Is 'Brain-drain' dead?

'Brain-drain' used to be big: Textbooks had sections on it, conferences bemoaned it and it was seen as a serious problem holding back the 'Third World'. 

But, that was then: Suddenly it went out of fashion.

As I grew up under its shadow - I studied Development Economics for my first degree - I am always very curious to know when exactly it died. It was already terribly out of fashion in the 1990s, the age of 'liberalization' and 'Globalization' and as the 'Third World' ceased to be the 'Third' and became 'developing' countries instead. But I have a hunch that 'brain-drain' limped on for a while, at least until 2008. As the lights went out in the West and many skilled migrants started returning to their home countries (which somehow withered the storm, at least at that point), 'Brain-drain' became an utterly useless concept.

However, what killed 'Brain-drain' is not 'reverse migration' but globalization; not the act of going back but the tacit acceptance that the movement of labour is market-led. Besides, globalization is also premised upon the idea that individuals are not really permanent members of any fixed community, but free agents seeking to maximise their lifetime earning potential. The language of globalization is certainly one of the rights, rather than of the obligations: As the clusters of creativity draw footloose talent, the idea that one should stay back to care for one's parents and run services for their community is indeed terribly quaint.

Besides, in a global market economy, skilled migration also ceased to be a problem. There may more Ethiopian doctors in New York than in Ethiopia, but the very prospect of careers abroad should have encouraged more Ethiopian students to study medicine. The only thing that a government needed to do is to loosen their grip on higher and professional education and let the private sector run these to continuously balance supply and demand. Of course, the funding of this education through private means is impossible now, but that can be taken care of by creating efficient credit markets and institutions that underpin it. That way, everyone wins.

However, there are three deep problems with this seemingly neat picture.

The first is that the world's labour markets are not really flat but really very skewed by race and gender. Even if we accept the proposition that the migration of skilled people would create incentives for the expansion of the education system, this still will not facilitate the best distribution of talent. The fact that an Ethiopian doctor is likely to face great hurdles to establish herself in New York, on account of her race, gender, accent and training, there will be a lot of qualified Ethiopian doctors being home-makers, taxi drivers and shop assistants in New York. In fact, there may be more qualified Ethiopian doctors wasting their talent in New York than practising doctors in Ethiopia. The metaphor of 'brain-drain' can be quite literally brain in the drain here.

The second is that educational access in the developing countries is not open to everyone either. Rather, it is restricted in all sorts of ways and the newly powerful middle class, including those who travel and make money abroad, actively seeks to keep everyone out. Instead of expanding educational capacity, Private-sector education makes this problem worse: It seeks to serve a tiny sliver of the population, middle classes who are geographically concentrated in the urban areas and have the ability to pay. The middle-class mantra of 'exclusivity' ensures that there is no attempt at diversity or broadening access in these institutions. Therefore, opportunities don't spread when skilled people migrate: They encourage old-boys' networks and gated communities of intellect.

Finally, all talent is not equal. Since migration requires a certain amount of energy, social capital and enterprise, the source communities often lose many of their most able entrepreneurs to a few global regions, Silicon Valley and London being among them, further skewing the opportunities in favour of the global 'centres'. Negative narratives soon engulf them, as people who left seek to justify their decisions. Instead of the positive feedback loop of global citizens, the source communities atrophy into geriatric retirement communities, accepting the self-inflicted narratives.

The global narrative of market and talent is now more or less universally accepted: 'Brain-drain' isn't a useful concept anymore. Rather, countries such as India are keenly building colleges and promoting skills training programmes to send people abroad. Loss of talent is now an alien concept; instead, the diaspora and its remittances have become things to celebrate. And, yet, this migration has not been benign and without consequences: This has not only structured the world's economic landscape but also etched a certain mindset - that of being intellectual dependence and submission - into policy and educational enterprises of the developing world. Once 'brain-drain' has gone out of use, communities of the brain and drained communities have become two separate realities.

Globalization is going in reverse gear now and local, community and national identities are pushing back. The goal of realization of one's lifetime economic potential is no longer be all and end all and other priorities, even those considered too soft or too parochial in the roaring nineties, are also back in contention. And, some countries, particularly China, have shown ambition and will to go beyond being the passive exporter of talent to be the shaper of new ideas. Therefore, Chinese universities reinvented themselves to be among the best in the world and the country has invited back diaspora researchers and entrepreneurs into its fold. For all the negative publicity that it receives in the Western press (much of which is caused by fear of its resurgence), it has proven to be a welcoming space for many inventors and intellectuals. This, rather than the standard global free-market narrative, should be the model for other developing nations to follow.

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