Remittances, the money migrants send to their communities and families back home, have long been recognized as a driver of development in poor countries. But while their economic benefits are better appreciated, their political effects are no less consequential: remittances are one of the most potent weapons against dictatorship. Bolstered by funding from abroad, citizens in closed societies grow less reliant on autocratic governments and more likely to call for reform. The money migrants send makes grassroots pressure possible, opening the door to democratic change.

Around the world, remittances reached a record high of $548 billion in 2019. They have become the largest source of foreign financing in developing countries, outstripping international aid three times over. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, these payments have proved resilient. The global total fell by only 1.6 percent in 2020, according to the most recent estimate—faring better through the crisis than either foreign direct investment or development assistance. 

The role of remittances in linking migration to development is well established. When workers emigrate from low- and middle-income countries to high-income countries, they do so not only to earn higher wages for themselves. Many also send part of their earnings directly to the family members they leave behind. The result is higher consumption and greater investment in human capital and public goods in these communities. Migration produces economic benefits for both those who move and those who stay.  

There is less consensus when it comes to the political implications of migration. In high-income host countries, opponents and skeptics charge that migration weakens shared values and hinders the provision of public goods—often using such claims to fan the flames of nationalism and xenophobia and bolster antidemocratic leaders. Yet by focusing almost exclusively on the effects of migration in the rich world, the conventional policy debate neglects the ways that migrants shape political outcomes in their home countries. 

There, the consequences of migration are clear: worker remittances have a democratizing effect. In politically closed societies, remittances are often the only source of foreign income that circumvents the government. Beyond the reach of the state, those funds facilitate protest and undermine authoritarian tactics, tipping the balance of power toward citizens who mobilize for democratic change. In short, global migration may be one of the most powerful drivers of global democracy—simply by letting people move, work, and share what they earn.

PROMISES UNFULFILLED

Other types of transnational financial flows have often failed to yield the democratizing effects their proponents promised. In the 1990s, many of those cheering on globalization predicted that foreign development assistance—particularly when conditioned on political reform—would be a boon to democracy. And while many formerly autocratic governments did hold multiparty elections at the insistence of Western donors in the decades after the Berlin Wall fell, the evidence of foreign assistance leading to democratic outcomes is decidedly mixed. Today, most development aid flows through government channels, allowing autocrats to divert it to serve their own purposes. Even when it reaches civil society organizations as intended, the state often still controls which groups get what.

Many policymakers also championed the reform effects of global markets, claiming that free-flowing private capital would catalyze democratization in the global South. This thinking—embodied in the Washington consensus—held that foreign investment would spur economic modernization and loosen a nondemocratic government’s grip on the national economy. Empowered private actors would, in turn, challenge the power of the state. Thus went the hopeful narrative that accompanied China’s rise: World Trade Organization membership and international economic integration would create the conditions for democratic reform. But despite China’s rapid economic growth, its political system remains stubbornly authoritarian, supported by mass surveillance and digital repression, under President Xi Jinping’s increasingly personalistic rule. In other parts of the world, similarly optimistic predictions failed to account for autocratic governments’ capacity to manipulate capital flows for their own benefit. Instead of lifting up citizens and businesses across the society, foreign funds are often rerouted to maintain the patronage networks that entrench the government’s power.

Funding from foreign companies and aid agencies often comes with political agendas attached, too. Private investors’ main interest lies in accessing emerging markets to exploit the advantages they offer; these investors will prioritize stable and favorable business environments rather than promote political liberalization. Similarly, donor countries often distribute aid with an aim not to advance democracy but to extract concessions tied to their own foreign policy goals—think U.S. efforts to counter Soviet influence in the global South during the Cold War or the more recent campaign to buy foreign governments’ counterterrorism cooperation. Increasingly, donor countries wield the promise of funds to limit migration itself, outsourcing policy enforcement to the governments of sending and transit countries. 

FINANCING DEMOCRACY

While wealthy countries have been eager to liberalize capital flows over the past few decades, they have maintained strict controls over the cross-border movement of labor. Still, the number of international migrants has risen substantially in the last two decades, from 173 million in 2000 to 272 million at the start of the pandemic, according to the UN. Nearly half reside in high-income countries. The exchange of ideas that occurs when migrants settle in advanced democracies can itself have democratizing effects in their countries of origin. Those who return bring newly acquired values with them, and even those who remain abroad transmit their political attitudes to family and friends. These “social remittances” foster democratic values and participation even among citizens who never leave home.

Our research shows that it’s not only the person-to-person exchange of ideas that links migration to democratization—it’s the exchange of funds, too. Monetary remittances accrue directly to individuals and communities, largely bypassing autocratic governments in a way that foreign aid and investment cannot. Even the financial gains from international trade typically flow into government coffers or to loyal insiders. 

Remittances directly empower the citizens who demand democracy in migrants’ home countries. One way they do this is by making resources available to mobilize political opposition. Organizing a demonstration—or simply making time to attend one—can be costly, particularly in places where poverty and political repression are rampant. External funds help lower the barriers to participation. Analyzing Afrobarometer survey data from 17 African countries ruled by autocratic governments in the past two decades, we found that the likelihood of remittance recipients in opposition districts joining protests rose above 15 percent, compared with less than ten percent among citizens without this supplemental income. A skeptic might argue that a heavily opposition-leaning district could simultaneously attract more remittances and provide fertile ground for open dissent, without any causal link between the two. But we examined political behavior within the same district, and the pattern holds. And the benefits primarily accrue to opposition groups—remittances did not mobilize the public in regime strongholds.

Remittances directly empower the citizens who demand democracy in migrants’ home countries.

Expanding our analysis globally reinforced these findings. We looked at 130 autocratic regimes in 84 countries over the past four decades, aggregating information from protest data sets from around the world. The increased frequency of antigovernment protests as a result of remittances was equivalent to the boost we observed in election years compared with nonelection years. At the same time, remittances reduced the pro-government mobilization that can strengthen autocracies. In effect, global migration financed the types of political action that have been most likely to lead to peaceful democratization in the last quarter century.

Enabling protest is not the only way remittances chip away at authoritarian control. They also undermine the strategies nondemocratic governments employ to retain power. In systems classified as electoral or competitive authoritarianism, incumbents win elections—even relatively fraud-free multiparty contests—by essentially buying votes. Their efforts target voters in swing districts to boost turnout in the government’s favor. Clientelism of this kind is found in countries as diverse as Malaysia, Mexico, Senegal, and Zimbabwe. 

Income from remittances reduces citizens’ dependency on government patronage, severing the ties between electoral autocracies and the low-income voters they mobilize. Our study of African autocracies shows that remittances have little effect on voter turnout in opposition areas but reduce turnout by between four and six percent in contested districts, which can be enough to tip the scales in favor of a political challenger. In our global analysis, too, we found that remittances reduce electoral support for an incumbent autocrat. This happens despite the fact that higher remittance incomes around election time strengthen the national economy—a trend that favors incumbents, whom voters tend to reward for improvements in living standards.

This combination of better-resourced opponents and declining dependency on the government among supporters is destabilizing for autocracies. Around the world, a larger volume of remittances is associated with stronger civil society and more autonomous opposition. Together these processes map a global pattern connecting foreign income to democratization since the 1970s. Remittance-enabled political autonomy has helped shepherd democratic transitions such as the end of single-party rule in Senegal in 2000 and the surprise electoral defeat of Gambia’s president of two decades in 2016.

SLOWING AUTOCRACY’S MARCH

Migration and remittances provide a new way to think about bridging the gap between globalization and democratization—one that does not rely on the dubious capacity of economic integration or Western foreign policy initiatives to change an autocratic government’s behavior.  Unlike other forms of cross-border financing, remittances are decentralized. Individuals ultimately control the resources. Citizens in low- and middle-income countries, financed in part by their migrant relatives, are the ones who resist dictatorship and bring about democratic change.

Autocracy is on the offensive across the world. But migration can play a critical role in slowing its march. Policymakers in countries that both accept migrants and advocate for democracy abroad must start treating the two issues as linked. The pressures driving people to move will only accelerate in the coming decades. The uneven distribution of projected population growth—the continued rise of Africa and parts of Asia, while populations in Europe and the Americas stagnate or fall—is likely to trigger mass migration. Climate change and armed conflicts will push even more people to leave their homes and start over in a new country. But as these new migrants send money back to their families, friends, and communities, they also make it possible for citizens to advocate for democracy in the places they leave behind.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ABEL ESCRIBÀ-FOLCH is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences of Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona.

  • COVADONGA MESEGUER is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at ICADE, Comillas Pontifical University, Madrid.

  • JOSEPH WRIGHT is Professor of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University.

  • More By Abel Escribà-Folch
  • More By Covadonga Meseguer
  • More By Joseph Wright