Reverse Migration: Good or Bad?

I spent an entire day today discussing Reverse Migration and how this could be facilitated through Corporate Philanthropy. The underlying assumption of the whole exercise was that reverse migration is good thing, and we did little to challenge that assumption, and focused instead on the mechanics of how this could be facilitated. Since this discussion was in the context of a region I don't know well, it was inappropriate for me to question the assumption that everyone seemed to have taken for granted. However, it does create an opportunity for reflection within the contexts I know - India in particular - and think whether reverse migration is a good or a bad thing.

Such ambivalence may be completely out of place given all the research about Brain Drain that we know of. And, the case for this may be acute in some cases: There are more Ethiopian Doctors in America than there are in Ethiopia. My college years were full of readings regarding the economic impact of brain drain (alongwith my own dreams of going abroad, I must confess). There is little questioning of the wisdom that when skilled people leave a country, it represents an immediate economic loss of that society. 

However, this does not automatically mean that reverse migration, these skilled people going back, will make good of those losses. Or create any economic gains at all. I would argue that reverse migration may not be seen as 'reverse' at all, and should not be perceived to have a squaring off effect of the brain drain, but rather should be seen as a phenomenon of its own.

But, before one gets to this, even the conventional idea that brain drain is unequivocally bad needs to be examined. For example, let's say we have a very skilled mechanic who could earn $20 a day working in Nepal. Now, if he leaves and goes to Saudi Arabia, and earns $50 a day (assuming that he has been offered humane living conditions, which is, admittedly, a big assumption), he is economically better off. His skills, because he will be working with better equipments, will develop faster than it would have if he stayed in Nepal. He may send home 40% or more of his earnings home, setting off the impact of his productivity on the economy. His example may lead to people being inspired to become a mechanic, creating more mechanics than Nepal would have otherwise had. And, indeed, they may all leave, but this will set off another positive feedback cycle than I just described.

Admittedly, this narrative will be different if one has to replace the mechanic with a Doctor or an Engineer, who may have other positive effects and greater possibilities of creating conditions of contribution within their own societies than the mechanic. But there is still an argument to be had how deep that effect will be. If America sends all Ethiopian doctors home (and simultaneously, all rich countries ban Ethiopian doctors from working abroad), wouldn't that discourage a smart Ethiopian student from studying medicine, and in effect, make the country worse off in the long run? 

Doing the calculations about the economic effects of the Brain Drain may be entirely reasonable (particularly given the fact that some countries pour disproportionate amount of public money educating the smartest students, who eventually leave), but mobility in itself may not be the problem. Rather, I shall argue, the problem could be the nature of the education system in these countries, who, following the examples of rich countries, create 'tiny-at-the-top' systems, which lends itself to brain drain. Besides, it is the lack of the sense of community responsibility among the elite and the educated that may be the problem here: Doctors who stay back may not create the 'conditions for contribution' that would be needed for them to have more impact in their community than the mechanic, and they may end up setting bad examples than good.

Coming to reverse migration, therefore, the effects are likely to be more nuanced than just reversal of brain drain. I went through the process of celebrating the possibility of Reverse Migration (See Reverse Migration: India's Chance) to becoming more circumspect (see Reverse Migration: Is India Ready Yet?) over a period of two years. The reason for this change was manifold. First, after the writing the first of those posts in 2009, I got to hear the stories of people who have actually made the journey. These tales were mostly dark, full of disappointments. There were other angry emails too, from people who never left: They were basically asking the question why they would be expected to roll out the red carpet if someone chooses to return to India. Second, after my deeper engagement with Indian employers during this period, it appeared to me that most of the Indian businesses were deeply focused in the 'Inside Market' and saw little additional value in hiring foreign expertise if it came at an incremental cost (this may be different in sectors such as finance). Third, I came across plausible theories about how diasporas may deter democracy, and the very viable explanation that the footloose Indian diaspora left India at the wake of democratic transition and consequent loss of privilege (in contrast to Pakistan's land-based elite, which couldn't leave, and scuttled democracy for half a century). In many ways, the diasporan politics of supporting an autocratic candidate in the upcoming Indian election - in the name of 'development' - confirms to me this antithetical relationship between diasporan elite and democratic culture.

I shall be the first to admit that Indian diaspora is somewhat different from other comparable ones, like the Chinese or African diaspora. Only 3 million Indians left in great age of migration, the later half of Nineteenth century, as opposed to 22 million Chinese: Indian migration is relatively recent, and of a different category. India may have, therefore, a different attitude towards its diaspora (of which, I am one) and indeed, more reasons to complain about brain drain (almost 40,000 IIT students, equivalent of 20 years output of the IIT system, live in America alone). However, I would argue that India's ambivalent attitude towards reverse migration may be more realistic than acceptance of reverse migration as an unalloyed gold and surefire way to economic development.

Like in the case of brain drain, therefore, I believe reverse migration can only be beneficial in the context of certain conditions. The host community being welcoming is one of them. But it also matters what the incentives behind reverse migration is. This is where Corporate Social Responsibility backed reverse migration intrigues me: Those who need to be paid to go back and contribute even for a two week period don't seem to me to be those who are very eager to make a contribution. And, without the commitment to contribute, reverse migration may be more of a problem to the host society than a panacea.


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