The Causes of Poverty (49): Brain Drain?

People with socially useful skills – such as nurses, doctors and teachers – often desire to leave their poor native countries and migrate to the West. A higher wage and the chance of escaping some of the world’s most dysfunctional societies trumps national and social attachments.

However, some argue that this “brain drain” is detrimental to the prosperity of developing countries: not only do they lose their best and brightest – emigration of skilled citizens makes it more difficult to prepare younger generations for their role in society (teachers leave, and governments faced with the risk of brain drain are less eager to invest in education – and even if they are eager they will have a smaller income from taxes necessary to fund education).

And indeed, the better educated citizens of poor countries are more likely to emigrate. You need some money and know-how to move to the West, and you have to expect some value-added. A poor farmer in Africa doesn’t have the money to leave, and his chances of finding a socially useful role in Europe or America, compared to his fellow-citizens who are doctors or engineers, are small.

However, when assessing the economic impact of the brain drain, one has to take all effects into account. For example, criticism of the brain drain often fails to mention the clear benefits for those who decide to leave their countries. More counter-intuitively, those who stay behind may also gain rather than lose: people who spend time abroad often return home with socially valuable skills and savings, and while they’re abroad they send home remittances. Also, the possibility of leaving a country incites many people to improve their skills and education, even if ultimately they stay home. And when they stay home, their higher education is a net social gain. Governments of developing countries may also benefit: perhaps they’ll lose some money when people leave after finishing their government subsidized education, but they gain money when the families that stayed behind spend their remittances, or when they don’t have to pay unemployment benefits to those who leave – some of those would have been unemployed had they stayed home.

It seems that the brain drain is no more than a catchy phrase, and certainly not an important cause of poverty in developing countries.

More posts in this series are here.

5 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (49): Brain Drain?”

  1. […] Restraining the movement of people between national territories creates the same inefficiencies as restraining the movement of goods and services. Free international trade in goods and services increases overall wealth and prosperity, as I’ve argued here and here. Trade enhances specialization and the use of comparative advantage. It’s easier to grow bananas in the tropics and then trade them, than to make every country grow its own bananas. Similarly, free movement of people makes it possible to make better use of people’s talents. Just as it was an inefficient waste to relegate women to the household – not to mention a gross violation of their rights – we are now depriving the world of good workers in all fields of life because of immigration restrictions. Potential immigrants have a hard time going to other countries in order to develop their talents, and can’t move freely around the world to use their talents. Those of you who worry about the effects of a so-called brain drain should read this. […]

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