The Brain Gain

Laura Freschi at AidWatch lists four ways in which the brain drain from Africa is a good thing. Her analysis includes (a) gains to the migrants; (b) gains to the migrants’ families; (c)the benefits of exchange of ideas; and (d) the stimulation of the accumulation of skills.

This is consistent with what Michael Clemens at CGD has been saying for a while. (Take a look at his very accessible and interesting article in Foreign Policy, for example).

Yet it remains the received wisdom that industrialised countries should do more to prevent workers from moving from developing countries to rich countries.  There is an unappealing alliance between the development activists and the unions to limit the use of medical professionals in the British National Health Service.

It is becoming increasingly clear that preventing people from developing countries from accessing the labour market in developed country impoverishes poor nations in a the same way as preventing access to our markets for goods and services.  Yet this is a campaign that development advocates are strangely reluctant to take on.

5 comments on “The Brain Gain”

  1. but of course you’d expect the effects, both positive and negative, to vary by sector. Without seeing the empirics it does not surprise me that people find the costs of outward migration of skilled professionals in ESSENTIAL SERVICES (e.g. healthcare) may outweigh the benefits, even if the aggregate effects across the board indicate benefits>costs. Presumably this is considered in the studies cited, but if so it would be worth including in the blog’s summary/endorsement.

    Ken – Indeed. One of Michael Clemens’s most striking findings is that the opportunities for going abroad – e.g. as a Doctor – attract more people into a profession. So far from losing skilled professionals, the exporting country actually sees an increase in supply. Them’s actual empirics.

  2. Any attempt to make a generalisation about whether outward migration from developing countries is a net benefit or a net loss, lets say for those countries’ economies (and the unit of analysis matters), is unwise.

    Just as with trade liberalisation, for some countries it’s a good thing, for some it’s not. It depends on the context. The context of the originating countries (do they have an excess of human capital, does the export of human capital actually increase the supply – that might depend on educational facilities for instance) and the context of the destination country (what wages do migrants get paid and what rights do they have etc. etc.).

    (Yeah, in the long run – and in economic models – liberalisation might be good for everyone, but in the long run we’re dead, and politics as always complicates the neatness of the economic analysis)

    So, while the efforts of Michael Clemens and others to challenge the received wisdom on the “inevitable” problems of brain drain and the empirical analysis is welcome, it would be a mistake to replace that received wisdom by flipping to a simplistic generalisation on the other side.

    And, not all migration is good for the family left behind or the individual who goes. Just talk – as I have been, and I’m sure Owen has – to some of the Ethiopian families who have family members who have gone to work as domestic servants in the middle east. “Worse than slavery” is how an Ethiopian friend described it to me yesterday.

    I don’t have the expertise of people like David Ellerman on this, but I did draft a report on Migration and Development for the UK Parliament some years ago which looked at some of the contextual factors that will shape whether a migration flow is good or bad for poverty reduction in an effort to see how policy makers might influence some of those factors to make migration work better for poverty reduction http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmintdev/79/79.pdf

    Them actual empirics perhaps may not lend themselves to simple generalisations.

  3. There are two issues here:
    Firstly, there is the matter of human freedom and the right to seek out one’s best opportunities.
    Secondly and more important:
    Allowing emigration from developing to developed countries increases the potential value of human capital for the developing country IF that country chooses to improve its social, economic and political prospects. There is always a backwash of former emigrants who return to their countries of origin when such positive changes occur and it is these people who, with their experience of working in developed countries, who bring their institutional experience to bear in potentially making that positive change permanent.
    Consider that the Marshall Plan worked in Europe mainly because of the stock of human capital that knew how to operate a developed economy and its necessary institutions. One reason massive influxes of aid to developing countries has not seen the same positive results as occurred in Europe is that the stock of human capital is so much less.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and