What do you have in mind when you hear the term "brain drain"? Most people will associate brain drain with bright, talented engineers, scientists, IT persons and other professionals from all over the world who were migrating to developed countries. They were drawn to such countries because those countries have the world's best universities, the most dynamic companies, free economic and social environment and high standard of living. However, as with migration itself, brain drain is actually a complex, multi-dimensional problem.
Generally, we can define brain drain as the permanent migration of skilled group of population from one country to another. Therefore, brain drain is often referred to as human capital flight. There are definitely push and pull factors that cause brain drain. On the "push side", people often blame the domain/source countries of having limited educational/employment opportunity and high numbers of low-paying jobs. The recipient or host country is often described as having more opportunity for further training/research, easier and modern lifestyle, congenial immigration policy, and certainly high numbers of jobs with attractive salary. On top of those factors, there is a whole lot more contributing factors, such as conflict and war, displacement of people and health professionals, asylum seekers, natural disasters, etc.
International Monetary Fund ranked Iran highest in brain drain among 90 measured countries in a 2006 survey. The estimated exodus of 150,000 people per year is thought to be due to a poor job market, and tense domestic social conditions. This is an example of how poor social conditions in a country contribute to high number of brain drain. Therefore, by employing the same logic, we may predict that Iraq is presently undergoing a brain drain due to its political instability. Meanwhile, in the country that becomes the main recipient of those brains, the United States of America, more and more students and skilled workers come every year. According to an annual survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago Foreign-born students holding temporary visas received 33% of all research doctorates awarded by U.S. universities in 2006. That number has climbed from 25% in 2001. In regards to business competitiveness, foreign students comprised 44% of science and engineering doctorates in 2006.
So, what are the effects of brain drain? For individuals who are involved, migration offers financial benefits and larger opportunities. Brain drain tends to benefit recipient countries as they acquire, generally, cheaper human resources while it creates disruption of services, economic losses and inadequacy of specialized professionals in source countries.
We have to take the above assumptions with cautions. Although immigration opponents may claim that big U.S. companies such as Intel and Oracle merely want to hire foreign engineers on the cheap; in fact, U.S. law already prohibits companies from paying these foreign nationals less than natives. All other things being equal, the job applicant from abroad has an advantage because U.S. employers are required to pay an additional $4,000-$6,000 in taxes and fees on every H-1B visa holder they hire.
In terms of the effects for sending countries, even brain drain is a problem for a developed country like Singapore. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew often addresses brain drain as a big issue for the island-country, referring it as Singapore's Achilles heel. He said that Singapore is losing about 1,000 of its best and brightest every year and the numbers are growing. Many of them are heading for America, of course. After acclimatising to life and work in the US, many Singaporeans decided to get the Green Card and settle in America.
The implications of brain drain for poor sending countries are grim and gloomy. African Capacity Building Foundation estimates that African countries lose 20,000 skilled personnel to the developed world every year. This means that every year there are 20,000 fewer people in the currently poorest continent in the world to deliver important public services, work for greater democracy and drive economic growth and development. This is a nightmare; because the efforts to increase aid to African countries will be in vain if there are no skilled ones to implement the programs.
However, some experts have proposed the idea that brain drain might be beneficial for sending countries. Economist Oded Stark theoretically argues that brain drain may increase incentives to acquire education and skills and induce additional investment in local education. Positive net impact will be achieved when brain grain is greater than brain drain. Others also argue that when all the other impacts of migration, such as remittances, inward investment, technology transfer, increased trade flows, and charitable activities of diaspora communities, are taken into account, the net impact can be positive. This may be true if we consider the fact of IMF estimates that the African Diaspora now constitutes the biggest group of foreign investors in Africa. Money that is sent home might be beneficial for the local economy, but is it really beneficial? Would the benefits even greater than if those brains move back and work in Africa?
Once again, those left questions remind us that migration and brain drain are both very complex issues. Every one has personal reasons as to why going abroad for study or work might be better for one's life. Certainly it is often not an easy choice.
Reverse Brain Drain
The Melting Pot
Multiculturalism in Canada
Exploitation of Illegal Migrant Workers