Brain Drain Is Not Inevitable

American colleges should place more emphasis on educating those foreign students who will help their home colleges, writes Joan Dassin.

February 14, 2006

“Brain drain” -- the migration of highly trained people from developing countries to wealthy ones -- has for decades depleted the most precious resource of the world’s poorest countries, their skilled and educated citizens. Yet this outflow of talent is not inevitable. Ending brain drain ultimately requires new development models that redress fundamental inequalities within developing countries and between the world’s poorest and richest nations. But as a first step, colleges and universities that recruit foreign talent -- and the foundations and agencies that support them -- can adopt new policies to help stem pervasive brain drain.

First, colleges and universities can direct educational opportunities to academically qualified, community-oriented leaders who would otherwise have limited opportunities for advanced study. For these leaders, the purpose of further study is to acquire the skills and knowledge to improve conditions in their home countries. Second, strong partnerships and collaboration can enhance resource sharing between universities and research institutions in rich countries and their counterparts in the developing world. This enables skilled graduates to find work at home while participating in international networks. And third, educators can take advantage of advances in information and communications technology to increase the impact and sustainability of such programs, since they are no longer limited by a zero-sum “brain-drain” vs. “brain gain” framework but are free to envision strategies that achieve win-win “brain circulation”. 

Two individuals who recently completed studies under the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program are showing that talented graduates who studied abroad can have an immediate impact on their home countries. Margareta Tri Wahyuningsih, from Indonesia, completed a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the University of Bradford, in Britain, in 2004 and returned to West Kalimantan, a province beset by traditional conflict and sporadic ethnic cleansing. In her current work as a field officer for an international NGO called Search for Common Ground in Indonesia, Margareta is training women to become mediators for peace.

Samuel Duo, a Liberian refugee who had fled to Ghana, completed a master’s degree in agriculture at Pennsylvania State University in 2005. Immediately after graduation, Samuel returned home to open a new office for the Social Enterprise Development Foundation of West Africa in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to help rebuild his war-torn country.

Despite dedicated leaders like Margareta and Samuel, brain drain continues to weaken many developing economies. A comprehensive World Bank report  published in October concluded that brain drain increased significantly over the past two to three decades. The stock of educated immigrants in rich countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rose by about 800,000 annually between 1990 and 2000. This exodus is a major loss for sending countries, especially the smallest and poorest in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean -- some of which have lost more than 50 percent of their educated citizens. Four out of five Jamaican doctors, for example, practice elsewhere, while sub-Saharan Africa has lost 20,000 professionals each year since 1990. More African scientists and engineers work in the United States than on their home continent. 

When educated people emigrate, they leave with skills and experience crucial to solving their countries’ critical problems. The migration of doctors leaves poor countries (and eventually other global population centers) subject to the ravages of highly communicable diseases. Public services are deprived of trained personnel, and countries lose revenue from some of their highest-earning taxpayers. Sending countries also lose educated citizens who otherwise might play key roles in developing responsive governments and organizing civil society, often resulting in political instability and regional conflict.

While some researchers have called attention to the net positive effects of “brain drain,” such as remittances sent home and possibilities for increased trade and foreign assistance, the negative effects are much stronger. Brain drain leads to a downward spiral of impoverishment and underdevelopment that drives educated people to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Universities that recruit foreign students must adopt new strategies to reverse brain drain while maintaining a healthy circulation of global skills and knowledge. One promising approach is to direct international scholarships to deserving individuals for whom the support represents a unique opportunity to improve conditions in their home countries. Typically, prestigious scholarships are awarded to the “best and the brightest” students in poor countries. While academically capable, these students are usually from elite families that have access to high-cost private secondary schools and regard an international degree as an opportunity for individual advancement or a ticket to employment abroad.

Top colleges in the United States learned some time ago that admitting classes of American students from elite private schools did not truly identify the best talent, but while these institutions have become much more adept at identifying diverse applicants among Americans, they don’t do so for students from other countries. Yet more than half of all university students are now in the developing world, and there is a huge, nearly untapped pool of talented people from social groups that are just beginning to acquire postsecondary education. 

In developing countries, these first-generation university students are usually from poor backgrounds. They are women who succeed in overcoming cultural barriers against female advancement, or men and women from remote rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, or people with physical disabilities. Having overcome poverty and discrimination to obtain their education, these students are highly motivated to return to their home countries after studying or working abroad. Their chief aspiration is to apply their newly-acquired knowledge to improve the very conditions against which they themselves had to struggle. And because they are deeply rooted in their communities of origin, their choice to live and work at home is a natural one. Since 2001, the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program has selected more than 2,000 fellows from nearly 100,000 applicants with this background and profile from Russia and 21 developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Among more than 550 alumni, 75 percent are now living and working in their home countries, while almost all of the remaining alumni are finishing doctoral degrees or pursuing additional advanced training under other sponsorship.   

Another effective way to redress the fundamental inequalities that lead to brain drain is to strengthen institutional partnerships, collaborative research and teaching, and other mutually beneficial exchanges between universities and research institutions in the United States (and other rich countries) and their counterparts in developing countries. Foundations, along with governments, universities, and the private sector, can support such initiatives.

One innovative example is Washington University in St. Louis’s “International Scholars Academy,” a program that promotes international cooperation among leading research universities with an initial focus on 15 universities in Asia. Another is the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a $350 million initiative sponsored by six of the largest U.S. foundations to strengthen higher education in seven African countries. Such collaborations help to build local institutions while fostering international connections, improving the capacity of developing countries to absorb their most talented graduates but also allowing them to benefit from global networks. 

Advances in information and communications technology and improved mobility have helped to shape a new global context for the world’s educated people. For those from poor developing countries, the choice is no longer as stark between emigration to a rich country or a life of intellectual isolation. For example, online access to scientific journals is improving rapidly, projects to digitize the world’s great libraries are well under way, and Internet cafes offer inexpensive access to online resources. In Africa, foreign donors, private companies and governments are investing heavily in satellite-based broadband capacity and new cell phone technology, opening Internet access and leapfrogging antiquated and dysfunctional telephone landlines. 

Further, the reduced cost of travel allows professionals to maintain their international ties by spending short periods abroad. Expatriates, for their part, are being invited by their governments and international agencies to work for limited periods of time in their home countries. Virtual travel can also connect professional communities abroad with local colleagues. This is the basis for literally dozens of initiatives like the Digital Diaspora Network Africa. Meanwhile, globalization has created a demand for skilled labor in regional development poles such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, as well as in rich western countries. The best brains can now circulate far more freely than even a decade ago. 

Taking advantage of this new reality, colleges and universities can help to right the imbalance of intellectual and economic resources that lies at the heart of the brain drain dilemma.



Joan Dassin is executive director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program.


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