11th March 2020
Overall, the impact of an increasing urban-rural divide, brain drain and changes in family structures cannot be underestimated as significant and interrelated trends.
While according to traditional economic measures, which tend to suggest a general trend of economic growth, an upswing in gross domestic product (GDP) and amelioration in basic living standards, a more nuanced reading and forwards projection could indicate a less than rosy and far more stratified picture.
Furthermore, though the UN ranks Belarus as “very high”, and the other five EaP states “high” in terms of their Human Development, this is seemingly tempered the Happiness Index rankings, which, based on people’s perceptions and senses of whether they are “living the life they value”, reveals less optimistic outcomes, especially with regards to the views of Ukrainians, Georgians and Armenians. Current and emerging trends and facts on the ground suggest that by 2030 economic growth and human development, understood in a broad sense, will be more patchy and societies less happy. A number of interrelated trends appear to confirm this claim.
First, GDP growth will be somewhat overshadowed by divergences across a number of axes, including between urban and rural settings and between older and younger generations. This could imply that by 2030 striking differences in wealth and opportunity will be ever more apparent, particularly in Moldova, Armenia and Georgia, with capital cities becoming focal points for investment and development to the detriment of other regions. By definition, this will lead to a swelling of urban populations and a continuation of the socio-economic hollowing out of towns and villages, to unprecedented levels, which will pose significant challenges for governments to create adequate social safety nets.
Despite any government policies aimed at bolstering the regions and spurring rural development, by 2030 areas beyond the capitals are likely to be marked by vicious circles of high levels of poverty, weak infrastructure and limited economic development.
This tendency could well be exacerbated by sustained outflows from the regions of predominantly younger working-age populations, which by definition will expedite the ageing process, raise unemployment rates, lower GDP per capita and heighten poverty rates compared to the average national level. In the face of governments’ lack of resources and capacities in the fields of social and health policies, lifelong-learning and (re)training for the over 50s structural as well as long-term unemployment may become the norm beyond the big cities. What this adds up to could be a scenario in which substantial and unbridgeable divergences become ever more apparent within societies, which cannot be ameliorated by government policies.
A second key trend also relates to migration. Declining populations have long been a principal feature in virtually all post-Soviet states. This trend will be both reinforced, but also transformed, by more intensive and varied forms of outwards migration, which over the next ten years will have far-reaching impacts upon the EaP states. In terms of destinations, workers from the EaP states, and especially from Moldova, Armenia, Belarus and Ukraine, who may have previously opted to work in Russia, increasingly head westwards to take up employment in the EU member states. However, it does not end there, as a change of destination is only a small part of a bigger and more consequential story.
There is a notable tendency for migrant workers from the EaP states to be female, so much so that by 2030 it is possible to foresee that the typical EaP migrant worker will no longer be a male working in the construction industry, but rather a young female working in the service or care sector in Western Europe.
Coupled with this, though demand for workers in manual (and male) domains will continue, by 2030 the types of jobs on offer to migrant workers from the East will typically attract the more educated and skilled elements of society.
A further discernible trend is for migrant workers to hold longer term contracts and therefore for migration to be less ‘circular’ and fixed-term in nature. Difficult and unpredictable economic realities in Eastern Partnership states, coupled with attractive opportunities in the West, are seeing migrants become more attached to their host countries and therefore less involved and interested in their countries of origin. In other words, in the run up to 2030, migrants are spending more time away from home and some figures suggest that permanent migration is a becoming a discernible feature.
The effects of this are already being felt and are likely to become more pronounced over the forthcoming decade. To begin with, the brain drain is becoming ever more intense and the notion that migrants will return with new-found skills and attributes to deploy at home to boost local development is being palpably challenged by reality. Global trends suggest that such changes in migration patterns have direct and detrimental effects on societies; a fall in the levels of remittances, which traditionally get passed either directly to families and relations back home or formally via state coffers, will make households poorer and reduce levels of consumption and state income.
Based on current tendencies Moldova, Armenia and Georgia would be most affected in this area, which is noteworthy given that by 2030 payments from overseas workers could plausibly fall by around 25%. All in all, whilst labour migration will continue to bring benefits, by 2030 the changing nature of outwards migration will be an ever more pressing source of insecurity and risk for EaP states.
A third contributing trend to shaping states and societies in the EaP region also relates to the structural factors and impacts outlined above but refers to very specific developments at the level of families and communities. Migration studies tend to concur that the family unit is a victim of migration, especially when it involves movements based on economic hardship from very poor to much richer countries or regions.
Within the EaP region migration patterns within countries, coupled with strong outwards migration has indelible effects on families and on the children who are most likely to be ‘left behind’ when their parents move away for work, especially for lengthy periods. Though commentators disagree on how far this phenomenon detrimentally affects children’s development and psychological well-being in a permanent sense, in the context of the Eastern Partnership states the consequences are fairly well documented and crucially are expected to be of more significance and impact.
A growing number of economic migrants from the EaP countries tend to leave their children in the care of grandparents or other ageing relatives, often in rural areas and, as already mentioned, tend to be away from home for longer and longer periods. Trends suggest that instances of parents leaving their children home will only increase, rather than abate, in the face of sustained domestic economic hardships and perceptions that things are not getting any better.
In this scenario, research suggests that children of migrant workers may have higher cases of nutritional neglect and attachment-related behavioural problems, which present intensive policy challenges for governments to create and support institutional structures needed to alleviate problems with being ‘left behind’.
Overall, based on the selection of the kinds of indicators highlighted above, the socio-economic condition of most EaP states on route to 2030 is not wholly positive and crucially, it will be the already underprivileged elements of society that will continue to be most vulnerable. This situation will pose significant policy challenges for governments which do not have adequate resources and means to implement the kind of social, educational and regional policies to counter this scenario.
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