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Is brain drain relevant in an increasingly globalised world? – INASP Blog

Is brain drain relevant in an increasingly globalised world?


Brain drain is a very emotive issue. Even the word ‘’drain’’ conveys a certain sense of siphoning off resources from A to B without any rewards to the donor. Anecdotal reports suggest that Europe and America are full of highly skilled immigrants from developing countries driving taxis and doing the jobs that the locals do not want to do. The anecdotal evidence also tends to suggest that the vast majority of these immigrants are doctors, scientists, teachers or engineers. The fact remains that there is very little actual evidence for this assertion. A recent paper from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CREAM) authored by John Gibson and David McKenzie tries to look at the evidence for some of these stereotypes and challenges some of the common presumptions.

The authors frame their paper around eight questions on the issue of brain drain and pose five more for further research. Their questions are: 1) what is brain drain? 2) Why should economists care about it? 3) Is brain drain increasing? 4) Is there a positive relationship between skilled and unskilled migration? 5) What makes brain drain more likely? 6) Does brain gain exist? 7) Do high-skilled workers remit, invest and share knowledge back home and 8)What do we know about the fiscal and production externalities of brain drain?

I am not going to attempt to review the paper which you can read for yourself here (May 2011, Eight questions about brain drain) however I just want to highlight a couple of interesting points their analysis brings out.

Popular conversation around brain drain has it that most highly skilled migrants are doctors, scientists and engineers and that they, upon arrival in the host country, work in roles that are beneath their qualifications. Using data from the American Community Survey the authors show that most highly skilled migrants to the USA, in this case defined as having a bachelors degree and above were employed in highly skilled industries such as the medical profession, computer software engineers, education, engineering and science. Indeed less than 2% of those surveyed were actually taxi drivers. Of course issues as to roles within these broad professional areas can be asked but they do present a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the data.

Another point in the brain drain discussion is a question of rate – is brain drain increasing and to whose benefit? Their review of the data shows that due to an increase in education levels in developing countries the overall rate of highly skilled migration from South to North has stayed the same (though numbers have actually increased, they have been followed by increases in education levels). Unfortunately this does not hold true in Sub-Saharan Africa as the education levels have not increased with highly skilled migration.

How does and should this review influence the discussion on brain drain? Is brain drain a bad thing, in fact can we actually really use that term in an increasingly globalised world? Is the opportunity to study/work abroad an incentive for higher academic attainment? These are some of the questions raised and discussed in this paper. What are your thoughts?

Alex Ademokun
Alex Ademokun Senior Programme Manager for the Evidence-Informed Policy Making team at INASP and the Director of the the VakaYiko Consortium.

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