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Why Brain Drain May Actually Be a Good Thing

A version of this article originally appeared on the Fair Observer.

Right now, there are 215m people — almost 3% of the world’s population — living outside of their country of origin. Among these emigrants are many well educated and trained professionals. The outflow of skilled people from a particular country or region to another is called brain drain.

Its occurrence depends on a variety of factors, but broadly speaking, the term describes people trying to improve their living conditions by leaving their homes to find better prospects elsewhere. This is especially true for developing countries, where many qualified people are attracted by better opportunities wealthier countries have to offer, but brain drain also occurs in other areas of the world. Is this phenomenon problematic?

Exodus of skills and knowledge. Critics say that it is yet another way that developed countries take advantage of difficult conditions in some parts of the world; by luring away people who could otherwise be of big use in their home countries. If the number of skilled people leaving is higher than that of people entering (the so-called brain gain), brain drain can become a challenge, especially if it hits the sensitive spots of a nation’s economy in sectors such as science, health care, or technology.

Malawi, for example, faced a serious crisis in the medical sector when a huge number of trained staff left the country because of better opportunities elsewhere. In 2005 the UN’s Global Commission on International Migration stated that there were actually more Malawian doctors working in Manchester than in all of Malawi. There have also been huge outflows of nurses to developed countries such as the UK. This is not surprising, considering the fact that they could earn up to ten times the salary they would have earned at home. Additionally, there are all the benefits that come along with living in a wealthy and stable country. However, with its already precarious health care situation and with more than 10% of its population suffering from HIV/AIDS, this exodus poses a serious challenge for Malawi.

Brain drain is not only a threat to developing countries though. In developed countries, the loss of skilled people does not only mean a poor economic investment in their education, but also the loss of large amounts of tax those high achievers would have paid during their professional career.

Positive side effects. There is more than one side to the brain drain phenomenon though. First, expatriates are a vital source of income for many countries. According to the World Bank, remittances received by developing countries totaled up to US $325bn in 2010, more than doubling the US $129bn of aid raised by the OECD countries in the same year. In many cases, money sent home by expatriates contributes hugely to the GDP. Tajikistan is leading this statistic with more than a third of its GDP coming from remittances. On top of that, this private development aid seems to be a comparatively stable source of income. When foreign investments dropped significantly due to the global economic crisis in 2009, remittances remained relatively stable, only dropping by 5.5% and recovering again in 2010.

Another possibly positive aspect of global migration and the movement of skilled people is the so-called brain circulation. According to this concept, migration makes a vivid exchange of knowledge and ideas possible, which is beneficial for everyone contributing. Considering all the complex facts, there is no easy answer for how to judge the brain drain phenomenon. Its influence seems to depend on a variety of factors that are not the same in all parts of the world. Keeping an eye on migration and its effects will be of major importance in the age of globalization.

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