The brain re­gain

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In 1968, while study­ing at the Mons Of­fi­cer Cadet School in the United King­dom, I needed to visit a hospi­tal. There I met a doc­tor who, to my sur­prise, spoke flu­ent Ara­bic. I learned that he was new to the UK, so I asked if he in­tended to stay long or re­turn home. He replied with an Ara­bic say­ing that trans­lates as: “My home is where I can eat.”

That doc­tor’s words stayed with me for many years, be­cause they un­der­scored the con­tra­dic­tion be­tween our ide­alised view of “home” and the harsh re­al­i­ties of life that push tal­ented people to leave their homes.

The doc­tor was a clas­sic case of the “brain drain” phe­nom­e­non that has af­flicted de­vel­op­ing coun­tries for decades. These coun­tries spend scarce re­sources ed­u­cat­ing doc­tors, en­gi­neers, and sci­en­tists, in the hope that they will be­come en­gines of pros­per­ity. Then we watch with dis­may as they mi­grate to the West, tak­ing with them the prom­ise of their talent.

It is, of course, ev­ery­one’s right to choose a bet­ter life, wher­ever in the world they wish. We un­der­stand why they go. Talent is drawn – like a mag­net – to op­por­tu­nity.

For the coun­tries left be­hind, how­ever, it feels like an end­less vi­cious cy­cle: they need talent to cre­ate op­por­tu­nity; but with­out op­por­tu­nity, talent grav­i­tates to the bright lights of the West. In­deed, the United Na­tions and the OECD re­port that mi­gra­tion for work has risen by one-third since 2000. One in nine univer­sity grad­u­ates from Africa now lives and works in the West. Many will not re­turn: skilled work­ers are six times more likely to stay away.

But now some­thing re­mark­able is hap­pen­ing. In some coun­tries, the brain drain has re­versed its flow. The causes are fas­ci­nat­ing, and there is rea­son to be op­ti­mistic that the vi­cious cy­cle can be bro­ken, trans­form­ing the bal­ance of hope and op­por­tu­nity be­tween de­vel­op­ing and de­vel­oped economies.

A new study






on­line pro­fes­sional net­work and re­cruit­ment plat­form, has mea­sured the net in­ter­na­tional move­ment of talent among its mem­bers. Top­ping the list as a des­ti­na­tion for talent is my own coun­try, the United Arab Emi­rates, with a net talent gain of 1.3% of the work­force in 2013. Other net “talent mag­nets” in­clude Saudi Ara­bia, Nigeria, South Africa, In­dia, and Brazil.

Most in­ter­est­ing, fewer than one-third of net talent im­porters are de­vel­oped coun­tries. In fact, the top talent ex­porters in this study are Spain, the UK, France, the United States, Italy, and Ire­land. Rich coun­tries that un­til re­cently had been tempt­ing away our bright­est minds are now send­ing us their own.

Of course, this is only one study, and many poor coun­tries still suf­fer from a chronic talent ex­o­dus. OECD data show that many coun­tries in Africa and Latin Amer­ica have mi­gra­tion rates for grad­u­ates above 50%.

We do know that brain drain is of­ten a func­tion of safety and se­cu­rity as much as eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. Part of the tragedy play­ing out in Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries be­set by con­flict and in­sta­bil­ity is that if only their most tal­ented sons and daugh­ters could ap­ply their skills at home, they would be­come part of the so­lu­tion: agents of peace through de­vel­op­ment. This makes it all the more im­por­tant to ex­am­ine how some de­vel­op­ing coun­tries suc­ceeded in re­vers­ing the out­ward flow.

The ba­sic in­gre­di­ent is op­por­tu­nity. Talent flows nat­u­rally to coun­tries that cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment for eco­nomic growth; that make life easy for en­ter­prise; that at­tract and wel­come in­vest­ment; and that nur­ture a cul­ture of achieve­ment. Skills are at­tracted to chal­lenge and pos­si­bil­ity.

Op­por­tu­nity on this scale is be­com­ing a scarce com­mod­ity in many parts of the West. But this is not the case in the de­vel­op­ing world – at least among coun­tries with the ap­petite and de­ter­mi­na­tion to de­ploy strong gov­er­nance and con­tin­u­ally raise their com­pet­i­tive­ness.

Sec­ond, qual­ity of life mat­ters greatly. A gen­er­a­tion ago, many tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als would con­sider work­ing out­side the West a “hard­ship post­ing.” To­day, stan­dards of liv­ing in the UAE, for ex­am­ple, are among the high­est in the world. We have shown that the busi­ness of re­vers­ing brain drain is also the busi­ness of cre­at­ing a bet­ter life for cit­i­zens and res­i­dents. Build­ing hap­pi­ness is, af­ter all, the pri­mary busi­ness of good govern­ment every­where. Ours is a story of great hope for the Mid­dle East in par­tic­u­lar, where gen­er­a­tions of con­flict and de­spair have driven high lev­els of out­ward mi­gra­tion. I have al­ways ar­gued that, be­sides good gov­er­nance, the best so­lu­tions to the di­vi­sions and strife of the Arab world lie in grass­roots de­vel­op­ment and eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. Now, we have shown that it is pos­si­ble to re­verse the forces that had driven away our most tal­ented young people.

An­other source of hope is that this turn­around can hap­pen re­mark­ably quickly. Re­search shows that small coun­tries suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ately from brain drain. But we have shown that even for a small coun­try like the UAE, and even in a re­gion di­vided by con­flict, it is worth build­ing an is­land of op­por­tu­nity.

But let me be clear: re­vers­ing brain drain is about more than plug­ging a leak. It means turn­ing a vi­cious cy­cle into a vir­tu­ous one. By at­tract­ing the best talent from around the world, we can cre­ate a vi­brant and di­verse so­ci­ety that fu­els in­no­va­tion and pros­per­ity – which in turn at­tracts still more talent.

To make this work, we must be­lieve in people. Hu­man be­ings – their ideas, in­no­va­tions, dreams, and con­nec­tions – are the cap­i­tal of the fu­ture. In this sense, the “brain re­gain” is not so much an achieve­ment in it­self as it is a leading in­di­ca­tor of de­vel­op­ment, be­cause where great minds go to­day, great things will hap­pen to­mor­row.

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