In agricultural regions of developing countries, it’s known as the lean season — that dangerous period between planting and harvesting when job opportunities are scarce and income levels plummet.

Food stocks dwindle and poor families regularly skip meals. Not surprisingly, the lean season often has serious long-term consequences, particularly for pregnant women and young children.

Seasonal hunger and deprivation are perhaps the biggest obstacles to the reduction of global poverty, yet they’ve remained largely under the radar. But it is estimated that seasonal hunger affects 300 million of the world’s rural poor.

Some rural poor families cope with the hardships of the lean season by sending family members to other areas of their countries with better employment prospects. In rice-growing regions of northern Bangladesh, for example, a third of poor households send seasonal migrants to urban or peri-urban destinations to find temporary jobs that include rickshaw-pulling, construction and potato-farming.

Nonetheless, seasonal migration as a coping strategy is less frequent than might be expected, even though it often benefits poor rural families. That’s because poverty itself limits the ability of very poor people to afford temporary migration. And a migrant’s inability to find work after the family is stretched to the limit to pay for the move can have devastating consequences for households already living close to subsistence.

Encouraging seasonal migration to reduce seasonal poverty

Recently researchers explored the impact of providing small subsidies (C$9 to C$15) to poor households in rural Bangladesh to help pay for seasonal migration. They found that a small cash transfer, worth the cost of a bus ticket and a couple of days’ of food, boosted the percentage of poor households that sent seasonal migrants to find work to 58 percent, from 36 percent. Nearby urban areas, as well as rural areas with different agricultural products, were the most common destinations for seasonal migrants.

The migrants who received the travel subsidy experienced meaningful improvements for themselves and their families, including:

  • A 30 to 35 percent increase in food and nonfood expenditures for the families of the individuals who accepted the incentive and migrated;
  • Consumption of 550 to 700 more calories a day per person, equivalent to an extra meal per person daily, for those who took advantage of the travel subsidy;
  • As much as a 19 percent increase in household income during the lean season for those who took the incentive;
  • Recurring migration as households that received incentives one time became more likely to send someone to work during the lean season in subsequent years, even though incentives were not offered in those years.

There was more good news in a follow-up study. Research showed there were indirect spillover benefits for other villagers who were not directly offered the travel subsidy.

First, when large numbers of people are given the opportunity to migrate, agricultural wages rise in their villages because migration reduces the population, thereby financially benefitting those who stay behind. Second, people prefer to migrate in groups, so offering subsidies to half the households actually increases the migration rate both for those offered and those not offered the travel subsidy. That’s because migrants can travel together, sharing the costs and the risks associated with moving.

Companion studies are exploring broader socio-political and unintended consequences of large-scale seasonal migration, such as changes in the relationships between husbands and wives and risks of disease. Preliminary results show no cause for concern.

Travel subsidies for seasonal migrants may also have a broader and more sustainable impact than short-term solutions, such as food transfers for immediate hunger relief during the lean season. They might also be more cost-effective. In Bangladesh, for example, we estimate that a migration may be four times more cost-effective in increasing food consumption than comparable transfer programs, and the sheer numbers of villagers who take advantage of the travel subsidies, as well as remigration patterns, suggest a potentially longer-term impact.

Evidence Action, a development NGO that is broadening the scope of seasonal migration initiatives, is now working with academic partners at Yale School of Management and local NGO partners (RDRS Bangladesh and Innovations for Poverty Action) to test the impact and viability of the travel subsidy program at scale over the next four years. This simple contribution of small migration subsidies to expand employment and income opportunities for the rural poor will directly benefit more than 300,000 households — upwards of 1.4 million people — in Bangladesh over the next four years.

Evidence Action, in partnership with a team of economists from Yale University, Stanford, and the London School of Economics, may also offer seasonal migration incentives in other rural locations, and is preparing for a related evaluation in Indonesia.

Relevance for Canadian policy-makers and NGOs

Canada has been a leader in helping developing countries address concerns about food security around the world. Bolstering food security, in fact, is one of Canada’s three priority areas for international development (see Canada’s Aid Effectiveness Agenda), and its development priorities include fostering “innovative initiatives for food assistance and nutrition programming.”

There is a need for replication of the programs described here. Canadian policy-makers and NGOs that are interested in helping the rural poor and reducing seasonal hunger should consider exploring temporary labour migration programs. Seasonal hunger is a global phenomenon, and opportunities for travel subsidies that could improve rural livelihoods exist in several countries where seasonal hunger is a serious problem.

More research is needed, including a close examination of any negative consequences of mass seasonal migration that may emerge in the future. This could include a strain on urban infrastructure, saturation of the urban labour market, or other unintended social consequences.

Meanwhile, testing, implementation and an expansion of seasonal migration subsidies in Bangladesh, carefully guided by research, continues. More than 4,500 rural workers in northern Bangladesh accepted a travel subsidy to migrate in December 2016. A few thousand more are expected to join their ranks before the end of the lean season in the Rangpur region — all of them eager to improve their lives by choosing freely what is best for them and their families.

Photo: Athikhom Saengchai /

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Karen Levy is the director of global innovation at Evidence Action. She oversees Evidence Action Beta, the department responsible for testing and building a viable path to scale for promising evidence-based interventions. She established Innovations for Poverty Action’s country office in Kenya and was the country director there from 2006 to 2010.
Katrin Verclas is a senior project consultant to Evidence Action. She was its director of communications and advocacy, where she was responsible for advancing Evidence Action’s communications and brand.
Mushfiq Mobarak is a professor of economics at the Yale School of Management. He conducts field experiments exploring ways to induce people in developing countries to adopt technologies or behaviours that are likely to be welfare improving, and has ongoing research projects in Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal and Uganda.
Maira ReimĂŁo is a postdoctoral fellow with Evidence Action Beta and the Yale School of Management. Her current research examines the impact of seasonal migration on social norms and women's empowerment, as well as on long-term migration decisions.

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