The hidden force in global economics: sending money home

Last year there was huge debates about what Belizeans in the Diaspora do for the motherland and the people there. Someone asked in a Belizean newspaper "What have you done for me lately?" others pointed to other things, but mostly the concept was insinuating that the Diaspora doesn’t do much for the nation.

There was one ignorant fellow that made the remark in public forum that:

In 2013, the Central Bank of Belize reported that remittances were $72.2 million or about 2.23% of our gross domestic product (GDP). Economists will tell you that any activity generating 2.23% of GDP is not insignificant in-and-of-itself. However, given the nature of remittances, we can discount its overall importance to the economy. In essence, we can take it for granted because remittances are not so susceptible to exogenous shocks.

Basically saying that the money sent home by Diasporans does not make a difference for Belize and Belizeans that receive these funding, and mind you this is only monies that went through the Western Unions, Wire Transfers and other expensive and traceable means, this does not include monies that go directly to pay bills using a diaspora family member’s credit card or monies sent with a trusted friend or wrapped up in a parcel, etc. To add to that, you have to think about donations made in the form of items like computers to schools, clothes and food drives held in the Diaspora that are sent for those that need, and other such things.

The GDP in 2014 was $2 billion. The 2014 budget had a deficit of $126,465,587 and that came from loans to add to the already Atomic Bond (Super Bond) that is ever increasing and burdening Belizeans. Keep in mind that the GDP is mostly dependent on Agriculture and Tourism, of which you know the issues with the Sugar Industry and all the other things plaguing our nation; the underlying issues are there and they are starting to rear their ugly faces. They may not directly or negatively impact the nation today or tomorrow, or even next month; but they are there and they will rise to the occasion.

Real GDP Growth


2014 Numbers

  • The GDP per capita: US$4,659
  • Inflation: 12%
  • Unemployment rate: 15.6%
  • Public debt (General government gross debt as a % of GDP): 80.4%
  • Current account balance: US$ -0.074 billion
  • Current account balance by percentage of GDP: -4.468% of GDP

Last reported in 2013

  • Total exports: US$633 million
  • Total imports: US$864 million

Index of Economic Freedom WSJ and Heritage Foundation: Ranking: 115 Score: 56.7 (Mostly Unfree – 2014 ~ where 100 = totally free 0 = totally repressed)

So what is GDP?

Investopedia says:

The gross domestic product (GDP) is one the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy. It represents the total dollar value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period – you can think of it as the size of the economy. Usually, GDP is expressed as a comparison to the previous quarter or year. For example, if the year-to-year GDP is up 3%, this is thought to mean that the economy has grown by 3% over the last year.

Measuring GDP is complicated (which is why we leave it to the economists), but at its most basic, the calculation can be done in one of two ways: either by adding up what everyone earned in a year (income approach), or by adding up what everyone spent (expenditure method). Logically, both measures should arrive at roughly the same total.

As one can imagine, economic production and growth, what GDP represents, has a large impact on nearly everyone within that economy. For example, when the economy is healthy, you will typically see low unemployment and wage increases as businesses demand labor to meet the growing economy. A significant change in GDP, whether up or down, usually has a significant effect on the stock market. It’s not hard to understand why: a bad economy usually means lower profits for companies, which in turn means lower stock prices. Investors really worry about negative GDP growth, which is one of the factors economists use to determine whether an economy is in a recession.

New: Remittances to Belize

A remittance is a transfer of money by a foreign worker (expatriates and diaspora) to an individual in their home country.

Remittances in Belize increased to 87.90 USD Million in 2017 from 87.20 USD Million in 2016. Remittances in Belize averaged 62.41 USD Million from 2001 until 2017, reaching an all time high of 87.90 USD Million in 2017 and a record low of 24.30 USD Million in 2002.

Belize Remittance Chart

source: Central Bank of Belize

Remittance Inflows to GDP Chart

An important factor that does not seem to be brought up is the wealth distribution in Belize. We can sit here and debate numbers until our faces turn blue, but without understanding how the dollars are distributed across the demographics in Belize it makes no sense. The current Poverty rate in Belize is 41.3%, almost 1/2 of the population of Belize live in poverty and that is climbing daily.

Here is an awesome Ted Talk that shows the high importance of what the Diaspora does for it’s homeland despite it not being a public thing. Not only in Belize but all over the world.

I live in Washington, D.C., but I grew up in Sindhekela, a village in Orissa, in India. My father was a government worker. My mother could not read or write, but she would say to me, "A king is worshipped only in his own kingdom. A poet is respected everywhere." So I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. But I almost didn't go to college until an aunt offered financial help.

413 billion dollars. That’s a remarkable number because that is three times the size of the total of development aid money. And yet, you and I, my colleagues in Washington, we endlessly debate and discuss about development aid, while we ignore remittances as small change.

I went to study in Sambalpur, the largest town in the region, where, already in college, I saw a television for the first time. I had dreams of going to the United States for higher studies. When the opportunity came, I crossed two oceans, with borrowed money for airfare and only a $20 bill in my pocket. In the U.S., I worked in a research center, part-time, while taking graduate classes in economics. And with the little I earned, I would finance myself and then I would send money home to my brother and my father.

My story is not unique. There are millions of people who migrate each year. With the help of the family, they cross oceans, they cross deserts, they cross rivers, they cross mountains. They risk their lives to realize a dream, and that dream is as simple as having a decent job somewhere so they can send money home and help the family, which has helped them before.

There are 232 million international migrants in the world. These are people who live in a country other than their country of birth. If there was a country made up of only international migrants, that would be larger, in population, than Brazil. That would be larger, in its size of the economy, than France. Some 180 million of them, from poor countries, send money home regularly.

Those sums of money are called remittances. Here is a fact that might surprise you: 413 billion dollars, 413 billion dollars was the amount of remittances sent last year by migrants to developing countries. Migrants from developing countries, money sent to developing countries — 413 billion dollars. That's a remarkable number because that is three times the size of the total of development aid money. And yet, you and I, my colleagues in Washington, we endlessly debate and discuss about development aid, while we ignore remittances as small change.

True, people send 200 dollars per month, on average. But, repeated month after month, by millions of people, these sums of money add up to rivers of foreign currency. So India, last year, received 72 billion dollars, larger than its IT exports. In Egypt remittances are three times the size of revenues from the Suez Canal. In Tajikistan, remittances are 42 percent of GDP. And in poorer countries, smaller countries, fragile countries, conflict-afflicted countries, remittances are a lifeline, as in Somalia or in Haiti.

No wonder these flows have huge impacts on economies and on poor people. Remittances, unlike private investment money, they don't flow back at the first sign of trouble in the country. They actually act like an insurance. When the family is in trouble, facing hardship, facing hard times, remittances increase, they act like an insurance. Migrants send more money then. Unlike development aid money, that must go through official agencies, through governments, remittances directly reach the poor, reach the family, and often with business advice.

So in Nepal, the share of poor people was 42 percent in 1995, the share of poor people in the population. By 2005, a decade later, at a time of political crisis, economic crisis, the share of poor people went down to 31 percent. That decline in poverty, most of it, about half of it, is believed to be because of remittances from India, another poor country. In El Salvador, the school dropout rate among children is lower in families that receive remittances. In Mexico and Sri Lanka, the birth weight of children is higher among families that receive remittances.

Remittances are dollars wrapped with care. Migrants send money home for food, for buying necessities, for building houses, for funding education, for funding healthcare for the elderly, for business investments for friends and family. Migrants send even more money home for special occasions like a surgery or a wedding. And migrants also send money, perhaps far too many times, for unexpected funerals that they cannot attend.

Much as these flows do all that good, there are barriers to these flows of remittances, these 400 billion dollars of remittances. Foremost among them is the exorbitant cost of sending money home. Money transfer companies structure their fees to milk the poor. They will say, "Up to 500 dollars if you want to send, we will charge you 30 dollars fixed." If you are poor and if you have only 200 dollars to send, you have to pay that $30 fee. The global average cost of sending money is eight percent. That means you send 100 dollars, the family on the other side receives only 92 dollars. To send money to Africa, the cost is even higher: 12 percent. To send money within Africa, the cost is even higher: over 20 percent. For example, sending money from Benin to Nigeria. And then there is the case of Venezuela, where, because of exchange controls, you send 100 dollars and you are lucky if the family on the other side receives even 10 dollars. Of course, nobody sends money to Venezuela through the official channel. It all goes in suitcases. Where-ever costs are high, money goes underground.

There is no real urgency for me to send money home. And yet, from time to time, I send money home to friends, to relatives, to the village, to be there, to stay engaged — that’s part of my identity

And what is worse, many developing countries actually have a blanket ban on sending money out of the country. Many rich nations also have a blanket ban on sending money to specific countries. So, is it that there are no options, no better options, cheaper options, to send money?

There are. M-Pesa in Kenya enables people to send money and receive money at a fixed cost of only 60 cents per transaction. U.S. Fed started a program with Mexico to enable money service businesses to send money to Mexico for a fixed cost of only 67 cents per transaction. And yet, these faster, cheaper, better options can't be applied internationally because of the fear of money laundering, even though there is little data to support any connection, any significant connection between money laundering and these small remittance transactions. Many international banks now are wary of hosting bank accounts of money service businesses, especially those serving Somalia.

Somalia, a country where the per capita income is only 250 dollars per year. Monthly remittances, on average, to Somalia is larger than that amount. Remittances are the lifeblood of Somalia. And yet, this is an example of the right hand giving a lot of aid, while the left hand is cutting the lifeblood to that economy, through regulations. Then there is the case of poor people from villages, like me. In the villages, the only place where you can get money is through the post office. Most of the governments in the world have allowed their post offices to have exclusive partnerships with money transfer companies. So, if I have to send money to my father in the village, I must send money through that particular money transfer company, even if the cost is high. I cannot go to a cheaper option. This has to go.

So, what can international organizations and social entrepreneurs do to reduce the cost of sending money home? First, relax regulations on small remittances under 1,000 dollars. Governments should recognize that small remittances are not money laundering. Second, governments should abolish exclusive partnerships between their post office and the money transfer company. For that matter, between the post office and any national banking system that has a large network that serves the poor. In fact, they should promote competition, open up the partnership so that we will bring down costs like we did, like they did, in the telecommunications industry. You have seen what has happened there. Third, large nonprofit philanthropic organizations should create a remittance platform on a nonprofit basis. They should create a nonprofit remittance platform to serve the money transfer companies so that they can send money at a low cost, while complying with all the complex regulations all over the world.

The development community should set a goal of reducing remittance costs to one percent from the current eight percent. If we reduce costs to one percent, that would release a saving of 30 billion dollars per year. Thirty billion dollars, that's larger than the entire bilateral aid budget going to Africa per year. That is larger than, or almost similar to, the total aid budget of the United States government, the largest donor on the planet. Actually, the savings would be larger than that 30 billion because remittance channels are also used for aid, trade and investment purposes.

Another major impediment to the flow of remittances reaching the family is the large and exorbitant and illegal cost of recruitment, fees that migrants pay, migrant workers pay to laborers who found them the job.

I was in Dubai a few years ago. I visited a camp for workers. It was 8 in the evening, dark, hot, humid. Workers were coming back from their grueling day of work, and I struck a conversation with a Bangladeshi construction worker. He was preoccupied that he is sending money home, he has been sending money home for a few months now, and the money is mostly going to the recruitment agent, to the labor agent who found him that job. And in my mind, I could picture the wife waiting for the monthly remittance. The remittance arrives. She takes the money and hands it over to the recruitment agent, while the children are looking on. This has to stop.

It is not only construction workers from Bangladesh, it is all the workers. There are millions of migrant workers who suffer from this problem. A construction worker from Bangladesh, on an average, pays about 4,000 dollars in recruitment fees for a job that gives him only 2,000 dollars per year in income. That means that for the two years or three years of his life, he is basically sending money to pay for the recruitment fees. The family doesn't get to see any of it.

It is not only Dubai, it is the dark underbelly of every major city in the world. It is not only Bangladeshi construction workers, it is workers from all over the world. It is not only men. Women are especially vulnerable to recruitment malpractices.

One of the most exciting and newest thing happening in the area of remittances is how to mobilize, through innovation, diaspora saving and diaspora giving. Migrants send money home, but they also save a large amount of money where they live. Annually, migrant savings are estimated to be 500 billion dollars. Most of that money is parked in bank deposits that give you zero percent interest rate. If a country were to come and offer a three percent or four percent interest rate, and then say that the money would be used for building schools, roads, airports, train systems in the country of origin, a lot of migrants would be interested in parting with their money because it's not only financial gains that give them an opportunity to stay engaged with their country's development. Remittance channels can be used to sell these bonds to migrants because when they come on a monthly basis to send remittances, that's when you can actually sell it to them. You can also do the same for mobilizing diaspora giving. I would love to invest in a bullet train system in India and I would love to contribute to efforts to fight malaria in my village. Remittances are a great way of sharing prosperity between places in a targeted way that benefits those who need them most.

Remittances empower people. We must do all we can to make remittances and recruitment safer and cheaper. And it can be done.

As for myself, I have been away from India for two decades now. My wife is a Venezuelan. My children are Americans. Increasingly, I feel like a global citizen. And yet, I am growing nostalgic about my country of birth. I want to be in India and in the U.S. at the same time. My parents are not there anymore. My brothers and sisters have moved on. There is no real urgency for me to send money home. And yet, from time to time, I send money home to friends, to relatives, to the village, to be there, to stay engaged — that's part of my identity. And, I'm still striving to be a poet for the hardworking migrants and their struggle to break free of the cycle of poverty. Thank you.

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