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Battling Brain Drain


A massive exodus of skilled workers to the West, often called "brain drain," is depriving many poor countries of the expertise necessary to train new generations and join the ranks of the industrialized world.

Each year, an average of 2.6 million people move from developing nations to the industrialized world. In 2000, according to the World Bank, nearly 35 percent of these people had higher educations, including college degrees.

Dovelyn Agunias, an analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, says this exodus of skilled workers is fueled by a number of political and economic factors.

"The one [factor] that is most cited is the income differential. The doctors and nurses, for example in Africa, are earning very little as compared to when they get here. But it is also the opportunities in moving here, the better facilities, the safety concerns. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is AIDS. And you may add the fact that they are being actively recruited here. There is a supply and a demand. That is definitely contributing to the large inflow of highly skilled people," says Agunias.

Courting Skilled Workers

The United States, Canada, Britain and Australia are just a few of the countries actively courting skilled labor from across the globe. Whether nurses from the Philippines, doctors from Africa, scientists from Germany or software engineers from India, these workers meet an increasing demand for highly skilled labor in industrialized nations and leave a bigger void in their home countries.

Peter Harris, Director of the USA/Africa Institute in Florida, says that, generally, it is the educated who leave to look for better jobs or get more training, and that they take with them the skills necessary to cultivate future generations in their homelands.

"You face the possibility of exporting the potential of your students. It's almost a vicious cycle, where you're almost guaranteeing developed countries a constant workforce by using the educational system in some of these developing nations, which in turn causes a serious dearth of professional talent to the home country. So they [i.e., developing countries] never will get out of that development cycle because of the loss of talent," says Harris.

Most analysts agree that the brain drain siphons off significant human capital and at least some of the potential for economic growth in developing countries. And many say it is difficult for small and poor nations to replace their skilled workers.

Economist Maurice Schiff of the World Bank in Washington says the impact of this migration for poor countries is incalculable. "If they [i.e., students] get their education at home, you've got a loss of resources that have been invested in these people. Then they move to developed countries, and so the benefits go to the rich countries. Let's remember that the major part of the cost of education is not the tuition and books. It is the time of the person because that person, who maybe gets a [university] education for four years, is not working during those four years and is, of course, not paying taxes. And then, after university, when that person leaves, it's a double loss," says Schiff.

Remittances and Underground Economies

Some experts say poor countries, such as the Philippines or Gambia, do gain some benefits when their skilled workers leave. Most immigrant laborers send money back home to support their families. According to the United Nations, these remittances total around $90 billion a year.

Peter Harris of the USA-Africa Institute says these funds feed underground economies in the immigrants' countries of origin. "There's a whole underside of an economy where these remittances, once they go back to the home country, are supporting a burgeoning, bulging economy that nobody, not even the local governments, are able to wrap their arms around as far as how much commerce is taking place. And I think we'll find that most of these developing countries contain a significant amount of wealth, not just in terms of dollars and cents, but also in terms of human potential," says Harris.

But other analysts say remittances are not enough to compensate for the losses resulting from the departure of highly skilled workers. Still, the Migration Policy Institute's Dovelyn Agunias argues that there is no evidence to support either argument. "The World Bank, in its global economic prospects on remittances report, said that remittances might partly compensate for the brain drain. But I've heard others saying that's not true, that you cannot expect remittances to compensate even closely for the brain drain. So there is a difference [of] opinion because there's really not much of an empirical study that looks closely [at] these countries," says Aguinas.

Selection of the Fittest

According to the World Bank, 89 percent of Guyana's and 83 percent of Haiti's educated citizens were living abroad in 2000. Jamaica was in third place that year, with 85 percent of its educated citizens living elsewhere.

World Bank economist Maurice Schiff says this trend will escalate, aided in part by immigration policies in the industrialized world. "What you have is that the developed countries are moving more and more toward a selection process that favors skilled labor. So the proportion of skilled migrants in the total migration flow is likely to increase because of these policies. Australia and Canada have had such types of policies. The U.S. has been moving more and more in that direction," says Schiff.

Most analysts agree that while large developing countries, such as India, have the capacity to replace their migrant workers, solutions must be found to aid poor and small countries, especially in Africa and the Caribbean basin. In an effort to stem the brain drain, some experts suggest that developed countries sponsor a type of circular migration that lets skilled immigrants work for them for a time and then go back to their homelands for a few years to share their expertise and help train future generations.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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