Human capital flight, brain drain, brain gain – these words all describe the same phenomenon the migration of highly trained or intellectual people from a certain country. As we say in Norwegian: kjært barn har mange navn. Whilst brain gain refers to the benefits of the country receiving these people, brain drain refers to the costs of the country losing them. A quick Google search reveals that brain gain has more than seven times as many results on the Internet than brain drain (51.3 million results). This article aims to investigate the topic of brain drain, hopefully lessening the divide between the amounts of information available online regarding brain drain and brain gain.
The term brain drain originates from the migration of scientists from Europe to America after World War II. Some of these scientists are in fact quite well-known; you’ve heard of Albert Einstein, right? Nowadays, however, the term brain drain is usually used in the context of persons from less developed countries migrating to more developed countries, typically due to better payment and job opportunities.
When one hears the word brain drain, one may have negative connotations; the Oxford Dictionary definition for drain itself is “to cause the water or other liquid in (something) to run out, leaving it empty or dry”. This implies that the country affected by brain drain will suffer. Does human capital flight always result in bad consequences for the country losing scholars?
Malawi, a landlocked country in south-east Africa, has been a “victim” of a brain drain, as a large proportion of their trained medical personnel left the country. In 2004 the country, with a population of around 12.5 million at the time, only had 1.1 doctors and 2.5 nurses per 100,000 people. According to estimates from africaportal.org, Malawi educated 60 nurses and lost 100 nurses yearly, with half of them leaving for the UK. Obviously, Malawi was affected extremely negatively by a brain drain, resulting in a huge shortage of healthcare professionals. With only around 250 doctors in the whole country, Malawi had to launch the Emergency Human Resource Program as a result of this.
The story of brain drain in Malawi is a tragedy; India, on the other hand, has had positive experiences due to brain drain. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, a lot of Indians were educated in IT and emigrated to the United States, specifically Silicon Valley, to work in IT companies. This led to the loss of many talented people; for example Sundar Pichai, the current CEO of Google. However, during the dot-com crash of the early 2000s, many Internet companies failed and shut down. This led to many Indians working in the IT sector, with tons of experience from Silicon Valley and international companies, returning back to their home country. Their expertise therefore benefitted their home country in the end. This “reverse brain drain” is best described by Salman Khurshid, former Cabinet Minister of India: “When we lose some, we win many back.”
As one can see in the examples of Malawi and India, brain drain can have both positive and negative effects. On one hand, a country loses people with a lot of expertise; on the other hand, these people may return and benefit the entire country with work experience from abroad. There are many other examples of brain drain happening in other countries, and many other sides to both these cases. One thing to remember is that India didn’t receive the positive benefits of the reverse brain drain until after 20-30 years, when their IT professionals finally returned. Malawi has not yet experienced this reverse brain drain; it will be interesting to see what the future has in store for them.