By Nikhar Gaikwad, Kolby Hanson, and Aliz Toth

Robert H. Durr Award for Best Paper “applying quantitative methods to a substantive problem,” presented at the 2019 Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting

Millions of people around the world migrate overseas for employment each year, and more of them than ever are moving between countries in the Global South. The 2017 United Nations International Migration Report estimates that more cross-border migrants from developing countries now relocate to other low- and middle-income countries than to advanced industrialized nations, with migration within Asia and the Middle East comprising the world’s largest regional migration corridor. Yet there is a dearth of scientific and public policy knowledge about how migration impacts policy outlooks and political behavior in sending regions, not only for migrants and their families but also for the broader group of individuals who gain access to migration opportunities when countries integrate into the global economy.

How do international employment opportunities impact the political attitudes and behaviors of potential migrants? This paper examines how migration opportunities in the global economy stand to open new avenues of economic advancement for individuals in previously closed-off regions of the world—especially members of historically marginalized groups, who face discrimination in domestic labor markets. We theorize that when employment-based “exit options” open in international markets, individuals—even those who choose to stay behind—confront potentially enhanced economic prospects and expanded bargaining power vis-à-vis local employers and political elites.

Prior scholarship in political economy shows that one of the primary drivers of an individual’s political attitudes and voting behavior is their economic position. Wealthier individuals are more likely to vote and less likely to support taxation and redistribution. Should we expect the same of labor migrants, who consider embarking on overseas journeys in order to improve their economic station? And what about potential migrants, who might gain access to expanded economic opportunities, but do not realize material gains from migration?

Studying the effects of migration on migrants and sending communities is particularly challenging because it is hard to know the reference set with which to compare migrants. Because individuals themselves choose whether to move, migrants are systematically different from non-migrants to begin with, in both observable and unobservable ways. Comparing migrants to non-migrants—or sending communities to non-sending communities—is therefore often fraught with bias.

We conducted a unique field experiment in the Northeast Indian State of Mizoram. Partnering with local governmental and non-governmental organizations, we identified nearly 400 individuals from Scheduled Tribe communities seeking employment overseas. These communities face high barriers to employment and upward mobility in domestic labor markets; international employment therefore represents a new and potentially lucrative avenue for economic advancement for members of these communities. Half of our study subjects were selected through a lottery for a job training and placement program for well-paid jobs in the Persian Gulf region’s hospitality sector. We worked with a wide range of partners—a Bangalore-based training firm, a Mumbai-based overseas placement firm, a Delhi-based survey firm, overseas employers, and local research teams—to implement the interventions at the heart of the study. The randomized research design ensures that those who received access to migration opportunities and those who did not were identical to each other in expectation. This strategy enabled us to disentangle the direct causal effect of overseas employment opportunities on political preferences and behavior from other potentially confounding determinants of attitudinal and behavioral change.

We surveyed study subjects after the training and placement program but before emigration. This allows us to capture how access to international employment opportunities impacts political preferences and behavior, separate from the experiences and economic impacts of migration itself. Our results show that potential migrants do shift their political attitudes and behavior, even before experiencing or realizing any economic benefit from employment abroad.

First, individuals who were selected for the program became more confident about their economic prospects. The selected individuals were more likely to believe that their personal and family income would grow in the short term (e.g., their next job), medium term (the next year), and long term (their next generation). Second, selected individuals became less supportive of taxation and public spending and more likely to believe that economic success was earned rather than circumstantial. Even before they realized any economic gains from overseas employment, these potential migrants began to adopt policy preferences and beliefs that are more common among the wealthy. Lastly, individuals in the program began to participate more in electoral politics in order to translate their preferences into policy. Our intervention coincided with state-wide legislative elections in Mizoram; selected individuals were more likely to vote, attend community events and political rallies, and discuss politics with friends.

These results speak to two different sets of debates in political economy. First, they contribute to a long-standing discussion around globalization and inequality. We show that opening labor markets has a real impact on the political preferences and behavior of individuals in marginalized and low-income communities. International employment opportunities enhanced the political engagement of upwardly-mobile subjects, but also made them less supportive of state redistribution. Second, the results show that the prospect of upward mobility—rather than realized economic changes—can meaningfully reshape political attitudes and behavior. An enduring debate in political economy questions why wealthy individuals participate at higher rates and oppose redistribution: is it because of current resources, or future liability? We provide the first experimental evidence that we know of to show that attitudinal change regarding policy is at least partially prospective.

This paper is the first among a group of studies analyzing the political consequences of South-South migration, and uses results developed under the Research & Empirical Analysis of Labor Migration Program (REALM).

About the authors:

Nikhar Gaikwad is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.


Kolby Hanson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Strategy and Policy at the US Naval War College.


Aliz Toth is a Ph.D Candidate in Political Science at Stanford University.