Brain Drain

Introduction – Not Just Drains and Gains

The globalization of international migration has greatly enhanced the international mobility of people with skills. In a global skills market, skills (rather than citizenship and nationality) are the passport to movement from one country to another. Skills do not move evenly across space, however. Underlying current geographical patterns of skills migration are profound economic, political, and social differences between countries. These differences are usually viewed in the aggregate as involving two major blocs of states: the North and the South, the developed and the developing worlds. People with skills are portrayed as relocating from South to North due to a variety of push and pull factors. These are almost always seen as a logical response to differentials in wages and income, lifestyles, personal security, political participation, prospects for career and professional advancement, children’s futures, and so on. In the developed world, graying populations and consequent skills shortages are seen as major factors precipitating a new global hunt for skills from the developing world. The representation of skills migration in such binary terms underwrites the equally simplistic notion that one bloc of countries is suffering an irreversible ‘brain drain’ and another is reaping the rewards of an inevitable brain gain.

Virtually every country is both a sender and a recipient of migrants. Within the so called North there are major movements of skilled migrants between countries. Similarly, within the South there is growing evidence of skills migration from one country or region to another. Further complicating the dualistic model is the fact that skilled migrants no longer conform to the old migration model of a one time relocation from country of emigration to country of immigration. The opportunities for temporary relocation have grown exponentially. Most first generation skilled immigrants maintain strong economic, social, and cultural ties with ‘home’. The phenomenon of transnationalism – of migrants literally and symbolically living their lives across space between two or more countries – is growing exponentially. Return migration from destination to origin seems to be on the rise in certain traditional sending countries such as Ireland. Finally, some countries in the ‘South’, notably the Philippines and India, have deliberately sought to develop a skills base explicitly for export in the belief that skills ‘loss’ will actually produce a gain. The overall interplay between the negative and positive implications of skills migration is specific to each country and to various sectors and groups therein. The phenomenon of skills migration is certainly complex and analysis is hampered by the paucity of reliable data.

In this context, the concept of brain drains and gains, as currently conceptualized, may appear to be overly simplistic, more a concept for inflamed political rhetoric than a serious analytical device for understanding the causes and consequences of skills migration. Yet in international policy debates around the relationship between migration and development, the concept of the brain drain continues to have considerable resonance, if not pride of place. This article examines the common understanding of the concept, the evidence that is usually marshaled to demonstrate its reality and the migration dynamics that render it an increasingly blunt analytical concept.

Toward a Definition

Global Patterns of Brain Drain

Impacts of Brain Drain

Feedback Effects

Policy Prescriptions and Possibilities

Global Cooperation

Lack of Data