Doug Saunders  
“People never just randomly pack their stuff one day and migrate”

Interview by Johanni Larjanko  

© Randy Quan

Doug Saunders is a Canadian-British author and journalist. He is the author of the books Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World (2011) and The Myth of the Muslim Tide (2012) and is the international-aff airs columnist for The Globe and Mail. He served as the paper’s London-based European bureau chief for a decade, and has written extensively from East Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and North Africa. He has won the National Newspaper Award, Canada’s counterpart to the Pulitzer Prize, on five occasions. 



According to Canadian journalist and author Doug Saunders, we are currently witnessing the last great human migration, from the countryside to the cities. This wave of migration is immense, and creates huge challenges, threats and opportunities. AED managed to get an interview with Doug via a somewhat unreliable Skype connection.

Tell me about the largest migratory move in human history. What is it, where is it taking place, and why?

The transition from a largely rural agriculturally-based life to a largely urban-based life is something Europe and North America experienced between the 18th Century and the middle of the 20th Century. It occurred due to a combination of agricultural modernisation and the development of urban economies. The reason it is taking place is the shift from a survivalbased agricultural living (or peasant living) to a commercialbased agricultural living, with a lot fewer people living in rural areas, but nonetheless producing a lot more food. This shift has two consequences, everywhere in the world and across history. It reduces family sizes, putting an end to population growth, and it reduces poverty, starvation and malnutrition. The latter is due to the increase in food production. These benefits induce people to move. Since the Second World War, we have seen the same phenomena occur in the Southern and Eastern hemisphere of the world (Asia, Africa, India and Latin America). The shift is all about over in Latin America by now; the population is as urban as in the United States and in Europe. At the moment we are seeing the most dramatic shift of this population change in East Asia and Africa. We can also see the decrease in poverty, the decrease in population growth and the increase in living standards that go with it.

What happens to our identity and sense of self when we move from village to city?

That varies from society to society, but it includes factors such as change in the shape of the family, a different role for women and a different role for children. Children shift from being surplus agricultural labour to being investments in the family’s future. Thus you need fewer of them, and each represents a greater value. Women are no longer only there to support the patriarch of the family, but play a much more equal role. Nowadays, women are working in urban economies in many societies. The transformation is not easy, seeing as the shift often creates a great shock to the system.

What are the risks involved for society and for people when they shift from rural to urban?

The risk for the individual taking this plunge is huge. You change from a rural life that is very marginal to an urban life that is much more expensive and insecure, until you learn to navigate it. With that being said, people who tend to take this plunge are the more ambitious ones, the ones with drive. They are the ones that are the best connected in the rural areas, and they are the ones who are willing to take this considerable risk of failure. The places they end up in, outside the large cities, are never places where it is safe or easy to live. That is also an inherent risk for any person or family doing this.

So, apart from the personal risks involved, societies are affected through this brain-drain where the most ambitious and active ones leave the countryside?

Yes, but remember, it is not just a question of random people suddenly packing their stuff one day and leaving. The families that are most successful at agriculture are the ones leaving. Unlike my somewhat naive assumptions when I began working on Arrival Cities, there is nowhere in the world where families just say one day “let’s take a bus into the city and urbanise”. This has never happened. What does happen is that between harvest seasons, one person from the family, often a woman, moves to the city temporarily to earn some extra income. She stays in a room with twelve other people and does the very lowest level of labour. 

The favela of Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Santa Maria is what Doug Saunders calls an “arrival city” © Doug Saunders

The very worst form of labour in any city, and the smallest share of that labour, will when sent back to the rural area generate twenty times the income that the family gets from agriculture. It’s the case in China now, it’s the case in Poland, it’s the case in Britain historically, and so on. As a result, soon more family members start to come, some may stay all year round, they start out by renting some place to live and eventually they may buy a home. At some point the family realises that they are no longer a successful rural family with some urban support. They have become an urban family that has a farm somewhere where their grandparents stay.

Life in arrival cities is very hard. It is a high-risk activity and it requires a lot of resilience. Not everyone can manage. The ones that leave the village are those with the most ambition, the most investments, and the most savings. Of these, it is the toughest 50% who stay in the city.

What can and should be done to make this transition easier?

People who run cities need to understand that this migration is not some random occurrence. There are pre-existing networks of people in your city who come from a specifi c place. There is a universal rule; countries do not ever emigrate to other countries, what happens is that specific villages or subregions in a country emigrate to a specific neighbourhood. The networks facilitate this migration. Secondly, people are not going to simply show up and hope for the best; they come because there are specific entrepreneurial opportunities they see in your economy. If you find that you are going to have labour shortages, then no matter what the immigration laws are in your country, there will be people coming to fill them, legally or illegally. Thirdly, you need to realise that they are going to settle in what I call arrival city districts. These are districts that have much lower housing cost than anywhere else and at least a pre-existing network of people from a specific place. If you can understand that in advance, then you can understand how to overcome the problems that are going to develop, because it’s in the logic of the arrival city that the place is going to have built-in problems. Why is the housing so much cheaper in this neighbourhood? Sometimes it is because there is a real sanitation problem, or it is due to horrible-quality housing. Very often it is because it is in a difficult location, very far from the centre of the city. It may take two hours to get to your job or it takes your customers two hours to get to your shop in the immigrant neighbourhood. There can be institutional problems, such as no schools or no places to run a business. These are usually the reasons why arrival cities are not suited for permanent residence. Once the immigrants have settled down and begun to climb the social ladder, they will try to move out.

Whose responsibility is this? Is it always the state, or does civil society have a role to play?

I walk between two lines on this question. There is an old liberal school of urban development that says the solution is simply to give people ownership of their housing and easy access to business licensing, and everything else will take care of itself. Economists like Hernando de Soto stand by this argument. Also, there is a more almost Marxist urban argument that says that the state is required to prevent liberal capitalism from ruining the lives of innocent people. I would argue that the immigrant districts in cities that have been successful are the ones that have had both a liberal economy, so that there is a full range of business opportunities, and also a strong and robust role of the state. You need to have economic opportunities, and you need to have a functioning economy, but you also need to have the institutions of the state in terms of raw infrastructure, in terms of transportation, but particularly in health and education, in order to make things work. Being aware that both of these things are needed will help avoid some of the disasters that have befallen multiple neighbourhoods.

You mention education. What role can adult education play here?

A lot of people migrated to cities in Europe and North America in the 60s, 70s and 80s due to labour shortages that no longer exist. Now they lack the skill-set to position themselves well in the post-industrialised economies of the West. They often only have secondary education or less. That’s a place where adult education becomes very important. Many immigrants were successful because they shifted from industrial employment to entrepreneurship. Maybe they opened a small restaurant. But not all people are suited for the risks and hardships of entrepreneurial life. There is a whole generation of immigrants who have tried to make this transition. They often lack the tools and the necessary skills. You also have this lost generation, particularly in Europe, of the European-born male children of immigrants who dropped out of school expecting industrial employment which doesn’t exist, and who are lost in the grey market economies. They are a very important target for adult education, to get them back on track so they can have a place in the economy. Most of the research on integration I found indicates that when immigration populations have reached the education attainment level and the employment level of the population at large, then the cultural stuff takes care of itself. Your culture and language are no longer seen as a problem, merely a bit of colourful decoration.

Wang Jian and his family in their shop-cum-home in Chongqing, China. They moved here from the village of Nan Chung, 80 kilometres away, and run a small wood-bathtub factory. They all sleep, cook, wash and eat in a windowless area in the back of the shop. “Here, you can turn your grandchildren into successful people if you find the right way to make a living—in the village you can only live”, says Mr. Wang © Sun Shaoguang

To understand issues at a global level, it seems to me we always run the risk of ethnocentrism, judging another city, inhabitants and policies solely by the values and standards of our own culture. How do you deal with that?

When you go to see somebody in a village, or a neighbourhood, you have certain expectations of what they want from life and why they are doing the things they are doing based on your own cultural understanding. This is not helpful. It does not create understanding.

A big part of the solution is to let people tell their stories in the language that they choose. Do not start by asking what’s wrong. There is always a very long list, we all have problems. Start by asking what their story is, their narrative. What’s your trajectory, where did you come from, what does your household budget look like, where do you expect to be in ten years’ time, where do you expect your children to be. If you leave it open-ended like that, you can understand peoples’ stories. Their life course. It can help you a lot. This is one way out of an ethno-centric reading of people.