Migration: brain drain

smiling girl with diploma

Photograph Thinkstock


Brain drain refers to the migration of highly trained and qualified people and has been cited as one of the many effects that Brexit could have on the UK, with bright minds from the EU potentially leaving for the continent after June’s vote.

While this may turn out to be true, brain drain itself is not a new phenomenon. Citizens of developing countries frequently leave their country of origin in search of better opportunities. Losing the brightest and most capable minds is hardly helpful to any economy, but in the developing world the effects are heightened. Losing doctors is more disastrous for a country with an HIV/AIDS problem than it would be for the UK. Losing entrepreneurial and innovative individuals is more harmful in regions with high youth unemployment.

In the 1960s, many young Indian men and women – educated at highly subsidised public institutions – emigrated from what was then a very poor country, to countries with more developed economies, where they could earn more and live more comfortably with their education, skills and knowledge. Although India’s economy has grown rapidly in recent decades, the country still suffers from the migration of skilled personnel such as doctors and scientists. The trend is familiar in other developing countries and regions such as the Caribbean, where around 70% of university educated professionals emigrate in search of better opportunities. Brain drain creates obvious problems for these countries and regions. Bright minds that leave would help businesses grow, would create more jobs and their tax contributions would help pay for much needed infrastructure. Governments might invest further in education if they were confident that the beneficiaries would stay.

Development institutions agree that brain drain is a key challenge to the developing world. The World Bank says retaining talent will be key to Latin America’s development, and John Wilmouth, director of UN DESA’s Population Division, said in 2013 that, “the loss of human capital affected the provision of basic services, drained fiscal resources and reduced economic growth in developing countries and regions.

Despite this, some point to the benefits that migration brings. In economies where finding employment can be tough, migration can ease pressure on welfare budgets. Furthermore, the World Bank estimated in 2012 that remittance flows to developing countries were worth over $400 billion, which not only provides a lifeline to many families, but also provides a source of foreign currency to developing countries.

The effect of losing talent to more developed economies is impacting on the developing world. Image: Thinkstock

The effect of losing talent to more developed economies is impacting on the developing world | Image Thinkstock


The general consensus is that the disadvantages of brain drain outweigh the advantages in developing countries. So how can these countries and the development sector encourage people to stay? In Latin America, a region which has around 5% of its citizens living abroad, Chile is a leader in  retaining talent.  The country offers many scholarships for specialised training on the condition that students work in the country for a certain period of time after their studies. Through this, Chile ensures talent is nurtured, education is accessible and those talented individuals who benefit from scholarships contribute to national development, at least temporarily anyway. Schemes like this should be encouraged by governments and development organisations. They could result in more doctors in Ethiopia and more teachers in Haiti.

Another way to mitigate the disadvantages of brain drain is to encourage skilled and educated individuals from other countries to migrate to developing regions. We are seeing this in the private sector, with multinational corporations including Siemens, Walmart and Samsung increasing their presence in developing regions and bringing existing talent with them.

The issue of losing talent to more developed economies is complex, and will not be going anywhere soon.  The effect it has on economic and social development in the developing world is incredibly hard felt. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that this long term trend is addressed by developing countries and the international community, by initiating appropriate schemes and effective policies to retain talent in the developing world and also create opportunities for citizens.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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