Looking elsewhere : migration, risk, and decision-making in rural Cambodia

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2012-12

Authors

Bylander, Maryann

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Abstract

International labor migration has become an increasingly common livelihood strategy in rural Cambodia, in some villages becoming a defining and normative part of community life. This dissertation is an ethnographic study of one such rural community, where migration to Thailand has become a primary livelihood strategy over the past decade. Drawing on three years of fieldwork in Chanleas Dai, a commune (khum) in Northwest Cambodia, my research explores the complexities of the migration decision-making process, and the meanings of migration for rural households. This work is motivated by debates within the dialogues of migration and development, most of which seek to understand the potential for migration to promote development by focusing on the impacts of migration. My work departs from previous studies by focusing explicitly on decision-making, seeking to understand how and why families make developmentally important migration decisions. This is a critical area of inquiry, as the potential that migration has to promote or sustain development rests on a series of individual choices, for example who migrates, or how households invest remittances. Yet research tends to focus on the outcomes of these choices, neglecting a sufficient understanding of why they were made. In Chanleas Dai individuals are deeply ambivalent about migration, understanding it as both a constituent cause of insecurity and also the best path to security, mobility, and status. Whereas migration is perceived as low-risk and high-reward, village-based livelihoods are widely perceived as insufficient, impossible, or too financially risky to be meaningful. These perceptions are strongly linked to the recent history of environmental distress in the area. As a result, households often prioritize investment in further migrations, rather than using wages earned abroad for local investment or production. This is particularly true among youth, who see few potential worthwhile strategies to "make it" at home. Credit and agriculture programs theorized to curb migration, and/or promote local investment have not substantively challenged these perceptions. My conclusions discuss these findings in terms of their implications for the migration and development dialogues, definitions and understandings of development, and rural development policies both within and outside of Cambodia.

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