiving and forever waiting for their return, but rather like the mother-in-law, where one needs to earn acceptance every single day).

So, in conclusion: We may be at the start of a new age of reverse migration, connected with the great rebalancing of the economies. Those who return are not the failed carpetbaggers of a bygone age, but those who may play an active role in constructing the future. The return is really the start, a process that would create new opportunities if one is looking for it. However, only those who return with humility and not entitlement, with imagination and not fixed mindsets, and with an urge to build and not one to sit back and enjoy, would inherit the future.

 



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