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Brain Drain: Losing Our Minds?

Introduction

Picture this: You were born in a small village in the countryside of Vietnam. You excel in school and learn English quickly. You decide you want to become a doctor. After high school, you receive a fully-funded scholarship through your government to study medicine in Australia. There is one requirement, though: you must return to Vietnam and be a physician in your home country for at least five years. Why do you think this rule for the scholarship exists?

Here’s Why

In this scenario, the reason the scholarship requires the student to return home is based on stereotypes that skilled professionals who migrate to richer countries never return. While this is a generalization, it is one of the myths surrounding the phenomenon known as brain drain. Despite the negative connotations, brain drain has both pros and cons and can benefit both rich and poor countries.

Definition

Brain drain, also known as human capital flight, is the emigration of highly skilled workers and educated people, such as engineers, doctors, scientists, and economists, from a source country to a target country.

How It Works

The British Royal Society created the term brain drain after witnessing developed countries compete for highly skilled workers in the information technology and communications fields during the 1960s. However, brain drain is not only a loss of highly trained professionals, but also an educated population. 

It is useful to consider why people who are highly skilled and educated leave their countries of origin. Economic or political turmoil may be the cause. People also leave to seek higher-paying jobs, more satisfying work, or because there are too many skilled workers and not enough available jobs. 

It is believed that human capital, especially an educated workforce, is a country’s greatest asset. Therefore, some theorists argue that losing this asset slows economic growth, decreases low skilled workers’ wages, and in turn, increases poverty. While brain drain does happen between wealthier nations, it is more commonly discussed regarding less affluent countries around the world. Some people also argue that the emigration of highly educated individuals means fewer chances that the country has for scientific advancements and other prestigious academic achievements. Highly skilled or educated workers who migrate may also have difficulty finding employment. They may have to take unskilled jobs they normally would not, which is called “brain waste.”

Others believe the impacts of brain drain are not solely negative. The “optimal brain drain” theory argues emigration for higher wages encourages more people to pursue higher education. Some people end up staying, which in turn improves the educational profile of the country. Other positive effects of brain drain come from expatriates sending parts of their income to their families, known as remittances. This stimulates the economy. Plus, some people do return to their home country after living and working abroad. Not to mention, while living abroad, they can encourage people to visit their home country, which benefits the tourism industry. 

Why Care?

We must acknowledge the pros and cons of brain drain to ensure the right to freedom of movement as protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Countries do not own their skilled workers, and ultimately, those individuals are allowed to leave their country as they see necessary. 

Additionally, keeping skilled workers in a country does not solve all economic woes. For example, in Venezuela, the political and economic dysfunction is the sole reason why people are leaving. Even if those people stayed, their presence would not improve the situation. Therefore, in certain circumstances, the attention should not be focused on brain drain, but rather the conditions and factors that led to it happening in the first place. Countries can also focus on how they can improve the situation in their countries to entice migrant workers to return. As is the case in Turkey, a study of graduates returning from Germany showed half of the group started their own business. It should also be noted that repatriates returning from advanced democracies can be a positive voice of change and catalyst for developing their country.

Brain drain is often cast in a negative light, but it is essential to consider the positive effects while also acknowledging that every country’s situation is different. Since we live in a globalized world, it is equally important to consider both sides of the impacts. For those who plan on living or working abroad, migration is ultimately an individual’s decision. Finally, we must be mindful of the debate about the human capital of skilled workers versus “unskilled workers.” This is classist and devalues “unskilled” workers, especially when the presence of skilled workers in a country does not automatically improve an adverse economic situation.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think brain drain is also called human capital flight?
  2. Do you think there are unintended consequences of brain drain? If so, what are they?
  3. How can countries encourage people with higher education not to migrate?

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Learn More

  1. Nathalie Baptiste, Brain Drain and the Politics of Immigration, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/brain-drain-and-politics-immigration/.
  2. Satish Wasti, The Myth of Brain Drain: How Emigration Can Help Poor Countries, https://www.cgdev.org/article/myth-brain-drain-how-emigration-can-help-poor-countries-harvard-political-review.
  3. Sunita Dodani & Robert LaPorte, Brain Drain from Developing Countries: How Can Brain Drain be Converted into Wisdom Gain? https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/014107680509801107.