Four Ways Brain Drain out of Africa is a good thing

Conventional wisdom frets that the exodus of skilled workers—the brain drain—is bad for African countries. The share of Africans with college degrees who live outside their home countries is certainly high: nearly half of Ghanaians, about 40 percent of Kenyans, and about one-third of Ugandans. The metaphor of the term itself implies that brain drain is a waste, as if all Africa’s most promising minds were being sucked down some global sink, leaving behind a parched continent. But a paper by William Easterly and Yaw Nyarko, published as a chapter in the new book Skilled Immigration Today: Prospects, Problems, and Policies, explores the arguments for and against brain drain, and builds on previous literature to argue four ways the benefits of brain drain could outweigh the costs to African countries.

1. Gains to migrants themselves. Why is this often ignored in brain drain discussions? Perhaps it reflects a neglect of the rights and well-being of individuals and an overemphasis on the nation-state as the object of development. The migrant is better off with higher living standards, not to mention satisfying her revealed preference to live in a country other than where she was born.

2. Gains to migrants’ families. Remittances is the most obvious and commonly-cited benefit of the brain drain. Even using official figures, which likely far undercount the value of remittances by excluding informal channels, remittances sent back by Africans abroad outweigh the cost of educating them at home. Why pass up a high return opportunity (Africans earning high incomes abroad and remitting) and insist on a low return activity (educated Africans underemployed at home)? Not to mention that families also get satisfaction from seeing their offspring realize their dreams.

3. Brain circulation.  Brains don’t just leave Africa, never to return.  Africans who have been educated or worked abroad do come back to their home countries to visit, to establish dual residence, to start businesses and universities, and, sometimes, to stay. These people bring back new ideas and skills—crucial ingredients to economic growth. Similar processes brought enormous benefits already to Asia and Latin America, so why would donors want to shut down this motor of opportunity only for Africa?

4. Stimulation of skill accumulation (“brain gain”). The possibility of migration and the example of role models who find success abroad (the Kofi Annan factor) provide incentives for young students to work hard and gain skills that will help them overcome the hurdles to migration. The authors argue that the new human capital created through these incentives offsets the loss of skilled people who do eventually leave.

If brain drain is not the bogeyman it is made out to be, those who argue for programs that restrict individual freedom in the name of “staunching the flow of brains” from Africa have even less of a case. (For example, the World Bank and the IMF published a 2007 report noting that “countries concerned about a ‘brain drain’ of their trained physicians to OECD markets might be able to reduce risks by setting national training requirements slightly lower than the rich countries’ standards.” The group Physicians for Human Rights has recommended that “[d]eveloping countries and organizations in developing countries should explore possibilities of limiting recruitment from abroad.”)

A better way to help migrants, and the African countries they come from, would be to increase even more the benefits of the so-called drain. For example, scholarship and exchange programs will increase the likelihood of brain circulation. Regulations and technologies to reduce the transaction costs of remittances sent home will be win-win for all.

Would Americans put up with a program that inhibits them from working in London or Paris? Skilled African migrants don’t need international organizations suggesting restrictions on where they should live and work either.