Rethinking the brain drain

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An article in Foreign Policy last month asks us to rethink the brain drain. Authors Michael Clemens and David McKenzie (the latter an employee of the World Bank) argue that the movement of skilled labor is a boon to both developed and developing countries. They decry the term "brain drain" as a serious mischaracterization of the phenomenon. Perhaps they need an alternative catchy phrase to supplant the term—how about brain train?

While most of their argument is convincing, I think they may be overstating their case in one spot. The authors argue that "the belief that skilled emigrants must cause public losses in the amount of their training cost is based on a series of stereotypes." Their evidence against these stereotypes? A single survey of African-born members of the American Medical Association. This hardly amounts to a damning piece of evidence. The fact of the matter is that we don't really have any comprehensive source of information that would allow us to judge exactly how much of a public subsidy skilled emigrants take with them.

Clemens and McKenzie rightly point out, though, that countries that do provide massive public subsidies through free or near-free higher education may want to look at alternative ways of financing their system of higher education. One method would be providing student loans. While setting up such a system is not a simple task, IFC has been gaining experience with this in a number of countries.


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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