Rethinking Brain Drain: Treating the Cause Instead of the Symptoms of Development

There has been a shift in recent years of the analysis of brain drain. New approaches can help find benefits for all countries touched by this phenomenon.

“Brain drain": the phrase alone has a negative connotation that tends to elicit sympathy for developing countries.  In the midst of so much corruption, violence, and hunger, having the best and brightest leave the country inevitably hinders development instead of promoting it.  How can Western countries allow this to happen?

Or so popular opinion went between 1973 and 2000. Neo-Marxist and Structuralist theories dominated, concluding that the West was responsible for disrupting development by encouraging talented individuals to leave their homes.  These opinions did not change much until 2001 when studies turned over a new leaf of theories that shifted the focus from the national perspective to that of individual migrants.

Suddenly, brain drain changed to brain gain and the concepts of diasporas, remittances, and migration became the favored new tools that cast development in a positive light.  Despite the excitement surrounding new approaches to encourage development, some scholars have recognized that migration itself will not solve larger development issues.

When discussing the concepts of brain drain or brain gain it is important to look at the actual number of people migrating globally today.   According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) only 3.1% of the world’s population are international migrants, or 1 out of every 33 individuals.  Despite media attention, the total number of people migrating internationally is in fact very small.  With this is mind, add the fact that only a proportion of these migrants are highly skilled.  This poses additional questions as to the significance of the impact of brain drain on development.

Considering the relatively small percentage of highly-skilled individuals from developing countries who do choose to migrate, the focus should be shifted from “brain drain” to the reasons for migration.  The discussion should revolve around the lack of opportunity for individuals to pursue their career ambitions in developing countries due to government deficiencies instead of placing the burden of development on highly-skilled individuals and other migrants. Instead of focusing on the individuals who are migrating, we should be focusing on how to improve services and opportunities for migrants in their native countries or even making small strides by improving legal channels of migration to encourage more circular migration patterns. 

Not all concerns over brain drain are unwarranted, though.  Given that brain drain cannot be excluded as a problem in certain areas, and that many individuals “left-behind” have benefited from international migrants through remittances, entrepreneurial investment and social exchange, where does this leave us? I would suggest that we are at a crossroads in how we view migration as a factor in development.  Is brain drain or brain gain the reason some regions are struggling or progressing?  Practically speaking, no one benefits if a highly-skilled migrant is unemployed in his or her native country.

We should also recognize that highly-skilled migrants from developing countries have a right to choose where they pursue their careers and whether or not they would like to be involved in home country development.  In other words, can society expect individuals to put their personal ambitions aside in order to be a tool for development?  Is it a valid expectation for individuals to shoulder the burden of development in countries with low-functioning governmental systems?

Brain drain discourse seems to remain focused on providing for national needs such as a functioning health care sector, when the topic of conversation should be governmental reform in order to provide the foundation for a sustainable health care sector. Instead of talking about what a country is losing we should be concerned with why individuals are choosing to leave.  With high unemployment for graduates in developing countries, unstable economic and political conditions, and lower salaries, the concept of brain drain is out of date.

The current research focuses on brain gain which looks at the positive effects of remittances, brain circulation, investment, and diaspora involvement (when positive).  However, even within the concept of brain gain, focus still shifts towards how individuals hold the key for development.   Although mobilizing the highly skilled to help with development is a step in the right direction, the research still places the real issue on the back burner.

Instead of basing development plans on the highly-skilled, migration should be seen as a way to spur development, not a solution in itself.  In recent years governments and NGOs have seen migration as panacea to development, deemphasizing the larger problem of government infrastructure and stability. Without laws that protect migrants and their mobility, stable political climates, and functioning governmental services, development itself will remain static. Migration may provide temporary aid to the development effort in the form of remittances and brain circulation, but it is not a long-term solution.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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