Reconsidering the links between poverty, international labour migration, and agrarian change: critical insights from Nepal

Ramesh K. Sunam*, John F. McCarthy

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)


The role of international labour migration in processes leading to the (re)production of rural poverty in the rural South continues to shape critical academic and policy debate. While many studies have established that migration provides an important pathway to rural prosperity, they insufficiently analyse the profound effects that migration and remittances have on agrarian and rural livelihoods. This article uses the case of rural Nepal, where over half of the households are involved in foreign labour migration, as a ‘window’ to understand the processes shaping how migration effects poverty. The paper analyses how migration generates outcomes across the domains of rural people's changing relationship to land and agriculture, their experience of migration, and rural labour markets to advance our arguments. First, it argues that migration leads to the commodification of land, generating changes in patterns of land uses and tenancy relations. With respect to rural people's engagement with agriculture, migration generates both processes of ‘deactivation’ and ‘repeasantization’. Second, foreign migration offers an exit from poverty for some while also creating processes of deeper impoverishment for others. Third, migration leads to structural changes in rural labour markets, reducing the supply of agrarian labour. Consequently, in contrast to the simplifying ‘narrative’ accounts of a migration pathway out of poverty, this paper concludes that the effects triggered by migration are highly contradictory, providing an exit from poverty when linked to diversification strategies, while engendering rising inequality and rural differentiation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-63
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Peasant Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Jan 2
Externally publishedYes


  • Nepal
  • South Asia
  • agrarian change
  • dispossession
  • labour migration
  • land
  • rural poverty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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