Reinterpreting the Brain Drain

Reinterpreting the Brain Drain

The departure of skilled workers in the developing world may, contrary to popular belief, do more good than harm. Photo:<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/73008420@N00/3662432706/sizes/m/in/photostream/">banoiff (flickr)</a>
The departure of skilled workers in the developing world may, contrary to popular belief, do more good than harm. Photo:banoiff (flickr)

When educated professionals depart a developing nation, does greater wealth arrive? Some scholars in the international development community are saying farewell to the notion that the ‘brain drain’ hinders impoverished countries from expanding human capital and increasing the growth rate.

Exit brain drain. Enter brain gain.

The brain drain has long been perceived as a constraint on the progress of developing nations—much-needed doctors, professors, and scientists often abandon their homelands in exchange for better salaries and more comfortable lives in the developed world. However, research indicates that if countries can hit a sweet spot of sending around 20 percent of their talent to other countries, the residual impact of those individual losses will actually spur economic and educational growth at home.

But how? One way is through remittances, cash transfers from an individual in one country to another elsewhere. Take Ghana, for example. Some figures place remittance levels at $400 million per year, on par with the country's two biggest exports, cocoa and gold, which account for 25 percent of the foreign exchange earnings of the nation. To put this figure in perspective, in previous years Ghana has received around $650 million in foreign aid. Compared to other developing nations, that's low—in some, “remittances are more than double the amount of foreign aid,” as reported by Foreign Policy.

Furthermore, remittances can withstand the tests of natural disasters, and political and economic crises. Chances are an economic and political collapse in Egypt would deter foreign investment but encourage a migrant to increase his or her monetary givings to Egyptian relatives. Now those are derivatives Fannie and Freddie should have bet on.

Much of the new economic activity happening in African countries like Ghana are catalyzed by residents who have traveled or lived in developed countries. New York University professor William Easterly refers to this as “brain circulation,” that is, the movement of ideas and investments from educated professionals between their homes and the West.

Often, brain drainers will eventually return to their country of origin or maintain residency both abroad and at home. Not only do these individuals in turn support the economic development of their hometowns, but they also inspire members of the community to invest in education. According to Easterly, most students are motivated by the idea of living abroad, noting that “if this prospect is closed tightly, this may have an effect on the effort levels of students in the system, and therefore the quality of the graduates of the school system.”

Additionally, travel expands capital horizons. Robert Guest notes in Foreign Policy that “countries trade more with countries from which they have received immigrants.” A migrant living in the UK might inform his sister in Somalia that there is demand in his city for a specific talent she may have the skill sets to provide. Diaspora thus encourages a fluidity of ideas, innovations, and supplies and demands between often disconnected parts of the world.

Investing money abroad can be the best way to bring more of it home. Brainpower may work that way, too.

Curated news and insights about innovative, market-driven solutions to poverty explored through news, commentary and discussion.

Learn more »

Global Envision newsletter