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"Brain drain" and the global mobility of high-skilled talent

Sonia Plaza's picture

Since the 1960s, much of the literature on the development impact of migration has focused on ‘brain drain,’ the emigration of qualified professionals from developing countries and the subsequent loss of skills (which occurs faster than the replacement rate).

In the late 1990s, the literature shifted from brain drain to ‘brain gain,’ exploring the potential benefits of skilled migration arising from remittances, return migration, creation of trade and business networks, and the possible incentive effects of migration prospects on human capital formation at home.  You can see an extensive review of these issues here.

The questions related to the global mobility of high skilled workers can be grouped into two areas:

  1. Brain drain/gain, and the challenge of retaining and attracting high-skilled professionals such as doctors, scientists, and engineers; and
  2. The contribution of the diaspora in fostering the transfer of knowledge, technology, and finance, including remittances. ( link to

A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau on Educational Attainment states that “a larger percentage of foreign-born than native-born residents had a master’s degree or higher in 2007.”  Their numbers lead me to ask:

  • What are the challenges for the U.S. in developing, finding, and retaining talent?
  • Will foreign students continue to choose the U.S.  as a place to study or will they prefer other countries?


Submitted by Dilip on
I never quite liked the phrase "brain drain". Attaching the word "drain" to any thing makes one anxious to stanch it. That's why I think the so-called ethical recrutiment policies adopted by many destination countries seem superficial, or even, unethical! Why do we want to stop hiring doctors and not others? Is it because doctors are more important than plumbers or farmers? Or economists (Beware;)! Is it because stopping the emigration of doctors would improve the provision of health care to the poor and sick? Or is it because the cost of training a doctor may be higher than the remittances a migrant doctor might send during his/her lifetime? I have been apalled by the lack of clarity in defining "brain drain" and the associated set of ad-hoc policy prescriptions. So I am glad that these days people are talking more about brain gain, brain circulation, or "issues related to skilled migration", than "brain drain". And now comes the term "brain train" from this PSD Blog post). An interesting, and definitely a more appropriate phrase!

Submitted by Sonia on
Commenting on a post on the World Bank PSD blog regarding my recent post on the World Bank People Move blog, Ryan Han discussed the issued of “brain-train”. In the PSD post, it was mentioned that “the original goal of helping students from developing countries study in another country to complete a degree and return home is fading out”. I completely agree with it. At last year’s Global forum on Science and Technology organized for the World Bank, I discussed the issue on the role of the diaspora and how to tap into the networks of scientists and professionals from developing countries and how to facilitate virtual return, short visits, electronic communication to promote knowledge transfer and technology transfer. (See: session on “Building R&D Capacities in Developing Countries,,contentMDK:21183813~menuPK:3360737~pagePK:64168445~piPK:64168309~theSitePK:3156699,00.html The issue of mobility of talent has to be analyzed at three levels: (i) mobility of students; (ii) mobility of professors; and (iii) mobility of universities and programs. Each of these issues present several challenges for developing countries:  Mutual recognition of degrees and accreditation of universities do not exist for the majority of the developing countries institutions’ unless there are bilateral agreements between universities;  Students from developing countries find very hard to find a job in a developed country if they do not have a degree from a recognized university;  Visa issues for high skilled professionals from developing countries are becoming more stringent in terms of requirements (See a recent post on: The European Pact on Immigration and Asylum: Will there be more competition for skilled workers? My question to the international education experts is how the Bologna process taking place in Europe will affect the recognition of higher education systems around the world? Will these facilitate the mobility of talent or will it restrict the mobility of students and workers with higher education degrees from developing countries?

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