Best Practices In Immigration Services Planning

Synnøve Bendixsen and Paul de Guchteneire
UNESCO, Section for International Migration and Multicultural Policies

Throughout the 1990s there was a significant increase in the number of publications and databases dealing with so-called Best Practices (BP). The term ‘best practice’ relates to successful initiatives or model projects that make an outstanding, sustainable, and innovative contribution to an issue at hand. The recent literature on BP has expanded to include a range of fields and professions. The concept is now used throughout the business, industry, health, education, and government sectors, as well as by international organizations.

This article looks at BP in the area of international migration and argues that BP models are useful for providing a much-needed link between research and policy-making. Migration is a sensitive topic, and is consequently often approached in a highly ideological/political way. By contrast, the BP concept encourages a more results-oriented approach to migration. The article further examines the very concept of ‘best’ practice and some of the potential traps related to the replication process and to the dissemination of BP information.

Examples of "Best Practice"

From 1990 to 2000, the number of migrants rose by 21 million people (14 per cent). Today, the total figure of migrants is estimated at 175 million, migrants accounting for 3 percent of the world population. (1) Both host countries and countries of origin must deal with issues such as brain drain, migrants' rights, minority integration, religion, citizenship, xenophobia, human trafficking and national security.

Within UNESCO there currently exist several collections of Best Practices, which are mainly concerned with poverty eradication, social exclusion and indigenous knowledge (to be found at (2) UNESCO is currently planning to start a project on Best Practices in international migration. The idea of a collection of BP in international migration is based on the assumption that carefully documented case histories can provide inspiration for policy making and planning. By allowing the exchange of information on lessons learned and on good practices, such projects can play a prominent role in building a bridge between empirical solutions, research and policy. (3) The results will be made available on-line ( from early 2004.

For the new BP project, two themes, the fight against irregular and exploitative migration and the promotion of brain-gain as opposed to brain drain – both high on the political agenda – have been chosen by UNESCO. An increasing number of programs and policies provide good practices in particular for inducing especially skilled nationals abroad to return, at least temporarily, to their countries of origin. For example, Taiwan and Korea have programs aimed at attracting scientists to newly established science parks, and the International Organization for Migration operates return of talent programs to counteract the brain drain. (4) Because the compendium of Best Practices in International Migration is still in its initiation phase, no publications on this theme are available yet. To illustrate what will shortly be on offer, however, here are two examples of practices containing elements corresponding to potential BP in International Migration (5):

  • A 'Minority Language Radio Programming for Trafficking Prevention' is currently taking place in Thailand. This program, a co-operative venture between Radio Thailand, international organizations and minority NGOs, aims to produce culturally appropriate radio programs to address issues relevant to trafficking and other migration dangers. Their first product will be a Shan 'soap opera' exploring the dangers of trafficking in a way designed to appeal to young people. (6)

  • An initiative in Thailand recently launched by a number of Thai and hill tribe NGOs, universities and Thai Government agencies concerns citizenship status. Research has shown that lack of citizenship is the greatest risk factor for hill tribe women in Thailand for being trafficked. To combat this, NGOs will assist hill tribe people in meeting the Thai requirements for registration and citizenship. (7)

What is ‘Best’?

The definition of a BP project includes at least three aspects: its purpose, the criteria used for selection, and how the practice is composed.

A common definition of Best Practice is tied to the idea of direct knowledge utilization and applied research. (8) BP is about accumulating and applying knowledge of what is working and not working in different situations and contexts. In other words, it is both the lessons learned and the continuing process of learning, feedback, reflection and analysis (what works, how and why, etc.).The last few years have seen the introduction of almost-equivalent terms to ‘best’, such as ‘good,’ ‘sustainable’, ‘successful,’ and ‘promising’. Although the meaning and employment of the terms are generally similar, the term ‘best’ has a strong inspirational value.

But calling a practice "best" does not imply that there is an element of competition between it and other related practices. In reality, the separate cases are usually far too different to compare. Rather, the purpose of describing and publishing a successful practice, and calling it a "best practice," is to make it function as an inspirational guideline, particularly with regard to decision-making. That said, BP is not reserved for ‘ultimate truths’ or ‘gold standards’. The notion of BP implies that an intervention has been successful according to some explicit criteria. By presenting the case it is indicated that the practice is better than many comparable practices, though not necessarily better than absolutely everything. (9)

What makes a practice a ‘best’ or ‘good’ practice? Though criteria will depend to some extent on the theme at hand, some characteristics apply generally:

  • They are innovative: a best practice has developed new and creative solutions to common problems;
  • They make a difference: a best practice constitutes a positive and tangible impact on for example migrants’ living conditions;
  • They have a sustainable effect: a best practice contributes to sustained eradication of problems, such as social exclusion;
  • They have the potential for replication: a best practice can serve as an inspirational framework for generating policies and initiatives elsewhere.

While a candidate for a BP should meet one or more of the above-mentioned criteria, they do not need to meet them all. In addition, criteria of a more ethical nature can also be applied. In the case of international migration and social integration, a relevant ethical question is whether the practice is within the guidelines set forth by major international instruments, including the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.

Characterizing and understanding the practice

When gathering information for a BP database, data should be collected on the composition of the practice, its approach and purpose (‘what is the practice meant to achieve’), stakeholders, costs, time-frame and geographical scope, administrative data presenting the involved organization(s) and contact persons, and strengths and weakness – "lessons learned." With this information, the reader should be able to obtain a clearer picture of the context in which the practice is a "best" practice and the potential for utilizing the practice in a different setting. BP can be reported as "success stories" only after meeting the criteria specified. Further, by giving the context and the broader picture of the practices, it is possible to say what works in which context.

BP has at least two methodological interpretations. On the one hand, one can consider a best practice as a generic approach to accomplishing a goal. On the other, a BP can be seen as a successful practice in some particular context. The former version has attractive attributes, but UNESCO has had a bad experience with it. While compiling BPs about the identification and use of Indigenous Knowledge (the term refers to the large body of knowledge and skills that has been developed outside the formal educational system), (10) UNESCO planned to define practices that abstracted particular elements from a number of observed practices. The process was to have been conducted by experts following a standardized methodology. In short, a Best Practice would refer to a somewhat abstract cluster of actions conceived of as standing independent of their context(s) and origin(s).

However, UNESCO staff soon realized that particular practices were too diverse and contextualized for this procedure to work. Moreover, the procedure would not sufficiently take into account the cultural sensitiveness and the political constraints of the practices. How a practice is carried out will more often than not be culturally determined, particularly in the field of Indigenous Knowledge. Any particular practice can be seen as containing cultural bricks, or elements which would, in the process of evaluating similar practices, be compared to other culture's bricks. Therefore, the abovementioned procedure would imply a comparison of different cultures. At least two problems would rise from this: one, by claiming that some cultural aspects of a practice should be exchanged for other cultural elements in order to improve the practice, (in order to make it the Best Practice) one risks creating a hierarchy of cultures. Second, the usefulness of the final BP of such a procedure is questionable: a practice with elements from several different cultural, social, political and geographical contexts would likely present a practice not feasible in the real world.

Similarly, the fact that any practice will be performed in a particular political and institutional environment, related to the practice would not be transparent with this procedure. For example, practices related to combating exploitative migration will be characterized and formed by the political climate and institutions. In order to benefit from the inspirational value of the BP and to make valid judgements as to the potentials of conducting a similar practice, the constraints of the original BP need to be made apparent. This struggle between emphasizing the generic (context-free) and the particular (context-influenced) will be apparent in any BP project. In the project on BP in Indigenous Knowledge it was realized that more would be lost than gained by choosing the former method. Thus the project managers decided that each of the Best Practices should stand by themselves.

To present the information in a compatible and accessible way, a set of guidelines was created for the initiation of UNESCO’s BP projects. In the work on Best Practice on Indigenous Knowledge in UNESCO these guidelines were further developed. In the first publication of IK the technical requirements set for the database followed a rigid and fixed format. The collection of potential BP pursued a detailed questionnaire asking for criteria set by UNESCO (such as the economic or environmental aspects of the sustainability of the practice). It became clear, however, that this format did not allow leeway for narrative descriptions and did not do justice to the unique characteristics and dynamics of the practices. One of the main problems encountered was the difficulty of describing practices that are specific, flexible, and dynamic when having to follow a fixed set of guidelines. Moreover, the format seemed to favor a certain set of practices, in particular those taking shapes as projects or programs. Practices of a different nature, such as more general approaches, methods and training were excluded.

In the course of learning by doing, UNESCO staff adjusted the guidelines in the second publication of Best Practices on IK. A new format was created which made use of a more general checklist, allowing the authors to introduce the practice, its content, and approach in a holistic and narrative way. This latter more descriptive methodology did justice to the practice's larger cultural and social context and to the particular nature of Best Practices on IK that makes categorization difficult. In addition, more attention was given to the socio-cultural dimension and the methods and approaches of the practices. In addition, the project managers recommended that the participants of the potential BP would be asked to describe the local or regional context. By means of this information, the practice's potential contribution and its regional limits would be better indicated.

As part of the process of how one can claim that something works, UNESCO incorporated a notion of quality control. Thorough background knowledge of the issue that the potential best practice is meant to address, e.g. the problem of trafficking in BP in International Migration, is invaluable in order to assess the validity of the practice. Therefore, the collection, selection and evaluation of the BP are performed in co-operation with relevant research center(s) that have expertise in the field at hand. In addition, the research centers would engage experts (peer reviewers) in the particular theme of the project which would assess each potential Best Practice. For example, in BP in International Migration experts of irregular and exploitative migration and experts of brain drain resulting from the emigration of skilled-labor will be involved in the evaluation process of the Best Practices. The involvement of experts ensures the accuracy and completeness of information and makes sure that the practices meet the general criteria. In addition, in the project on International Migration the experts are advised to pay attention to whether the results of potential BP are direct or indirect consequences of initiatives originally targeting migrant groups. Indeed, sometimes policies dealing with other sectors, such as combating poverty or promoting working conditions, may have a larger effect on migrant groups than policies directly aiming at influencing the migrant population.

The decision to transfer or not to transfer

A successful practice in one social environment does not necessarily guarantee a success when the practice is transferred to another social environment. Cultural variation and variation in the target groups will usually prevent a direct transfer of a successful program. Any practice has to be adapted to the political, historical, cultural, social and economical context of the society in question. Migrants’ experiences are demonstrated to differ among the traditional destination countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia. This variation is even greater across newer migrant destinations in Europe and Asia. (11) Moreover, international migration is an ongoing and increasingly global process. As societies change and as immigrant destinations expand to include an increasing number of nations, the social processes by which immigrants are received and incorporated into their destination societies also change. The flows of immigrants in the 1960s in Western Europe faced host societies very different from the immigrant flows in those countries today. (12) In a process of transfer it should therefore be underlined that each practice is closely tied to the social and cultural situation of a given region and period. The relevant best practice should be used as an inspirational guideline where its universal potential should be recognized, as well as its more particular context of origin .

As a general observation, a transfer is likely to be more manageable the more limited and well defined an intervention is and the less culture-bound it is. An example of a successful transfer of a best practice is the magazine called ‘The Big Issue’, originally sold by homeless people in England to earn a living and facilitate their re-integration into society. This practice has paved the way for street papers in thirteen European countries, South Africa and Australia, providing a solution for particularly difficult groups of people in big city centers. This example clearly indicates the value of conducting BP projects.

The particular character of the BP in Indigenous Knowledge and in International Migration makes it difficult to measure the cases' actual inspirational effects. That said, however, although the number of BP in the UNESCO database of BP is limited to some 200 cases, the web site is very popular with an average number of consultations of over 200,000 per year. This indicates a high reaching coverage with potentials for inspirational effects. For more concrete knowledge on the cases' actual inspirational effects, a workshop as a follow up to the BP project can be advisable.

The process of dissemination

One final important point in any best practice project is the identification of potential users of its BP. The success of the project is highly dependent on policy-makers and other relevant actors having access to and making active use of the information. Hence, dissemination of the practices should be well organized to provide maximum impact. Individual, organizational, and political actors in several countries are included in the complex process of making use of such knowledge for policies related to international migration. In general terms, the main users are political leaders and government decision-makers. However, those influencing the application of knowledge by decision-makers form another important category of users. These include technical advisory committees, independent academic centers, private consulting firms, specialists in ministries, and so forth. (13) Lastly, non-governmental organizations, which are often closer to community organizations than the government, should also have access to knowledge and action in this field.


Boven, Karin and Jun Morohashi (eds.). 2002. Best Practices using Indigenous Knowledge (The Hague: Nuffic-CIRAN, Paris: UNESCO/MOST). ISBN: 90-5464-032-4.

de Guchteneire, Paul, Ingeborg Krukkert and Guus von Liebenstein (eds.). 1999. Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge (The Hague: Nuffic-CIRAN, Paris: UNESCO/MOST). ISBN: 90-5464-031-6.

ILO, IOM, OHCHR. 2001. International Migration, Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia. Publication for distribution at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related Intolerance (WCAR). From

International Migration. 2002. Vol. 40, Issue 3, Special issue 1 on Best Practices. International Organization for Migration (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing).

International Migration Report 2002. 2002. Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (New York: United Nations Publications).

International Organization for Migration (IOM) 2000. Report on the International Workshop ‘Best Practices Concerning Migrant Workers and their Families’, Santiago de Chile, 19-20 June 2000. From

Iredale, Robyn, Tim Turpin, Charles Hawksley, Stella Go, Supaphan Kanchai and Yee May Kuang. 2002. In Kerry Lyon (ed.). Migration Research and Policy Landscape. Asia Pacific Migration Research Network Working Paper number 9. APMRN (Australia: University of Wollongong).

MOST Clearing house Best Practices Databank: From

Nyberg-Sorensen, Ninna, Nicholas Van Hear and Poul Engberg-Pedersen. 2002. The Migration-Development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options. International Organization for Migration Research Series number 8 (Geneva: IOM).

Øyen, E. (ed.). 2002. Best Practices in Poverty Reduction. An Analytical Framework (London: CROP).

Reitz, Jeffrey G.. 2002. Host Societies and the Reception of Immigrants: Research Themes, Emerging Theories and Methodological Issues. IMR Volume 36, N° 4. pp. 1005-1019.

UNESCO 2001. 2001. UNESCO's Medium-Term Strategy 31 C/4. Paris.

Urzúa, Raúl. 2000. International Migration, social science, and public policy. International Social Science Journal 165. pp. 421-429.


1. [International Migration Report, 2002].

2. With support of UNESCO-MOST Clearing House, the UN Habitat prepared a database with some 700 examples of good and best practices that were reviewed and evaluated by independent technical committees and juries for the Habitat II City Summit in Istanbul in 1996, and for the Dubai International Awards for Best Practices in Improving the Living Environment in 1998. The summaries of selected good and best practices particularly relevant to, or which impact upon, poverty eradication and social cohesion are included in the MOST ClearingHouse. The best practices collected can be found at For the site of Best Practices (including a short description and link to ongoing Best Practices), consult

3. [UNESCO 2001, paragraph 99, p.30].

4. [Martin, P. and Straubhaar, T. in International Migration 2002]

5. Because the two above-mentioned practices are still in their beginning phase, their success and actual impact are not yet measurable. They are therefore unlikely to be evaluated as potential BP in international migration at this stage.

6. For more on this project and other, similar examples, please see

7. For more on this project please see

8. [Øyen, 2002].

9. [Ibid. p.1].

10. [de Guchteneire, Paul, Ingeborg Krukkert and Guus von Liebenstein (eds.). 1999]

11. [Reitz, 2002].

12. [Ibid].

13. [Urzùa, 2000].

This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management © copyright 2003 Wiley.


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