Europe is spending billions of dollars to jump-start Africa’s poorest economies. But that may just accelerate the exodus.
KOLONDIÉBA, Mali — It had been 10 days since Abdoulaye Traoré did anything at work. The cashew processing plant where he and roughly 200 other Malian laborers made a living by stripping the fleshy husks off crescent-shaped nuts had been sitting idle since early February. It had run out of raw cashews.
Each day for the past week, fewer employees had reported for work. No one had been paid since the beige, barn-like facility, perched on the edge of a vast plantation of spindly cashew trees, had suddenly ceased operating. No one had been told how long the interruption would last — or if the plant was closing its doors for good.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Europe’s migration crisis isn’t over — it’s just beginning. With net immigration expected to exceed 1 million per year for the next five decades and xenophobia surging, European leaders are grasping for new ways to slow the influx. So far, their efforts have included tighter rules and enforcement at home, as well as multibillion-dollar development projects and support for local militaries and governments in Africa. Foreign Policy’s special investigation looks at the impact of all this on the aspiring migrants, their homelands — and on Europe itself, where the desperate drive to preserve stability and fend off populism risks undermining long-cherished values like openness, tolerance, and respect for basic rights.
Reporting for this series was made possible in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Traoré, who at 26 had the wide shoulders and confident bearing of a college athlete, was beginning to wonder if he should look for another job. He had never intended to work at the plant forever, but shelling cashews paid better than most jobs in impoverished southern Mali, where almost everyone who lives comfortably has a family member sending money home from abroad. If not quite a ticket to a better future, the job was a chance to save up for one. “I think this is a good job, but now we are just waiting,” he told me in February. “Me, I am leaving for Ivory Coast on Monday or Tuesday. I heard there is work.”
That a small business in Mali would be hobbled by inefficiency is hardly surprising. More adults here are illiterate than can read, and the World Bank ranks the country as one of the most challenging in which to do business. But the cashew processing plant in Kolondiéba isn’t just any small enterprise. It’s one of Mali’s flagship development projects and the blueprint for future multimillion-dollar job creation initiatives aimed at curbing migration to Europe. It’s a preview of Europe’s answer to the migration crisis — or a big part of it anyway.
With tens of millions of migrants and refugees projected to arrive in Europe in the coming decades, on top of the million-plus who have claimed asylum in each of the last two years, the European Union is pouring billions of dollars into fighting migration at its source — much of it in impoverished and war-torn countries in Africa. The aim is to transform nations like Mali into more hospitable places. If it succeeds, Brussels is betting that it can convince some would-be migrants to stay home and African governments to stop others from leaving.
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Ángel Losada Fernandez, the EU’s special representative for the Sahel, an arid region south of the Sahara through which hundreds of thousands of Europe-bound migrants transit each year, calls it the “EU strategy of security and development.” The aim is to create “the proper jobs on the ground” so that young men no longer feel compelled to leave, he says, while also helping governments “control all this territory.” Call it paying migrants to stay — or paying their governments to keep them at home.
In just under two years — lightning speed for the European Union — the 28-nation bloc has approved nearly $2 billion in spending on 116 projects aimed at countering the “root causes” of migration in 26 African countries. That’s on top of tens of billions of dollars more in existing development and security assistance from the EU and from member states, some of which has already been reallocated to better address concerns over migration.
Traoré watches television with a group of young men in his uncle’s living room in Bamako.
Much of the money has been funneled into ambitious development projects: roughly $114 million for sustainable agriculture and food security in Senegal; $32 million for job creation in migration transit zones in Niger; $12 million for vocational training and youth empowerment in Gambia. All of it is administered through a multibillion-dollar EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, launched at a joint African and European summit on migration in 2015.
The idea that development can dry up migration is an appealing one for policymakers desperate for a humane response to the unprecedented surge of refugees and migrants.
The idea that development can dry up migration is an appealing one for policymakers desperate for a humane response to the unprecedented surge of refugees and migrants. This year, more than 2,500 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to European shores. The crisis has already prompted an aggressive, securitized response from the EU and member states, including funding for detention centers and equipping security services in key transit countries so that they crack down on illegal migration. Development seems to offer a more palatable method of relieving migratory pressures, one that isn’t glaringly inconsistent with Europe’s professed values on human rights.
But the story of the Malian cashew factory — which was still sitting idle in July, five months after it first ran out of raw materials — highlights the immense challenges that await European policymakers seeking to remake the poorest countries on Earth into attractive places to live. It also exposes a false but largely ignored assumption upon which the EU’s entire plan to use development to fight migration is premised: Better jobs and more income, at least in the short and medium term, don’t typically relieve migratory pressures in desperately poor countries; they increase them, a fact that is well-documented by economists.
Like most of his friends, Traoré had long dreamed of migrating to Europe. Also like them, he lacked the resources to make it there. He wasn’t even sure he could afford to move to Bamako, the Malian capital, where he had been accepted to study for a law degree. “School is free, but you have to pay for housing, transport, books,” he said.
He had been saving money working at the cashew plant. But now that it was closed, the best option seemed to be to go in search of seasonal labor next door in Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer of cocoa. The notion that someday there might be a well-paying job for him right here in Mali — the kind of job envisioned by EU policymakers — struck him as unlikely. If one suddenly appeared, though, Traoré knew exactly what he would do: “I would save money and go to Europe.”