Rose Jaji (PhD)
Senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS)
This book, which came out of research conducted in 2021 with non-migrants in Zimbabwe, is set against the background of a significant increase in the number of people migrating out of Zimbabwe since the onset of the country’s economic and political woes at the turn of the twenty-first century. The book starts from the premise that in contexts where migration has become the most viable route out of economic and political turmoil, non-migration becomes the anomaly deserving scrutiny. The book sets out to explain who does not migrate and why in a country which has experienced massive emigration characterized as an “exodus” (Betts 2010; Crush and Tevera 2010; Masawi 2016). It argues that macroeconomic factors do not necessarily lead to migration and discusses how individual subjectivities mediate these factors leading to non-migration despite or, ironically, because of such factors. The non-migration decision involves a complex interplay of economic, sociocultural, and political factors such that people may not migrate even if they are adversely affected by the economic crisis and have the means to migrate.
Non-migration in the Context of Economic Decline
The numbers of people migrating out of Zimbabwe has been on a steady increase since the country started its descent into economic and political turmoil, thus establishing a correlation between economic deterioration and migration. As more Zimbabweans react to the macroeconomic situation prevailing in the country by migrating, many others have not migrated. Much of the literature generally attributes migration from countries experiencing economic and political problems to structural factors and it likewise links the reasons for non-migration to structural barriers that portray non-migration as forced immobility. The implication of this is that people with the capacity to migrate would not remain in a country that has experienced economic challenges for more than two decades with little respite, as is the case with Zimbabwe. While the book concurs with literature on the causal relationship between macroeconomic factors and migration from Zimbabwe, it, however, challenges the idea that non-migration in this context is attributable to lack of the means to migrate.
The paradox of people not migrating despite the presence of all the drivers of migration in their environment points to the role of individual positionality, resourcefulness, and innovativeness in the decision not to migrate. Dysfunctional economic systems exhibit internal contradictions in the sense of structural constraints co-existing with opportunities that derive from individuals’ capacity to transform themselves into resourceful and innovative agents. Non-migrants’ agency plays an important role in mediating the macroeconomic situation in ways that enable them to identify or create opportunities and convert economic obstacles into a resource. Agency and individuals’ differential economic positioning generated varied perspectives on the macroeconomic situation in Zimbabwe and enabled individuals to create their own ordered world within the economic chaos that they attributed to warped macroeconomic policies and economic mismanagement. The non-migrants’ narratives demonstrated that as much as some of the individuals’ material circumstances reflected the macroeconomic situation prevailing in the country, others enjoyed material comfort which they attributed to pluck, self-reliance, and resilience.
Non-migration is an outcome of a carefully thought through process and informed decision in which non-migrants weigh the costs and benefits of non-migration vis-à-vis those of migration. This process considers not only the economic environment but also sociocultural, economic, and political costs and benefits that dominated the non-migrants’ narratives. They overwhelmingly attributed the decision not to migrate to security, freedom, and peace in a country which ironically performs dismally on global indices on these variables. The non-migrants did not make the decision not to migrate in a context where the choice was between a bad Zimbabwe and a good prospective destination country. Rather, they saw the positive and negative aspects of life in both Zimbabwe and countries that were potential destinations. In this regard, the non-migration decision was about insider advantages (Korfali and Sert 2015; Tassinopolous and Werner 1999) outweighing the challenges of being a foreigner. Many non-migrants who participated in the research saw citizenship in Zimbabwe as empowering and offering more advantages than living in a foreign country. They generally took the perspective that the benefits of migration were not commensurate with the sacrifices that it entailed.
Migration Theorization through a Non-migration Lens
Neoclassical theories explain migration in terms of abundance of labor supply in countries with low capital endowment. Yet, employment is not the sole source of income as people can seek other sources of income outside selling their labor. Zimbabwe’s descent into the economic precipice and the attendant shrinkage of its formal sector have transformed attitudes with more people preferring entrepreneurship, commercial farming , and self-employment to migration. In this sense, low capital endowment and abundance of labor in a context characterized by dysfunctional economic and monetary policies do not automatically lead to migration. Beyond remuneration not being commensurate with individual human capital, the non-migration decision is premised on consideration of whether human capital is transferable outside Zimbabwe and the risk of gambling economic investments in Zimbabwe for unpredictable migration outcomes. People can opt for other sources of income beyond selling their labor the economic reasoning behind this choice being that self-employment has higher returns than “working for someone”. Thus, the same rationalization that neoclassical theories emphasize in the migration decision similarly occurs in the decision not to migrate.
If an underperforming economy and the resultant deterioration in living standards explain migration, one cannot deduce by reverse logic that the non-migration decision is based on a sense of economic wellbeing in Zimbabwe. There were non-migrants who were adversely affected by the prevailing macroeconomic situation but had decided against migration because of non-economic factors such as family, peace, security, freedom, attachment to Zimbabwe, familiarity with local culture, and a sense of belonging and emotional wellbeing. Similarly, there were people who had the necessary resources to migrate but were reluctant to do so because of the same reasons. Neoclassical theories’ attribution of migration to low capital endowment and abundance of labor in the country of origin obscures a complex interplay of factors that are not apparent in economic explanations of migration and non-migration. This interplay of non-economic factors suggests that life satisfaction does not derive strictly from material comfort but also from sociocultural, political, and emotional factors.
Theories that explain human (im)mobility do not only address the reasons but also the factors that facilitate and perpetuate migration. Social networks and social capital predominantly appear in answers to the question how people initiate and sustain migration (Fussell and Massey 2004; Heer 2002). The book demonstrates how transnational social networks play a dual role in which they influence non-migration as much as they spur migration. Many non-migrants indicated that negative feedback on migration from migrants influenced the decision not to migrate. They combined this feedback with their own assessment whether migration had transformed migrants’ lives in a tangible manner: successful migration entailed investment “back home” and failure to do so rationalized and encouraged non-migration.
Positive feedback and promises of support from migrants do not automatically translate into migration as micro migration theories often suggest. Contrary to the optimism in theories that stress the role of transnational social networks in facilitating and perpetuating migration, some non-migrants were reluctant to migrate through these networks because they saw this as burdening others. In other instances, they saw accepting support accruing from transnational social networks as potentially stunting personal and professional growth, dimming prospects for self-actualization and denying them the choice of a preferred destination. The capacity to harness transnational social networks and migrate is also contingent upon whether people have invested in them and are therefore able to lay legitimate claims on them. Considering these findings, the book challenges the normative idea that transnational social networks play a supportive role in migration. Besides striking a cautionary note on the celebration of transnational social networks in migration, the book equally highlights how local social networks have a countervailing impact on the need to migrate.
Binary Categories and Mutual Articulation in Non-migration
The less scrutiny that non-migration attracts in comparison to migration has generated a vocabulary that both draws from the migration lexicon and is its inverse. This vocabulary follows the same dichotomous categorization of migration as either voluntary or involuntary. In line with this, non-migration is understood as either forced immobility attributable to factors that work against the individual’s aspiration to migrate or optional immobility in which the individual chooses not to migrate. The book critiques this dichotomous explanation of non-migration and demonstrates that the reasons for non-migration are numerous and interwoven such that they cannot be easily delineated into neat either voluntary or involuntary categories. In practice, the difference between choice and compulsion is ambiguous because people’s experiences tend to straddle classificatory boundaries (Jaji 2020). Non-migrants may decide not to migrate because of sociocultural, political, and psychological reasons in both Zimbabwe and prospective destination countries but wish to migrate due to economic considerations thus blurring the line between voluntary and involuntary non-migration. People may have the means to migrate but lack the desire to do so in the same way that they may want to migrate but lack the resources to do so. In addition, people may lack both the ability and desire to migrate.
The book further addresses the binary depiction of migration and non-migration, which, although necessary for conceptual clarity, masks the complementarity and mutual articulation between the two. The book shows that people do not choose either migration or non-migration but instead find ways to retain the benefits of non-migration and access those of migration. To this end, the book demonstrates how non-migration does not translate into immobility. There were non-migrants who engaged in cross-border trade, which entailed regular trips to countries such as South Africa and beyond the region to purchase merchandise for resale in Zimbabwe. The decision to migrate in the short-term can morph into return migration while current non-migration does not preclude future migration. This intricate relationship between migration and non-migration challenges the dichotomous conceptualization of the two as mutually exclusive and even conflictual. Drawing transnational social networks into this discussion, the book shows how non-migrants and migrants can establish mutually beneficial relationships exemplified by non-migrants receiving remittances in return for managing and supervising migrants’ investments in the country of origin. The liminality combining voluntariness and involuntariness mirrored the non-migrants’ perspectives on Zimbabwe which appeared in their narratives as a good bad country offering both the benefits and costs of non-migration. This oxymoron muddied the classificatory waters by transforming the voluntary/involuntary, economic/non-economic, political/non-political, and individual/social binaries into composites.
Non-migration and the Migration-Development Debate
Literature that addresses national and regional migration trends predicates these trends on development such that migration declines in the long-term when countries of origin reach a specific development threshold, specifically upper-middle income status. This presents migration as a problem of underdevelopment, which accordingly directs development efforts to regions that generate migrants (Martin and Straubhaar 2002). The book posits that individuals do not react to underdevelopment in a sociocultural vacuum and migration is not the automatic solution to the problem of underdevelopment. There are many more reasons for non-migration than those that establish a rather simplistic migration-development or lack of resources and non-migration nexus. The majority of Zimbabweans remain in the country with some of them having ruled out migration altogether despite the country’s economic underperformance and steady decline. Zimbabwe’s economic regression coexists with non-migration and even return migration thus pointing to the complexity and variability in reactions to economic malaise. Migration is only one of numerous options that include quest for solutions in Zimbabwe not least of which is an overhaul of the economic and political system itself.
Instead of romanticizing migration out of a gamut of possible solutions to the problem of underdevelopment, it is important to consider the human cost of migration exemplified by overworking, underpayment, and abuse of low-skilled migrant workers (see Rutherford 2008; Rutherford and Addison 2007; Wise Delgado 2018). The wholesale attribution of migration to underdevelopment and the optimism that places the burden of developing countries of origin on people who leave these countries out of desperation needs serious reflection. The non-migrants who participated in the research took the responsibility to change their individual lives without relieving the government of the mandate to provide the fundamental economic environment for the individual to thrive. Non-migrants’ reactions to arrested economic growth are unpredictable and predicated upon factors that transcend the state of underdevelopment in Zimbabwe. Confinement of the discussion of migration to development thresholds downplays the possibility of locally generated economic solutions. A more holistic perspective on national development needs to focus not only on migrants alone but also on non-migrants who constitute the majority. Non-migration is not necessarily about lack of resources to migrate but also an outcome of the decision to alleviate problems by finding both individual and structural solutions in the country. Some of the non-migrants who were determined to remain in Zimbabwe despite the personal economic challenges they faced preferred to invest in a system overhaul, which, in their view, would provide a sustainable solution to the country’s protracted economic deterioration. Non-migrants who attributed their non-migration to patriotism and similar ideals that transcend individual economic interests saw a chasm between migration and development and argued that migrants were mostly developing the countries of destination. Although non-migration is attributed to countries having transcended a specific development threshold, people can decide not to migrate despite the economic regression or because of it. Cases of non-migrants who found economic opportunities in the crisis and believed that they were faring better than their migrant relatives and friends illustrated this.
Overall, the book demonstrates that non-migration in a country marred by economic decline is not strictly about lack of resources necessary for migration. Non-migration is a rational economic decision proceeding from meticulous consideration of the costs and benefits of both migration and non-migration; it is the outcome of the benefits of the latter far outweighing those of the former. Non-migration in Zimbabwe does not essentially reflect individual economic wellbeing and a higher development threshold both of which, in a normative sense, render migration unnecessary. It is an outcome of a combination of economic, sociocultural, and political factors that rendered migration unviable. The non-economic reasons for non-migration demonstrate the limitations of development thresholds in explaining and predicting migration trends. In challenging assumptions and accepted views on non-migration, the book problematizes non-migration and presents it as an area deserving as much scrutiny as migration especially considering that migration receives a disproportionately large share of attention.
About the Author
Rose Jaji is senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS). Her research areas of interest are migration/refugees and conflict and peacebuilding. She has published peer-reviewed articles on migrants/refugees and gender, refugees and social technology, identity, asylum seekers, and border crossing, return migration as well as gender and peacebuilding. She is the author of Deviant Destinations: Zimbabwe and North to South Migration (Lexington Books, 2020) and Non-migration amidst Zimbabwe’s Economic Meltdown (Lexington Books, 2023).
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