MPI Study: Debunking the “Brain Drain” Myth

For generations, international development experts have been fretting about the so-called “brain drain,” when a country’s most promising students and professionals leave a less-developed country to move overseas – often permanently – in pursuit of better opportunities. Over the years, “brain drain” has been blamed for slowing the progress of developing countries as they struggle to lift their populations out of poverty.

That blame is misplaced, according to a new study from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), which points out that the term itself is freighted with assumptions: we are led to think that “brain drain” must be bad, simply because that conclusion is built into the language. Instead of accepting that conclusion on faith, MPI did what any good social scientists would do: they critically examined the evidence. [See What Do We Know About Skilled Migration and Development? by Michael A. Clemens, Migration Policy Institute, Sep.2013.]

What MPI found turns the conventional wisdom on its head. They start with the terminology, using the more neutral term “skill flow” instead of “brain drain.” When developing countries experience skill shortages, it’s not so much because their skilled worked have emigrated, but because of a complex web of factors, including a lack of investment in education and insufficient local demand for highly skilled workers. Absent local demand, the students reason, why bother investing in further education? Why not just get a job?

Not only is skill flow not the root cause of skill shortages in the developing world, it actually brings significant benefits to the sending countries, according to MPI. Among these benefits:

  • “Skill flow seeds new industries and transfers technology,” MPI found, noting that new technologies travel back to the sending countries through expat networks of highly skilled workers, priming the pump for technology-based economic development back home.
  • “Skill flow causes more investment in education,” says MPI, giving students an incentive to study, knowing they can improve their chances of getting a good job overseas. Success stories – of locally trained expats who have made good in high-wage countries – can inspire increased investment in education at the personal and systemic levels.
  • “Skilled migration raises remittances more than less-skilled migration,” because skilled workers make more money, and can afford to send more back home; this in turn provides desperately needed capital for development. MPI notes, “African-trained physicians in the United States and Canada, over the years, typically send a cumulative amount that greatly exceeds the cost of their medical training.”
  • “Skill flow spreads democracy.” Money is not the only valuable commodity that highly skilled workers send back from overseas: ideas, values, and information from abroad are spread to each expat’s network back home. According to MPI, “Antonio Spilimbergo of the International Monetary Fund finds that countries become more democratic when larger numbers of their students acquire higher education in democratic countries.”
  • “Skill flow typically massively improves migrants’ opportunities,” and those of their extended families, raising their standards of living. MPI argues cogently that people from developing countries should have the right to go where their skills will have greater value, and improve their personal welfare.

The MPI study finds that developing countries actually are better off when their best and brightest are allowed to go wherever their skills can take them, because the return flow of benefits tends to exceed, by far, the costs to the sending country. It’s a thought-provoking contribution to a long-running debate that has occupied economists and international development specialists for years – and it’s well worth reading in its entirety.

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