Is the brain drain always negative?

According to the United Nations, there were 244 million international migrants in 2015, representing a growth of 41% since 2000. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD countries host nearly 50% of the world’s migrants, with a higher rate of highly skilled migration (tertiary-educated) than net migration.

OECD data shows higher rates (above 50%) of highly skilled migration from the poorest and least developed countries, such as Haiti and Guyana in the case of the Caribbean and South America.

While some refer to brain drain, with the associated negative connotation, research on migration and education also discusses ‘brain gain’ and ‘brain circulation’, offering a differing perspective on the phenomenon of highly skilled migration.

Negative and positive effects of the brain drain

The migration of highly skilled professionals has some negative effects on affected countries of emigration. However, these migration flows can also have positive effects where countries of origin benefit in other ways – primarily from remittances, but also sometimes from technical assistance – from the outflow of highly skilled professionals residing and working elsewhere.

Brain drain is one of the earliest phenomena associated with globalisation, which has significant adverse effects at the local level. The departure of skilled workers can weaken developing countries, especially smaller ones, by depriving them of important skills and workforce. This can prevent or limit innovation, business growth and national development.

Development can be particularly impeded by the outflow of professionals in the health, education and agricultural sectors. The impact varies based on the demographics and level of development of countries.

Brain drain is also criticised for producing a fiscal burden on the country of origin as it loses out on the skills of a publicly trained and educated workforce.

It is argued that brain drain robs poorer nations of research and innovation potential, thereby limiting the growth and development of local academic teaching and research institutions, as well as other public sector institutions. With fewer skilled migrants, developing countries might also benefit from fewer investments, further entrenching this problem.

Research on migration patterns between the 1960s and 1990s indicates that high levels of skilled migration contributed to slowing the economic growth and development of sending countries, increasing inequality and poverty.

However, a 2015 World Bank report on African doctors argues that this fiscal burden is often exaggerated. Looking at the migration patterns of African doctors and where they were trained, this study found that the complexity of individual migrants’ education and trajectories belies a simple situation where highly skilled migrants are trained in their country of origin and immediately after graduating leave to work in the country of destination.

This schema does not accurately depict actual migration patterns where migrants are born in country A, educated in country B and live and work in country C.

Furthermore, this report also found that not all highly skilled migrants educated in their country of origin left immediately after graduation, implying that countries can sometimes benefit from this group before they emigrate.

Diaspora networks

Some forms of brain drain can also be beneficial for the country of origin. A moderate amount of brain drain can benefit a country of origin because it results in more educated workers: the possibility of emigrating pushing the population in sending countries to pursue more education. This benefit would require a certain number of educated workers to remain in the country.

Diaspora and ethnic networks can lead to brain gain by boosting investments and exchange in both countries of origin and destination by migrants leveraging their knowledge of both countries.

One way of mitigating the impact of brain drain is through the role of diasporas, who can benefit sending countries in several ways. Migrants working in Silicon Valley, for example, have forged professional ethnic groups to support other migrants in their work and technological development. Universities in developing countries have also actively participated in diaspora networks.

Elizabeth Chacko’s 2007 study on the impact of highly skilled migrants returning to India highlights their contributions to making Bangalore and Hyderabad ‘emerging niche world cities’ with a strong foothold in the global IT sector. Transnational skilled migrants returning to India bring with them ‘knowledge, expertise, access to global networks and capital’ as well as ‘international sensibility’.

Coupled with government initiatives to promote research and development, and to attract international businesses and forge linkages with richer countries, returning migrants have played a strong role in establishing these two cities as leading technological hubs.

While some lament the financial burden that skilled professionals place on their country of origin by using their publicly funded skills elsewhere, migrants also contribute significantly to the former through remittances. For smaller and poorer countries, remittances can constitute a large portion of the gross domestic product and can significantly contribute to local development.

How to mitigate the negative effects of brain drain

To prevent brain drain and its negative effects on local development, governments of sending countries first need to address the key structural and institutional contextual factors that push skilled professionals to emigrate in the first place, including human rights and civil liberties.

Racism, discrimination, violence, corruption, cronyism and protectionist economic policies are examples of significant push factors if they limit access to the job market or safe working conditions.

Some governments take a more restrictive approach to preventing brain drain: in Iraq, for example, graduates from medical school were not given their diplomas or transcripts to ensure that they remained in the country and worked in the national medical system. There are more cooperative approaches where countries work with the diaspora to ensure that effective exchange enables brain circulation or brain gain.

One way that the diaspora can be a positive force is through the return of skilled professionals to their countries of origin: brain circulation. The Thai government, for example, has been implementing the ‘Reverse Brain Drain Project’ over the last few decades to counter the flow of skilled professionals, which has promoted the return of Thai professionals to positions in Thailand.

These professionals have also been used to facilitate and coordinate technology transfer, by recruiting both highly skilled and experienced professionals as well as recent graduates who may not have as much experience but have promising research potential.

The project includes strong incentives to ensure that a higher number of candidates are attracted to this opportunity. Incentives are monetary or provided through services and assistance. For example, different types of grants are offered for participation in special projects. Requirements specifically exclude professionals already working in Thailand and emphasise a desire and commitment to spend a significant amount of time in Thailand.

Diaspora networks can also be used without migrants returning to sending countries, by leveraging them to work on projects or businesses locally. One excellent example of an efficient diaspora network is GlobalScot, an invitation-only network of high-powered Scots from all over the world who use their expertise and influence as antennae, bridges and springboards to generate projects in Scotland.

Investment in research centres

As the 2007 OECD report Gaining from Migration notes, however, it is primarily upper-to-middle income countries who benefit from diaspora networks and returning skilled migrants, while poorer countries continue to lose their more skilled workers.

Unless the institutional and structural conditions in the country of origin are favourable to research and supporting returning migrants (resources, salaries, etc), then it might be difficult to retain returning professionals in the long term.

Countries can allay the negative effects of brain drain and promote brain gain or brain circulation by investing in local research centres and institutions and by adequately supporting researchers. Additionally, industrialised countries can promote migration programmes and regulations that encourage the return of migrants after their studies, or after a short period of time working in the country of study or a third country.

DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, gives a grant to finishing PhDs from developing countries so that, when they go back to their country of origin, they have some money to buy equipment and conduct research. Sending countries can also mitigate brain drain through programmes that finance studies abroad, while simultaneously forcing their internationally educated nationals to return.

To alleviate the fiscal burden that is believed to be created by brain drain, some propose levying a tax against migrants, to be collected by the receiving country and sent to the sending country. However, this proposal has proven difficult to implement and complicated to administer. Scholars continue to debate how such a framework could be effective and implementable.

Diaspora programmes

The traditional view of brain drain is that of a global phenomenon that has adverse consequences locally in the sending countries, especially low-income developing countries.

Alternative definitions of brain drain focus on migration that is not ‘offset’ by other factors such as remittances, knowledge exchange, trade and investments. When evaluating the impact of migration, and whether brain gain occurs, it is therefore important to take into account the positive impact that highly skilled migration can have on both sending and receiving countries.

By focusing on policies that promote the contributions of the diaspora, either directly or indirectly, and whether through returns or collaboration, sending countries can also benefit from migration through the phenomena of brain gain and brain circulation.

Developing countries’ universities can be important actors in that respect, through diaspora programmes that allow academics to return to their country of origin and partnerships that facilitate collaborative arrangements between academics established in the North and universities in their home country.

Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert at Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile, and Katya Salmi is an adjunct professor at American University in Washington DC, USA. This is an edited version of their contribution to the Global University Network for Innovation's Sixth Higher Education in the World Report.