Update on the Open Philanthropy Project’s Work on Migration Liberalisation

[A draft of this post was reviewed by Alexander Berger, Program Officer for US Policy at the Open Philanthropy Project, and a number of changes were made to it based on his comments and corrections.]

UPDATE: The Open Philanthropy Project now has a page linking to their grants, conversations and other material related to immigration policy. Most of the Open Phil material on that page as of the time of publication of this post is discussed in this post.

As I start drafting this, it’s been exactly one year since my overview of the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on migration liberalisation was published on this blog. It’s time for an update, and the developments over the last year deserve a post of their own.

Lightning-speed recap: The Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil) is a joint venture of the charity evaluator GiveWell and the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures. Good Ventures is in charge of donating Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s wealth of several billion dollars over the lifetime of Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, and its operations are overseen by Tuna. In contrast with GiveWell’s focus on identifying charities that can provide clear evidence of outstanding effectiveness, Open Phil investigates and funds work on charitable causes for which effectiveness is not as easily measured. Among the handful of focus areas chosen for their estimated positive potential, migration liberalisation has been given a prominent role from the beginning, and it has been and continues to be ranked among the most important causes involving US policy change.

My previous roundup described four grants that were awarded for specific projects aimed at furthering this cause. Extensive updates on three of those projects have since been published on Open Phil’s website, and two entirely new migration-related projects have been awarded grants. That’s six projects in total, which I will cover in this order:

  • Center for Global Development: Policy research and advocacy work
  • U.S. Association for International Migration, International Organization for Migration, and Protect the People: Increasing the availability of H-2 working visas for Haitian lower-skill workers
  • ImmigrationWorks: Advocacy work focusing on lower-skill migration to the US

The last grant described in last year’s roundup is neither about international migration nor about policy, and is more closely associated with GiveWell than with Open Phil:

  • Evidence Action: Empirical research on the scalability of seasonal migration subsidies, with hopes of creating a new Top Charity

And the two newcomers:

  • Niskanen Center: Research on immigration policy
  • New York University: A comparatively small grant to help fund a randomised controlled trial on the “comprehensive returns” of guest worker migration

Center for Global Development

The nonprofit think tank that employs Michael Clemens was awarded a grant for $1,184,720 over 3 years in March 2014. The grant is intended to fund potentially high-impact research and advocacy work on migration policy.

Two documents relating to this grant were published since last year’s post. The first is a “subjective synthesis of events” that took place at a “CGD-Open Philanthropy Project Workshop” on the 7th of July 2016. It “brought together approximately 20 researchers, activists, and non-profit and private sector leaders to
identify and assess potential opportunities to allow increased global mobility.” The second document contains notes on a conversation with Michael Clemens and Cynthia Rathinasamy that was held of the 15th of December 2015 . Some excerpts:

Concerning the U.S.-Mexico bilateral labor agreement working group that was already mentioned in last year’s round up:

The working group hopes to conclude negotiations and publish a report in the spring/summer of 2016. So far, the main points of contention have been the proposed labor agreement’s numerical quota and fees.

On the numerical quota:

In the Senate’s immigration reform bill, the W-visa quota was set at a maximum of 200,000 per year and 600,000 at any given time. These figures include renewals (the visa would have been required to b e renewed every 3 years).

Net migration flows used to be between 300,000 and 400,000 per year, but are now zero. There is no data on gross migration flows. To inform the working group’s negotiations, CGD is in the process of commissioning research to estimate gross migration flows. The aim is to get a sense of realistic number s that negotiators can use to determine an appropriate quota.

The document further briefly mentions a meeting held by a “study group on migration and development policy in the U.S. government”, and potential plans to host an event series in early 2016.

U.S. Association for International Migration, International Organization for Migration, and Protect the People

These organisations have collaborated on a pilot program to increase the availability of H-2 working visas for Haitian lower skill workers. As described in last year’s roundup, the initial grant was for $1,490,500 over approximately 14 months, and was awarded in July 2014.

I think it’s fair to say that the news on this one is sorely disappointing, though all hope is not lost.

From the December 2015 update:

we hoped that the project would result in a total of roughly $1M additional income for participants in the first year, as well as potentially laying the groundwork for larger flows of Haitians using H-2A visas in the future.

(…) by June 2015 our understanding was that the project had received job orders for 95 workers. However, a variety of regulatory barriers in the U.S. and a number of workers’ visa applications being rejected by the U.S. Embassy in Haiti led to only 14 people being able to participate in the program, for an average duration of ~2 months. Accordingly, our current estimate is that the project led to only ~$53,000 of gross income for the participants.

Not only had the Open Phil staff expected the number of guest workers to be much higher, they had also overestimated the average duration of the workers’ stay in the U.S. by a factor of three.

Unsurprisingly, the December 2015 update concludes by stating that Open Phil’s support for this project would not be renewed.

Yet, the project quickly made a comeback of sorts:

Protect the People (PTP), which supported IOM on the initial project, expressed interest in continuing to attempt to facilitate Haitian access to the H-2A program at a substantially lower level of budgetary support. After some further investigation and discussion, we decided to recommend a grant of $550,000 to support PTP’s plans, with additional support if more workers are able to participate in the project.

Said grant was awarded in February 2016, and the quote is from the official announcement. Conditional on the project enabling more than 75 workers to use H-2A visas, further funds are to be granted to cover the costs for additional workers, up to a maximum sum of $1M for 2016.

While Open Phil are decidedly less optimistic about this project than PTP, they explain the reasoning behind the grant as follows:

We estimate that each Haitian worker in the U.S. earns about $5,000 for about 3 months of work. Since agricultural workers in Haiti earn around $1,000 per year, this increase in income is substantial.


(…) we don’t think the income for program participants in 2016 is likely to be sufficient, on its own, to justify the cost of the program.

However, we see the additional possibility of creating a larger long-term flow of Haitians who are able to use the H-2A program as sufficient to justify the grant.


At the time of last year’s summary, Open Phil had only been able to find three advocacy organisations that advocate for more lower-skill immigration to the US. Of these, ImmigrationWorks was the only one that seemed to prioritise low-skill immigration the most highly. The initial grant to ImmigrationWorks was awarded in July 2014, and amounted to $285,000.

Over the last year, ImmigrationWorks have not been able to live up to the ambitions laid out in the initial grant’s announcement. But the reasons appear less worrisome in this case:

One significant change in the area of immigration policy since our 2014 grant is that, at that time, it still seemed somewhat possible that Congress would pass a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill in the near future. Congressional debate today now seems to be focused on more minor immigration issues and on laying the groundwork for potential action on CIR after the 2016 presidential election.


IW raised about $170,000 less in fundraising for 2014 than it anticipated at the time of Open Philanthropy’s grant, due mainly to the loss of momentum for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) in Congress following Eric Cantor’s primary defeat.

We view our grant (in effect, if not literally) as having provided roughly $100,000 in general operating support each year for 2014 and 2015 to fill this unexpected funding gap, as well as roughly $90,000 for public opinion polling.

This public opinion research was one of the proposed uses for the initial grant.  Open Phil express no complaints about the quality of this research, but their response to the outcomes is mixed:

We found press coverage of the public opinion and messaging research to mildly exceed our expectations, and we were somewhat surprised to learn that 70% of respondents claimed to support a year-round guest worker program. ImmigrationWorks told us that this finding, and the finding that a majority of people falsely believed that such a program already exists, would be very helpful for immigration advocates going forward.

However, the results of the research to determine which of several messages was most persuasive were underwhelming. The best-performing messages were related to the economic benefits of immigration and holding migrant workers accountable, but neither seemed exceptionally effective. Messaging on creating opportunities for immigrants performed well with IW’s elite subsample, but poorly with the general population. IW found its combined messaging boosted support for “a visa program that would enable immigrants to enter the U.S. legally to work in physically-demanding, year-round jobs ” from about 68% to about 75%. This result strikes us as fairly weak, though we are not sure how to benchmark it.

The above quotes are from the announcement of the grant’s renewal in October 2015:

Given the current state of the immigration policy debate in Washington, we do not expect to see major evidence of impact from IW in the near term. However, we are hopeful that our grant will allow IW to continue operations and maintain good relationships with policymakers and others so that it can be present and involved when the issue of CIR is raised again in Congress (likely in 2017). Ultimately, Open Philanthropy decided to grant $150,000 over 18 months because we saw that as enough to keep IW going until 2017 and the next Congressional term.

Evidence Action

The organisation that manages the GiveWell-recommended charity Deworm the World Initiative was awarded an initial grant of $250,00 in March 2014, to help fund empirical research on the impact of seasonal migration subsidies to rural Bangladeshi. Open Phil’s stated ambition was to support the creation of a future Top Charity if the results are favourable.

This grant concerns migration within borders, the obstacles to which are not of a political nature (at least not in any clear or direct way). I stated my reasons for covering it anyway in last year’s roundup, which are essentially that many of the questions this research intends to elucidate are of evident concern to Open Borders advocates and have frequently been written about on this blog.

The separation between GiveWell and Open Phil has become clearer since last year. Alexander Berger tells me that this grant is not considered part of Open Phil, but of GiveWell’s efforts to create new Top Charities. Having said all this, I intend to continue reporting on this grant in this context, due to its relevance.

The reported uses of the first grant seem to fall in line with the expectations. The grant was renewed in March 2015, for the amount of $170,792. Efforts to scale up the program and explore the possibility of replicating it in further suitable regions are expected to continue. The news seems quite positive for this exciting program, although I had hoped that there would be more conclusive results by now:

We have completed an interim cost-effectiveness analysis (GiveWell’s interim CEA) which we expect to substantially update once we have examined results from follow-up surveys and new incentives offered in 2011-2014. At this interim stage we believe that the cost-effectiveness of incentivizing seasonal migration in northern Bangladesh may be competitive with that of our top charities. However, this estimate of cost-effectiveness depends on several factors about which we are highly uncertain. We are especially uncertain about the duration and magnitude of the benefits of a one-time incentive to migrate, whether treatment households also migrate and experience associated consumption benefits in the lesser lean season, and the costs of implementing the program. We are also uncertain about the burdens associated with seasonal labor migration, such as potentially harsh labor and living conditions for migrants, and the effect of temporary separation of family members.

The notes on a conversation held with Professor Mushfiq Mobarak and Karen Levy on the 22 of October 2015 provides more detail.

Niskanen Center

One of my concluding highlights in last year’s round up was:

[Open Phil] have found no political advocacy group in the U.S. that promotes immigration of low-skilled workers on humanitarian grounds.

At last, a new think tank that does exactly that! While Open Phil distance themselves from the Niskanen Center’s specifically libertarian motivations to some extent, they “see this as an opportunity to fund an advocacy organization with an unusual level of alignment with us on this issue”. Thus, the organisation was awarded a grant of $360,000 over a period of two years, in October of 2015.

From the writeup on the grant:

The Niskanen Center identified a number of policy proposals that it might try to support:

  • Expanding temporary visa programs for lower-skill workers.
  • Letting states play a larger role in determining how many immigrants they receive, which may lead to better outcomes by removing the veto of anti-immigration states on inflows to states that want to allow more immigration, and by creating competition for labor between states.
  • Preserving the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. The Diversity Visa Lottery is unpopular among many immigration reformers because of its arbitrary nature, but is the main pathway to legal immigration from many poor countries.

Tactics the Niskanen Center plans to use to promote immigration liberalization include:

  • Original research to make the economic case for immigration and show that current residents should not expect to be harmed by it.
  • Engaging with individual members of Congress and their staffers on the specifics of immigration policy, in order to make the right case to key decision-makers. This also requires keeping abreast of new political and legislative developments in order to recognize especially opportune times for advocacy.
  • Drafting proposed legislation.
  • Writing papers or hosting events to discuss new policy proposals

Notes from a conversation with the Niskanen Center’s Director of Immigration Policy David Bier, held on 5 June 2015, provide more detail. A follow-up conversation with David Bier was held in December 2015.

New York University

From the writeup:

As part of our work on international labor mobility, in August 2015 the Open Philanthropy Project made a $30,000 grant to New York University to support the collection of baseline data for the study, “Estimating the Comprehensive Returns to Indian Migration to the United Arab Emirates.”

This study, led by Yaw Nyarko (New York University), Suresh Naidu (Columbia University), and Shing-Yi Wang (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that will measure the impact of guest worker migration from India to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on migrants’ well-being, migrants’ earnings, and other outcomes.


We believe that this grant fills a time-sensitive need for funds and may lead us to a better understanding of the effects of international labor migration. The grant allows Nyarko, Naidu, and Wang to complete the recruitment and baseline survey of their study population, without which the power of the study would be seriously reduced. As far as we are aware, this is the first large-scale RCT measuring outcomes of temporary international labor migration on well-being. We have previously seen three randomized controlled trials studying the outcomes of international migration. Only one trial (Stillman et al. 2012, Tongan migration to New Zealand, n=101 migrating households) measured subjective well-being, finding mixed results. Nyarko, Naidu, and Wang previously (2015) conducted a study of the impact of UAE labor reform on earnings and retention of incumbent migrants.

Closing thoughts

How best to effect policy change strikes me as an extraordinarily difficult question. Even assessing how effective one has been in that endeavor after the fact seems tricky enough. In last year’s round up, I linked to five posts from the GiveWell blog that seemed particularly informative on the approach Open Phil’s researchers have been taking to this complex issue.

The Importance of Committing to Causes, a blog post from May 2014, defends the idea of “Giving to learn” — that is, of offering funding in order to learn from the process of finding grantees itself, as well as from the observation of the projects’ progress. This is in opposition to the idea of gathering information first and offering funding thereafter, an approach that GiveWell researchers have found less effective.

I further linked to a series of blog posts published in October and November of 2013, in which Holden Karnofsky laid out GiveWell researchers’ insight into policy-related philanthropy. As far as I am aware, these posts are still current as a description of Open Phil researchers’ strategic outlook.

The last of these posts discusses “[s]everal different visions of policy-oriented philanthropy”, leading with the following:

An essay by Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt (also discussed in the previous post on this topic) lays out one vision of policy-oriented philanthropy: that of engaging in very long-time-horizon (a decade or more) efforts to build the capacity of relevant organizations, so that when the right political moment comes – which can happen at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways – the stage is set for maximal positive change. This view was reinforced by our conversations with the two authors as well as with Frank Baumgartner.

Several of the grants described above fit this description. In light of this approach, there may not be much to be learned from the developments in ongoing projects over a single year. One exciting breakthrough has already happened, however, namely the addition of the Niskanen Center to Open Phil’s grantees. Given that Open Phil’s researchers initially did not find a single organisation that advocates for lower-skilled immigration for reasons other than to serve the interests of US business owners, the fact that one such organisation has emerged over the last year is a big deal.

Regarding those grants that could be expected to yield results over the last year, I see little to be particularly excited about at this junction. Political circumstances have been less favourable than expected for ImmigrationWorks. The news on the Haitian guest worker program is deeply disheartening, though hope remains that the past year’s efforts have been fraught with unusually bad luck and temporary hurdles. I was particularly excited to check back on the research projects managed by Evidence Action, as these might relatively quickly yield actionable results in the form of new outstanding giving opportunities. Luckily, the only disappointment here is that the process is taking longer than I had anticipated.

What should we expect for the coming year? Probably not much on the US policy front, as once again election circus will be gobbling up depressing amounts of resources for most of the coming year. The most exciting thing I can imagine here is for further pro-migration organisations to emerge — though I’m not counting on it. I expect that my next round up will finally report on specific results of Evidence Action’s research work, and my guess is that the results will be quite positive, and will indeed lead to the creation of a new Top Charity. I will also guess, however, that this charity will not be ranked first or second among GiveWell’s recommendations, at least not for the first two years of its existence. The randomised controlled trial conducted by Nyarko et al. may also take more than a year to yield clear results, so perhaps that will be for the 2018 round up. I hope to see more specific updates on the Center for Global Development’s research and advocacy work by March 2017. As for Protect the People’s engagement for Haitian would-be guest workers, it seems an easy guess that things will go considerably better than last year. But I don’t expect that the number of Haitian guest workers will exceed 75. I will speculate that this grant will be renewed in some form or other, but with a view to an uncertain long term impact and with relatively little enthusiasm. To make one final random prediction, I expect that there will be one unexpected development to report on — on the order of a new grant of at least $250,000. I will compare notes with myself one year from now.

Related reading

Sebastian Nickel is a software developer and researcher in the field of Machine Learning, an offshoot of Artificial Intelligence. He holds a degree in mathematics, computer science, and physics from the Open University, as well as a degree in psychology from the Université Paris 8. He is a citizen to both Germany and Switzerland, was born and raised in Luxembourg, and currently lives in Berlin.

One thought on “Update on the Open Philanthropy Project’s Work on Migration Liberalisation”

Leave a Reply