Originally posted March 2010
Migration has played an important role in Egyptian society since the early 1970s. By the mid-2000s, remittances from migrants accounted for about 6% of Egypt’s GDP, which places Egypt among the top ten remittance-receiving countries in the world. With 5% of Egypt’s population estimated to be living abroad in 2006, and a large proportion of these migrants sending money back to their relatives at home on a regular basis, migration has had substantial domestic effects. While acknowledging that spillover effects could be important, this essay is primarily concerned with the direct effects of migration on family members left behind rather than on the full impact of migration on the economy.
The impact of migration on family members left behind can be both positive or negative, depending on whether the migrant is away temporarily or permanently and whether or not they remit money back home. On the one hand, migration, if accompanied by remittances, can loosen household budget constraints — leading to greater investments in household enterprises, increases in children’s schooling, and higher current consumption. If migration is temporary or circular, the return of the migrant could also bring back valuable skills acquired abroad as well as entrepreneurial potential. On the other hand, the withdrawal of what are usually prime breadwinners from the household’s labor supply pool could either increase the work burden of others or decrease their labor supply depending on the flow of remittances and their use.
This essay summarizes the available evidence on the impact of migration from Egypt on household poverty, the labor supply of adult members of the household, child schooling, child labor, and the empowerment of women, as measured by decision-making and attitudes about gender norms. Before doing that, however, we provide a brief characterization of the nature of migration flows from Egypt in recent decades.
A Brief Characterization of Egyptian Migration Flows
Migration from Egypt can be broadly characterized as largely made up of the temporary migration of male household members for work in other Arab countries. While there is a long tradition of permanent migration of entire households to the United States, Canada, and Australia, the vast majority of migrants are unaccompanied males heading to Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf countries, Libya, and Jordan. After peaking in the early 1990s, on the heels of the first Gulf War, migration flows from Egypt ebbed significantly until the early 2000s, when a significant increase in migration occurred, and continues to the present time. Although undocumented migration to European destinations has received a great deal of media attention lately, it does not yet show up much in existing nationally representative household surveys, possibly because of its highly concentrated nature in certain villages and communities, which may or may not appear in national surveys not designed to measure such a geographically concentrated phenomenon. Migration from Egypt tends to be somewhat selective by education. Twenty-two percent of migrants in the first half of the 2000s had a university education or higher as compared to 16% of all adult males in 2006. Sixty-five percent had secondary education and above, compared to 51% of adult males.
The Impact of Migration and Remittances on Household Poverty
Most studies suggest remittances from migrants reduce poverty worldwide. Recent estimates for Egypt confirm this conclusion. With an average incidence of poverty of about 20% in Egypt in the mid-2000s, remittances from migrants are estimated to reduce a household’s poverty rate by eight or nine percentage points, or just under half. While this is a substantial reduction in poverty for the affected households, the impact on overall poverty is limited. With only 3.5% of households receiving remittances — and an even smaller proportion of poor households, because migration tends to be more prevalent among the non-poor — the national poverty rate would only increase by 0.4% if migration stopped, assuming negligible spillover effects. The impact of remittances on household poverty varies, depending on the characteristics of the household. While no significant differences in the impact of migration on household poverty were found between urban and rural households, greater poverty reduction was detected when the spouse left behind was educated at the secondary level or above, presumably indicating that the migrant himself is also educated.
The Impact of Migration on the Labor Supply of Adults Left Behind
In theory, migration could have contradictory effects on the labor supply of those left behind. On the one hand, by helping the household meet its basic needs, the receipt of remittances could act as a disincentive to work, thus reducing labor supply. On the other hand, remittances could allow households constrained by imperfect access to finance to start or expand family enterprise, raising the demand of the labor of household members. In the absence of remittances, migration could induce an increase in labor supply by forcing other household members to substitute for the lost labor of the migrant. Recent empirical studies have found little evidence of any reduction in overall labor supply due to migration. Binzel and Assaad find that although the number of hours of wage and salary work among both adult males and adult females is somewhat reduced in migrant households that receive remittances, it is more than made up by the increases in the incidence and intensity of self-employment and unpaid family work induced by an increase in family enterprise activity. This increase in self-employment is particularly pronounced for adult females, who are more likely to constitute the adults left behind. Their results also indicate that women’s domestic and subsistence work burden also increases in migrant households. Households with migrants that do not receive remittances experience an unambiguous increase in labor supply as the remaining adults strive to make up for the migrant member’s lost income.
Impact of Migration and Remittances on Child Schooling and Child Work
The expected effects of migration and remittances on child work and schooling are somewhat less ambiguous. The loosening of household budget constraints due to remittances is likely to reduce the need to have children perform market work and increases the chances that they would be sent to school. However, it is possible that the domestic work burden of adolescent males could increase as they attempt to substitute for the contribution to household responsibilities of an absent father or older brother. Empirical findings confirm these expectations. Elbadawy and Assaad find that the receipt of remittances does in fact significantly reduce market work for boys 6-14 left behind, but does not have a significant impact on their school attendance, probably because school attendance among this group is already very high in both migrant and non-migrant households. They do find, however, that remittances enhance school attendance among university-aged boys 19 to 21. They also find that the domestic work burden of boys 15-17 increases in migrant households. For girls, the receipt of remittances has no discernible impact on reducing market work, because levels of market work among girls are very low in Egypt to start with, but they do reduce involvement in domestic work, probably as a result of the time-saving devices that remittances allow the household to acquire. They also find a positive impact of remittances on the probability of girls ever enrolling in school and on school retention rates for 15- to 17-year-old girls.
The Impact of Migration and Return Migration on Women’s Decision Making and Gender Roles
Because migration in Egypt usually involves the temporary departure of an adult male, to the extent that this male was the head of the household prior to the departure, there is a de facto increase in the need for the spouse left behind to make important decisions relating to the welfare and maintenance of the household. The question is whether this de facto empowerment outlasts the return of the husband or is reversed upon his return. Elbadawy provide solid evidence for the latter. Not only is the ability to make decisions on the part of adult women left behind in Egypt reversed when the migrant returns, but it is even reduced compared to households that never experienced migration. They also find that attitudes about gender roles are more socially conservative in households that experienced migration than among those that have not. These results can be interpreted in light of the dominant pattern of migration from Egypt, which are typically to more socially conservative societies like Saudi Arabia and Libya, where migrants can be influenced by the cultural norms of the host country. They also could simply be attributable to return migrants asserting the male prerogative after a period of absence.
Migration has had a large impact on a significant portion of Egyptian households in the past three decades. The empirical studies reviewed here show that migration has had an unambiguous impact on reducing poverty and point to various mechanisms for poverty reduction besides simply increasing current household consumption. One of the main mechanisms by which migration appears to affect household welfare is to allow households to invest in starting or expanding family enterprises, in a context where the access to finance through the financial system is often highly constrained. The presence of such enterprise increases household welfare in part by creating opportunities to better utilize the labor of household members, especially adult women. Migration and remittances also contribute to reducing the intergenerational transmission of poverty by allowing households to increase investments in children’s human capital through education. Migration also offers an opportunity for the empowerment of women simply by the fact that they often become the de facto decision makers when adult males are away. Research on Egypt has found, however, that this de facto empowerment is short-lived, and is essentially reversed when the migrant returns. In fact, the typically more conservative gender norms of the host countries Egyptian migrants are likely to go to may even come back with them, resulting in less progressive gender roles and attitudes among migrant households than among households whose men stayed home.
. Rania Roushdy, Ragui Assaad, and Ali Rashed, “International Migration, Remittances and Household Poverty Status in Egypt,” Background paper for the World Bank Program on International Migration from the Middle East and North Africa and Poverty Reduction Strategies, The World Bank, Washington, DC, 2009.
. Rania Roushdy, Ragui Assaad, and Ali Rashed, “International Migration, Remittances and Household Poverty Status in Egypt.”
. Christine Binzel and Ragui Assaad, “The Impact of International Migration and Remittances on the Labor-Supply Behavior of those Left behind: Evidence from Egypt,” DIW Discussion Paper No. 954, Berlin, DIW, 2009.
. Asmaa Elbadawy and Ragui Assaad, “Impact of International Migration and Remittances on Child Schooling and Child Work: The Case of Egypt,” Background paper for World Bank Program on International Migration from the Middle East and North Africa and Poverty Reduction Strategies, The World Bank, Washington DC, 2009.
. Asmaa Elbdawy and Rania Roushdy, “Impact of Migration on Women’s Decisionmaking and Gender Role Attitudes: the Case of Egypt,” Background paper for World Bank Program on International Migration from the Middle East and North Africa and Poverty Reduction Strategies, The World Bank, Washington DC, 2009.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.