Skilled migration in an unequal world

4 May 2017 | 07:43

Skilled migration in an unequal world

Cervelli in fuga (brain drain). Photo: SEL.


There are 244 million international migrants living abroad worldwide. Today, we are told that too many migrants are pressing at the borders of the Western world. And this requires barriers – either material (walls) or formal (legal constraint to obtain first permits). Meanwhile, wealthy people can literally buy access to the EU citizenship, and its variety of benefits. And many powerful countries explore normative strategies to attract the best and the brightest individuals.


In 1988, Bernard Williams, one of the most popular and respected philosophers of his time, left Britain to become professors at Berkley. His departure made the headlines for being part of the anti-Thatcherite brain drain. It has been long time since “brain drain” became a buzz-world for policy-makers around the globe. Coined to capture the emigration of British scientists from the United Kingdom, “brain drain” has come to designate a unidirectional transfer of skilled and educated workers from human-resource poor countries to countries that are more prosperous.



As years go by, “brain drain” has earned a moralistic aura. With this expression, scholars and policy makers refer to “a staggering dimension of global inequality”, “the rape of the poorest countries”, “a catastrophe”, and “a crime against humanity”. In the meanwhile, the number of skilled workers from developing countries living abroad is high and increasing.  And China is the last powerful country to join the group of nations that proactively implement policies to attract skilled individuals. Point-based programmes for highly qualified foreigners in Australia, Canada and Japan, US Green Card Skilled Worker Work Permit and EU Blue Cards have catalysed concerns from different sides



According to OECD-UNDESA statistics, in the past decade, the number of tertiary educated immigrants in the OECD countries reached 27 million people in 2011. Among African countries, one in every nine tertiary educated persons has moved to an OECD country. As figure 1 shows, for many countries of origin, especially the smallest ones, very large fractions of skilled human capital live in one of the OECD countries. For eighteen countries, this fraction is 60% or more. For a number of African Countries, it exceeds one third of skilled workers.


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Figure 1 (Clemens 2009).


Causes are well known. We are told that highly skilled workers leave their home country in the pursuit of higher pay and new opportunities. When skilled workers are able to move from their countries of origins, volumes of empirical literature show that they can achieve significant improvements in living standards - When he moves to the US, an Indian developer can triple his real earnings. Figure 2 also shows that, by working in France, a physician from Côte d’Ivoire can raise his real earnings by more than six times.


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Figure 2 (Clemens 2009).


In principle, outflows of skilled worker can generate compensating benefits – reform pressures on governments, construction of new social networks and diaspora communities, remittances flows to poor relatives. All of this can prove sufficient to turn brain drain into a net gain for poor sending countries. And yet there are cases where substantial skilled migration across borders can have serious costs. This is precisely why such a growing body of literature stresses the need to take measures to mitigate the effects of brain drain. Mass emigration by doctors from poor countries, as the World Health Organizations tells us, adds to shortages of trained health professional in those countries.


In keeping with this, in 2007, UNCTAD advocated policies, in both sending and receiving countries, for reducing “the flows that are shown to be most detrimental to national development”. In the same vein, an important publication on the topic by Gillian Brock claims that poor legitimate states may defensibly regulate emigration (taxation or temporary service) of skilled citizens when local evidence indicates that skilled citizens can provide important services for which there are severe shortages, and that their departure considerably undermines efforts to meet citizens’ needs. For years, the British National Health Service has refused to let directly health professionals from selected developing countries know about vacancies in the United Kingdom. To add to it, empirical studies have found correlation (A) between skilled migration and adverse conditions in the country of origin, (B) between increase in schooling and increase in economic growth in countries with low rates of skilled migration, (C) between physician emigration from sub-Saharan Africa and adult HIV-related deaths.


This complicated dynamic is not new to policy makers. The values that policy makers place in remedial actions against uncontrolled skilled migration hinges on the assumption that unfair global distribution of talents is not only despicable, but wrong. So wrong to justify an array of extraordinary measures. For some, wealthy societies could address the problem by prioritizing least skilled applicants for immigrant visa. They would have priority over compatriots who have advanced skills. Wealthy societies also may abolish their skills-selective policies and implement comprehensive visa lottery system. To implement this sort of options, we need a homogeneous distribution of would be migrants from poor countries across social groups and classes. It’s commonplace knowledge that journey to Eldorado is not for everyone. It costs money, moral energy and time. It requires ideational capacities, networks, and physical strength.


When other options prove ineffective, scholars have argued that poor but legitimate governments may expect skilled individuals to spend a compulsory period in impoverished areas. Famously, back in the 1970s, Jagdish Bhagwati defended a tax on the income earned by the skilled migrants in the destination country, to the benefit of the source country. But, besides speculation, it seems particularly difficult to prove that skilled worker migration actually causes bad externalities. Or externalities that are so bad that justify restricting freedom to move. And the justification of substantial burdens on liberties as fundamental as the basic freedom of movement requires considerations that go beyond the observation that, in this case, when freedom for some individuals is restricted, there might be widespread benefits for the society as a whole.


This does not address directly the most important fact: skilled migrants leave difficult places. Places with economic uncertainty, commodity crashes, and large numbers of poor development outcomes, like poor growth, chronic lack of employment opportunities, uncertainty. While thinking of brain drain, we should stop considering primarily its effects. Much of the efforts should be concentrated on the reasons why people decide to leave familiar places. So, the proper target of policy should be what causes movement, not individuals.


In order to understand how to do so, it is illuminating to read trans-national skilled migration in comparison with rural-urban migration. Michael Clemens, a leading voice on brain drain, shows that, in large countries as diverse as Brazil, Philippines and the United States, skilled workers leave poor or small states for new opportunities in urban settings. What is more, Clemens says, New Zealand, Comoros, Iceland, and Equatorial Guinea have similar departure rates to comparably‐sized island provinces of the Philippines. And data show that Angola, Vietnam and Ghana have analogous rates to comparably-sized US states. Notwithstanding these numbers, we rarely think of the very choice to move from rural areas as a cause of underdevelopment. At a larger scale, do we blame young Italians for leaving their country in search for better opportunities in other European countries? Usually, we blame underdevelopment, lack of structural reform, lack of innovation, insufficient investments, unfair fiscal completion between countries. And so on.


Not only do we think that, in the same country, restrictions to movement from one state to another are implausible, but why blaming someone for running away economic hardship? You do not really consider enhancing development in Northern England by closing new professional opportunities in London to people from Newcastle. You do not ask employers not to recruit skilled people from ghettoes, or skilled workers from impoverished areas. This kind of restrictions seems an unfair constraint to a number of people who seek dignity, jobs, and future.These observations are certainly not new


Against brain drain, scholars have given movement to a special salience in political and moral deliberation. I believe that this emphasis “on migration in” or “migration from” a country is both morally dangerous and subversive of the worthy goals advocacy against brain drain sets out to serve – for example, the goal of an equal global distribution of opportunities.  


Realizing (and conceiving) life plans is often a community business. Herculean strength and temperament are required to rise above the absorbing stories of habit, warmth, local boundaries, social recognition and security. Against brain drain, policy makers ought to take these aspects seriously. When one begins life, local origins should not affect the execution of life plans. The same is valid with emigration of skilled workers in search of better opportunities. For the wrong of brain drain, two elements have a fundamental significance: lack of opportunities for the emigrants, impoverishment of already shrinking opportunities for compatriots. By focusing on the movement from/to countries, we exceedingly penalize people who want to find their ways abroad on the assumption that this may somehow benefit the opportunities of the rest of the community. Now, it’s tempting to think so, but reasonable doubts remain.


When weighting reasons for and against skilled migration, just keep focused on the problem: striking global inequality of opportunities that drives people to leave their country for higher salaries and better life standards. Against this, individuals and the unequal distribution of the burden of movement is what matters, not the movement itself.


It’s not so exciting to think of brain drain as an epiphenomenon that occurs alongside a myriad of other problems. But that’s what it is. And Clemens puts this quite neatly. ‘Rather than simply consider skilled workers in difficult environments as ‘surplus’ human capital’, he writes, ‘policy should seek ways to maximize the development effects of human capital, wherever it is located, and without coercion’. I could not agree more.


That said, there are a bunch of specific measure that, integrated in a comprehensive agenda, may maximise the development effects of human capital. 1) Scholarships can be bonds. When students are granted public scholarships for foreign study, and they choose not to go back home, the government of Gambia allows students to repay a bond for the scholarship. Then, 2) governments may weight civil service appointments and medical school admissions towards those who are willing to work on remote areas, and modest cash incentives can also strengthen this policy action. It is entirely possible that these policies reduce skilled migration, but they remain at the surface.


Capacity building must go at the heart of the problem. For instance, private companies, which enjoy the work of willing and resourceful skilled migrant, should bear some of the costs to prepare individuals for human flourishing. 3) Now, this support can come in three forms: philanthropic aid to governments, conditional to investments on employment opportunities for skilled workers; direct economic investments in the sending countries in key sectors; and social impact bonds. At the same time, wealthy and powerful countries, which scramble to attract the best and the brightest, should redistribute some of the benefits to sending countries. At the domestic level, redistribution somehow alleviates the costs of emigration from rural areas. 4) Between sending and receiving countries, bilateral agreements should ensure that the highest social return of skills learning remain in the sending country. At the very least, destination countries of skilled‐worker movement should eliminate needless barriers to temporary return. For instance, when emigrants, who pursue naturalization, are required to remain continuously present in the same country for years, some exceptions should be created to favour temporary returns in the home country. More ambitious policy makers should consider sending country-receiving country bonds, significant reduction of the remittances costs, and the constitution of an extraordinary fund for investments in employment-targeted education. All these strategies may ensure capital growth for long term and structural investments.


Much else can be done to fight global inequality of opportunities. For sure, it’s time to forget policy proposals that overburden emigrants and would be emigrants. A decent future for people who happen to grow up in poor countries requires more than simple, elegant and logic solutions. A significant reduction in the numbers of brain drain is not a goal of development policies. It is the result of a systematic action in many fields. Without keeping this in mind, there might be less skilled emigrants, but that’s it.



Corrado Fumagalli graduated from the Londond School of Economics and the University of Milan with master's degrees in Political Theory and Philosophy respectively. He is currently a Phd candidate in Political Studies at the University of Milan and an affiliated member of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. He has focused on issues related to multiculturalism, minority rights, gender equality and social inclusion.


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