Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Migrant remittances are now recognised as an important source of global development finance and there is increasing evidence that international remittances have considerable developmental impacts. The contribution of remittances to GDP in many developing countries is significant and has shown a steady increase over the past decade. However, while there is a consensus that remittance flows to Africa are increasing, little attention has been paid to the impact of these transfers on poverty alleviation, primarily because of data deficiencies at the household level. Despite their obvious magnitude, accurate data on remittance flows to Zimbabwe is unavailable or inaccessible. In an attempt to address such data deficiencies, SAMP devised the household-level Migration and Remittances Survey (MARS) which was administered in several SADC countries, including Zimbabwe. The MARS study was implemented in Zimbabwe in 2005 and surveyed 723 urban and rural households.

The data generated by MARS is critical in at least three ways: (a) it quantifies the largely hidden economic value of labour migration from Zimbabwe; (b) it provides information on the significance of remittances to economic survival in a state undergoing massive formal sector decline; and (c) it provides information on the relationship between remittances and poverty alleviation at the household level. MARS allows us to do two things: first, to construct a profile of Zimbabwe’s migrant population and, second, to answer basic questions about remittance origins, volumes, channels and use. With regard to the migrant profile MARS found the following:

  • Nearly three quarters of the migrants (72%) identified in the survey had worked outside the country for 5 years or less. Only 7% had been working outside the country for over 10 years.
  • The number of migrants per household varied between one and five. The majority (73%) were reliant on a single migrant, and another 21% had two.
  • Nearly 60% of migrants were in neighbouring countries, primarily South Africa (32%), Botswana (16%) and Mozambique (5%). The other 40% were outside Southern Africa in a wide range of countries. The United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada are primary destinations.
  • Half of the migrants were sons and daughters or other relatives of household heads. However, the crisis in Zimbabwe is of such magnitude that household heads and spouses are migrating in significant numbers. Some 28% of the migrants were household heads and 13% were spouses/partners. More migrants were married (58%) than unmarried (31%). All of this suggests a broadening and deepening of participation in labour migration.
  • In most countries in SADC, migration still tends to be heavily male-dominated. Zimbabwe has become an exception to this rule. In this study 56% of migrants were male and 44% female.
  • The majority of migrants (72%) are under the age of 40. They are also relatively well-educated compared to migrants from other SADC countries. Less than 1% have no schooling and over 50% have a post-secondary diploma, undergraduate degree or postgraduate degree.
  • Migrants are employed in a wide variety of jobs outside Zimbabwe, many not in the profession for which they have training or skills. In other words, this is a generalized out-movement of people, not confined to one or two professions or sectors. Nineteen percent of migrants were in the informal sector, followed by professional work (15%), health (12%), services (9%), teaching (7%), manual work (6%) and office work (5%).
  • Comparing in-country with out-of-country employment by sector, the survey showed that 70% of Zimbabwean health workers were migrants; as were over 40% of professional workers, service workers, managerial office workers and mineworkers. Between 30- 40% of office workers and farm workers were also migrants. With teachers, the proportion was 28% and domestic workers 25%.
  • Most migrants maintain close connections with Zimbabwe. Nearly half visit their families at least once every three months. However, almost 20% of the migrants (mostly living overseas) return home only once a year. Absences from home are highly variable: 18% are away for less than a month at a time, 19% between one and six months and 30% between six months and a year. Twenty percent are away for a year or longer.

The survey also provided unprecedented insights into the remittance behaviour of Zimbabwe’s migrants, as well as invaluable information on the crucial importance of remittances to household survival. Although most migrant-sending households were struggling and poverty was increasing, very few could be considered destitute, at least on the evidence of this survey. However, without the constant and regular infusion of remittances from outside the country, the answers to this question would probably have been very different. Amongst the survey’s key findings on remittances were the following:

  • The vast majority of migrants regularly send back remittances in cash and/or kind. In the year prior to the study, three-quarters of migrant-sending households received remittances. Migrants sent home R2,759 p.a. on average. Various factors influenced the amounts remitted by individual migrants. For instance, heads of households remitted more than their children. Men remitted slightly more than women, an indication of greater labour market access in destination countries. Those in the 40-59 age group remitted more than migrants in any other age category. Furthermore, those who were married remitted more on average than those who were still single.
  • Remittances come from a diverse range of countries and wide range of sectors. Migrants overseas remit more on average than those within Southern Africa. Within the region, the largest remitters are in Botswana followed by Zambia and South Africa.
  • Professional workers, on average, send the most money back to Zimbabwe, followed by self-employed entrepreneurs, office workers and managers. Surprisingly, unskilled manual workers remit more, on average, than health workers, teachers, domestic workers and workers in the service sector.
  • Most migrants remit on a regular basis. Some 61% of households receive money from migrants at least once a month. Another 25% receive money at least once or twice every three months and 7% once or twice a year. There was a positive correlation between the amount remitted and the frequency of remitting: migrants who send money home more frequently remit more on average than those who remit less often.
  • Migrants use many different channels to send remittances home. In Zimbabwe, there is a clear preference for trusted informal channels over banks and formal money transfer operators such as Western Union and Moneygram. Social networks influence the channels through which informal remittances are sent. Active social ties between migrants and family members and friends provide the personal links and local information necessary for informal remittance sending.
  • Decisions about how much will be remitted, how often and through what channels are not the sole preserve of the migrant. Households are in regular contact with their migrant members by phone and regularly send requests for emergency assistance. Eighty percent of households reported that migrants can be relied on to send emergency remittances most or all of the time.
  • As many as 61% of the surveyed households had received goods in the year prior to the survey. Non-cash remittances included foodstuffs (for example, maize-meal, sugar, salt, and cooking oil) as well as consumer goods such as bicycles, radios, sofas, agricultural inputs and building materials. Most non-cash remitting is based on the specific and immediate needs of the recipients. When the country faces shortages of basic commodities, non-cash remittances in the form of food tend to increase.

How important are remittances to household survival and sustainability in Zimbabwe? A broad distinction is often drawn between productive and consumptive uses of remittances. Since most remittances to Zimbabwe are aimed at easing the livelihood constraints of the households back home, consumption tends to dominate remittance usage. The survey’s findings about remittance usage include:

  • The vast majority of households receive cash and in-kind remittances. No other source of income came close in terms of the proportion of households that benefited. For example, despite the overall significance of informal sector trade only 15% of households generated income this way. A mere 6 % received income from the sale of farm products.
  • Cash remittances were the major source of total household income, followed by wage work in Zimbabwe and remittance goods. The relative importance of remittances compared to other classes of income can be assessed via their importance to various basic household expenditure categories. Total expenses largely covered by remittances included gifts (93%), entertainment (92%), building (90%), clothes (88%), transportation (88%), education (88%), housing (85%), medical expenses (83%) and food and groceries (80%).
  • The most common use of remittances is to buy food (by 67% of households), buy clothing (49%) and pay for school fees (48%). Domestic building materials are another common expense (by 49% of households) as are transportation costs (fuel and fares).
  • The use of remittances to generate further income is not common although 27% of households used remittances to support food production and 12% purchased goods for re-sale. About 16% saved a portion of their remittances and 5% bought insurance policies. Nine percent spent remittances on funeral and burial policies and 8% on funerals – a clear indicator of the impact of HIV/AIDS.

The MARS study clearly shows that without remittance flows, the situation of many Zimbabwean households would be even more dire than it is already. Remittances have reduced vulnerability to hunger, ill-health and poverty in both rural and urban households. Households with migrants go without basic necessities less often. Remittances have also allowed families to keep children in school and to put roofs over the heads of household members. Remittances, as a major source of household income, clearly have an important impact on livelihoods in Zimbabwe.