Large-scale migration from the poorest countries of Europe and parts of Asia began immediately following the collapse of communism in 1990.
State pensions and public health provisions are paltry in these countries, and domestic job opportunities scarce.
That means the migration of young people has become an important part of household survival strategies as younger family members leave and then send wages back home. Those wages are known as “remittance” income.
The majority of all international migrants are male. The reasons for this may be partly cultural and partly economic.
Male migrants generally earn higher wages. And there’s some evidence that reality is serving as an incentive for families in these struggling economies to use sex-selective abortion to try to improve their lives.
Sons responsible for their parents
The lack of domestic jobs in post-communist countries makes bearing sons even more important to the security of parents as they age. Even before international migration was possible, responsibility for ageing parents resided with adult sons.
And so in the absence of functioning social security and health systems, and with the lack of local jobs, the motivation for bearing sons has undoubtedly increased.
In fact, among women aged 40 and older in 2002, 40 per cent had at least one son living abroad. My calculations, using data from the Albania Institute of Statistics and the 2012 World Bank Living Standards Monitoring Survey, suggest that each additional male birth increases the number of sons residing abroad by about 0.18 per cent
The data also show that more than 50 per cent of women with sons abroad had received remittances in the previous year. Only 23 per cent of daughters residing abroad had sent wages back home.
Within migrant-sending countries, the availability of prenatal technology and sex-selection abortion has made the economic incentives to bear sons more apparent.
Masculinised sex ratios at birth have been well-documented for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, for Nepal and for Albania, where increasing numbers of male babies are being born into both Christian and Muslim families.
Male-to-female birth ratio not typical
In both more traditional and tribal Albanian regions of the country, and in its urbanised central and south regions, there are more male births than the biological norm of 105:100 male-to-female live births. According to the 2011 census, the ratio for children under five was 109 boys to 100 girls, while the ratio for children aged five to nine was 119:100.
International migration and increased household size also appear to be household survival strategies that transcend cultures, religion and recent economic history.
And the prevalence of multiple generations living in one household appears to be common to countries that are receiving lots of remittance income.
Nepal, for example, does not share the recent communist history of some eastern European or mid-Asian countries, but it also has both a high fraction of GDP from remittance income (28.3 per cent in 2017)) and a high number of multiple-generation households.
More than 95 per cent of Nepalis obtaining permits to migrate are male. Remittance income in 2017 was greater than the sum of official development assistance and foreign direct investment.
The economic motives for son preference, therefore, appear to trump religious and cultural considerations. As mentioned, wages of unskilled males, after all, are much higher in destination countries than at home.
Brides live with in-laws
The trend underscores the difficult lives of women in countries that are reliant on remittance income from the boys and men who have gone abroad.
Cultural norms that dictate brides go live with the family of their new husbands are particularly strong in Albania, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In Tajikistan, young men leave to work in Russia within months of marrying. The newlywed bride resides with the young groom’s parents and bears responsibility for most domestic tasks in the new household. But remittance money is sent by the young man to his parents, not to his wife.
Daughters seldom work and are not welcomed back into their birth homes in the event of divorce. Children receive relatively little schooling since resources are focused on the oldest generations.
Why is this happening?
Nearly 30 years after market liberalisation began, most post-communist countries have failed to create environments in which private sector employment thrives.
As a result, remittances from international migration remain a major source of household income. Household members are sent abroad to provide a steady flow of international currency to support those remaining.
Wage gaps among the countries in the region are a key driver for international migration. Wages are much higher in nearby Russia than in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, for example. They are also much higher in Italy and Greece than in Albania.
In 2013, remittances reached a high of 49 per cent of GDP in Tajikistan.
In 2017, Kyrgyzstan was the country most dependent on remittances. Nearly 33 per cent of the country’s 2017 GDP came from this source. And in Albania from 2008-2017, remittances averaged 9.1 per cent of GDP.
Migration and remittances provide many benefits to receiving households and countries. Migrants provide insurance against shocks to household income, such as poor harvests or illness of household members. As well, they improve the spending power of remaining household members.
Eases pressure to create jobs
But there are several less desirable effects of reliance on remittance income. Governments are less pressed to create jobs, for example. Those who might foment unrest — young unemployed males — are outside the country. They’re not around to participate in protests to demand better living conditions and job opportunities.
Remittances are not often spent on investments in children’s education or to start up new businesses in home countries. Instead, the money largely goes to housing and the purchase of imported goods. This does not create long-run growth or generate tax revenue for the construction of social safety nets.
The value of remittances varies with economic and political conditions in migrant-receiving countries. As well, migration may have major demographic consequences.
The nature of markets for unskilled labour is likely important. For example, female Tajik migrants in Russia are concentrated in low-paying service industry jobs. To take such jobs, they must speak Russian. Males are concentrated in the construction sector, where Russian language knowledge is less essential, and wages much higher.
How the West can affect change
Through tax-financed contributions to organizations including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, western nations can support policies that reduce reliance on migration.
Institutional environments that foster private sector job creation may both reduce the importance of international remittances and increase the relative status of women in society.
There is evidence from Vietnam that changes in local labour market conditions may also change attitudes towards female children.
As a condition of concessional international loans, the boards of international organizations should press hard for reforms that will create jobs domestically.
Breeding young men for export has never been and should never be a successful economic development strategy.