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date: 23 April 2019


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Remittances are monetary or social transfers made by migrants to their countries of origin, usually but not exclusively, to members of their families. They represent a significant capital flow at the international level (hundreds of billions of dollars), exceeding by far official development assistance. Remittances, as an instrument for combating poverty and fueling economic growth, have attracted an increasing interest in development studies and the social sciences in general. The question of the relationship between migration and development has gained significant visibility in the last decades and, at political and academic levels, has provoked passionate debates in which anthropologists have participated actively. Over time, the mood has fluctuated from developmentalist optimism in the 1950s and 1960s, to pessimism in the 1970s and 1980s, and once more optimistic views in the 1990s and 2000s. The post-9/11 period has seen a progressive shift again and is dominated by a securitization political rhetoric.

In spite of this cyclical history, the terms of the debate are well known and rather constant. On the one hand, the role of money sent by migrants to their families may be seen as an effective survival strategy, a diversification of revenue sources that increases purchasing power; it may lead to small business creation, the promotion of education, and the transfer of knowledge by return migrants bringing with them skills learned abroad. Ultimately, the possibility of remitting money back home contributes—in more sociological terms—to the establishment of transnational networks and therefore to the cohesion of kinship or residence groups despite dispersion. However, the fact that so many people—especially youth—are trying to migrate is related to a culture of dependence, while the private dimension of most transfers does not bring real collective benefits. Far from promoting social cohesion, remittances may, on the contrary, increase inequalities, as the poorest households cannot afford to send one of their members abroad. In some cases, the money that is transferred may be used to finance armed groups.

These debates on the role of money and know-how sent by migrants are primarily situated within the vast literature on migration and development. Interestingly, most anthropological dictionaries and encyclopedias do not have an entry on remittances. The issue of remittances has still to acquire a fully-fledged theoretical dimension within the discipline in order to contribute to conceptual discussions on global mobility. Migrants weave multiple links throughout their lives and are often full participants in several societies at the same time. To grasp the complexity of the phenomena at stake, it might be necessary to decompartmentalize the existing categories of mobile people (asylum seekers, refugees, migrant workers, skilled professionals, international students, even tourists), recognize the non-linearity of most spatial and social trajectories, and integrate empirical studies into a more encompassing theoretical discussion.