Reassessing the Impacts of Brain Drain on Developing Countries
By Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
Institute for Public Policy Research
August 1, 2005
More than a decade ago, US presidential candidate Ross Perot talked about the "giant sucking sound" made as American jobs went south of the border. These days, there is a far more significant sucking sound, one that concerns the whole world and one that could impede collective efforts to make poverty history. That new sucking sound is being made by highly skilled people leaving developing countries and heading to the developed world.
The scale of this "brain drain" is staggering. As demographer B. Lindsay Lowell and geographers Allan Findlay and Emma Stewart point out in their research, nearly one in 10 tertiary-educated adults (those with some university or post-secondary schooling) born in the developing world — between a third and half of the developing world's science and technology personnel — now live in the developed world. With demand for skilled workers in the developed world unlikely to diminish soon, that sucking sound is likely to get louder.
The implications for poor sending countries are stark. According to the African Capacity Building Foundation, African countries lose 20,000 skilled personnel to the developed world every year. All the developed world's efforts to increase aid to these countries may not matter if the local personnel required to implement development programs are absent. Every year there are 20,000 fewer people in Africa to deliver key public services, drive economic growth, and articulate calls for greater democracy and development.
That something needs to be done about brain drain is not in question. G8 leaders have discussed the issue, the UK's Commission on Africa calls for better responses, and unions, development agencies, and other civil-society groups are demanding action.
The key question is what should be done. The intuitive response — and one that is most frequently aired — is to try to plug the drain. Stemming the flows seems to make sense: the departure of these key workers hurts the sending countries, so reducing the scale of emigration should ease the pain.
However, seeking to limit mobility may not be the most efficient or humane way to tackle the problem. Indeed, the very notion of "brain drain" may be outdated and simplistic, wrongly implying that the impacts of the movement of highly skilled people are always and everywhere a bad thing.
Instead, what is needed are better methodologies to assess the net impacts of migration — including but not limited to the impacts of brain drain — as well as more nuanced policies that target particular problems where and when they arise. One-size-fits-all measures aimed at limiting mobility from particular regions or countries could end up inhibiting development, not to mention curbing the rights of would-be migrants.
Moreover, there is a need to devise measures that recognize that greater mobility, not less mobility, is likely to be the most sustainable and efficient response over the long term. However, this approach presents an immense challenge: how to tap into the immense economic and other benefits migration can deliver for individuals and receiving countries, while simultaneously ensuring that sending countries also benefit.
Brain Drain Is Not Always Negative
While it is easy to identify the ways in which brain drain can hurt economic development, the reasons that it may not be so bad, or may in fact be positive, are not so obvious. Yet, acknowledging and accounting for the positive spin-offs from highly skilled emigration is an important first step in getting to the bottom of the dilemmas brain drain poses.
For a start, it is worth noting that some of the simplistic assumptions made about brain drain may not actually hold. For example, some of those who migrate return, often with greater skills.
Some of those who move from a developing country have received education elsewhere, subsidized by the host country or private means. By staying away after they finish studying, these students may not fulfil the potential contribution they could make to their countries of origin. However, the cost of their departure, at least in terms of the public purse in the sending country, may not have been large.
In some cases, those who leave have been unemployed or underemployed at home, so their departure may not actually result in a huge loss to the sending country. For instance, the Philippine government continues to support its temporary contract-worker program so that unemployed, skilled workers can find work abroad
In other cases, the departure of skilled workers is compensated for by the arrival of skilled workers from another country. As described in a special chapter in the OECD's 2004 Trends in International Migration, the classic case of this domino effect is of South African doctors moving to developed countries while being replaced by Cuban doctors.
At the theoretical level, economist Oded Stark and others have argued that brain drain may lead to positive results. Even in the poorest of countries (Cuba may well be a good example), the prospect of being able to emigrate may increase incentives to acquire education and skills and induce additional investment in education. When this domestic "brain gain" is greater than the "brain drain," the net impact on welfare and growth may well be positive.
In other words, even in the presence of a brain drain, the average education level of those who remain may be higher than it would have been without migration. While economist Maurice Schiff and others have shown that Stark's thesis is by no means proven beyond doubt, it is important to note that brain drain need not have negative impacts on a sending country's stock of education and skills.
In addition, it is important to understand that brain drain can only tell part of the story about migration's overall impact on an economy or society. When all the other impacts of migration — such as remittances, inward investment, technology transfer, increased trade flows, and charitable activities of diaspora communities — are taken into account, the net impact may actually be positive. As discussed below, there is a pressing need to develop a more comprehensive balance sheet that can take into account all of these factors.
Reducing Brain Drain May Not Be the Best Answer
If brain drain is not always bad, then limiting the movement of highly skilled people may not be necessary. Indeed, except for extreme cases, measures that restrict mobility are not the most effective responses to the causes or consequences of brain drain. In particular, measures aimed at reducing the recruitment of developing-country professionals in several sectors (notably health care but also in education) in some developed countries may only be a band-aid solution — and a bad one at that — for several reasons.
First, as discussed above, the net economic effect of migration depends on the particular context. The possibility that emigration can have positive impacts means that, unless targeted at specific sectors in specific countries, measures to limit migration can end up doing more harm than good.
Second, attempts to restrict flows may result in some unpalatable consequences. Most obviously, denying would-be migrants the right to migrate on the basis of the anticipated impacts of their departure may be discriminatory and compromise human rights. Limits on migration from developing countries may be seen as a new form of "compassionate racism" in which the developed world restricts the opportunities of developing-country nationals.
The blurring of the distinction between discriminatory immigration controls and apparently pro-development measures was perhaps best demonstrated in the controversy surrounding a controversial proposal by UK unions in early 2005 to limit the recruitment of African academics to British universities.
Third, there are practical reasons why attempts to restrict mobility may simply not work. Many migrants will find ways around recruitment bans, perhaps applying directly to employers rather than going through recruiters who are unwilling to enlist them. Some may seek to move, but just not declare that they have certain qualifications — resulting in a brain waste that helps nobody.
Moving beyond the individual benefits of migration to the macro level, restrictions on mobility have the potential to undermine the considerable benefits that migration can deliver to global efficiency. Economists have long argued that increased labor mobility makes good economic sense. Some, such as Alan Winters, have even demonstrated the potential size of these gains. Given demographic and developmental disparities, the potential gains from increasing such mobility are immense.
While migration could have adverse impacts on some countries and on some migrants, the overall policy stance should not undermine the rationale of, or resist the pressures for, greater human mobility.
Finally, it is also worth remembering that, while brain drain may aggravate the shortage of skilled workers in some sectors in some countries, emigration may not be the fundamental reason for actual or anticipated shortages in the first place. Thus, tampering with mobility may not even start to address the structural problems facing some developing countries. Increasing wages, improving working conditions, and providing employment opportunities may be a far better approach than restricting mobility — and it is in supporting these efforts that developed countries might be most effective.
The fact that brain drain is not always, but can be a major problem in some sectors in some countries, presents at least two important challenges for research.
The first is to devise methodologies for differentiting between brain drain per se and a subset of cases that might best be termed "brain strain." The latter are cases in which the net outflow of highly skilled workers from a particular sector in a particular country is actually hampering or is very likely to hamper economic development or the pursuit of important socioeconomic goals.
Identifying brain strain hotspots — particularly where brain drain is undermining efforts to attain Millenium Development Goals or achieve poverty reduction in the world's poorest countries — will be critical for policymakers in sending and receiving countries who seek appropriate interventions.
There is preliminary evidence to suggest the importance of this distinction between brain drain and brain strain. Analysis by economists Simon Commander, Rupa Chanda, Mari Kangasniemi, and Alan Winters suggests that the emigration of IT workers from India is not necessarily having adverse impacts on India's development. Economist Florian Alburo and researcher Danilo Abella suggest that the emigration of skilled workers from the Philippines may not be as bad as many might expect.
On the other hand, it is possible to identify places where brain strain may be occurring or is likely to occur. Small developing countries with high rates of emigration are likely to be particularly vulnerable.
Recent OECD data suggest that around two-thirds of all highly skilled workers from countries such as Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, and Fiji have also left these countries. The sheer volume of emigration suggests that any possible positive effects may be outweighed by negative impacts on economic dynamism, the delivery of key public services and the depletion of the political classes.
In larger countries, the relative scale of loss may be much smaller, but particular sectors may be adversely affected. In this case, the departure of large numbers and proportions of health care workers from some sub-Saharan African countries comes to mind.
A second, and perhaps more important, challenge is to devise a more robust methodology for understanding the overall net impacts of migration. The rationale for why such a methodology is needed is clear: if brain strain occurs when the negative impacts of migration outweigh the positive impacts of migration, then finding a way of calculating these impacts is imperative.
Developing such a methodology will require a massive, multidisciplinary effort. It will entail the collection of considerable, context-specific evidence such as information on vacancy rates in key sectors, historical and comparative changes in the distribution of certain key workers (eg, teachers per 1,000 children), the size and nature of the sending economy, and the migration experience of those who leave (relative incomes, remittances, returnees).
This will involve quantitative as well as qualitative methodologies: modeling demand/growth in training for particular sectors, modeling the rate of growth in wages and conditions, and surveying migration and return intentions. It will rely as much on econometric methods for isolating migration's impacts — for instance, within the context of sub-Saharan Africa's HIV pandemic and health care systems — as on a broad understanding of the obstacles to economic development in the countries in question.
Such a model will also have to be complex, taking into account returns as well as new inflows and outflows of people. It will also need to be comparative and look at progress towards achieving key public policy targets, such as reducing mortality or increasing literacy in comparable cases where emigration has not been as important. And it will also need to be dynamic, examining current as well as future scenarios.
Indeed, the dual tasks of identifying cases of brain strain and calculating the overall impacts of migration are daunting to say the least. Nevertheless, such methodological innovations are a necessary first step in the quest for workable and effective policy interventions that can optimize the impacts of migration for all concerned.
Unless such methodologies are devised, policymakers risk doing more harm than good by restricting mobility in the name of countering brain drain, while ignoring the structural causes that are generating the pressures to emigrate.
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