It’s called brain circulation, Europe, get used to it

By Tanja Goodwin Earlier this week, we pointed out the new wave of emigration from Portugal to its former colonies. As the number of emigrants has increased, so has the emigrants’ skill level. The new generation of migrants is no longer made up of blue-collar workers, but of teachers, advertisers, engineers and architects. “This amounts to a hemorrhaging of highly educated people—the very people [the euro zone’s weakest economies] will need if they are to take off when circumstances get better,” says Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

The specter of “brain drain” has haunted international organizations and think tanks for decades, threatening that emigration of skilled workers would leave poor countries short of the human capital needed to develop. After much research, this simplistic concept has been largely overthrown. Today, almost everyone recognizes the benefits arising from income gains to the emigrants, greater human capital in the source country, knowledge transfer and remittances. Almost everyone.

Academics got it: “The recent empirical literature shows that high-skill emigration need not deplete a country’s human capital stock and can generate positive network externalities.”

The World Bank got it: “Our results show large positive benefits of high-skilled migration for citizens of high emigration countries.” […] “The size of the net gains is so large, that these distributional impacts are likely to be of second-order in any welfare calculations.”

Even the UNDP got it: “In migrants’ countries of origin, the impacts of movement are felt in higher incomes and consumption, better education and improved health, as well as at a broader cultural and social level. Moving generally brings benefits, most directly in the form of remittances sent to immediate family members.”

The media did not: Major outlets were quick to call the recent increase in skilled emigration “Portugal’s ‘brain drain’ dilemma” (BBC podcast). CNBC offered this pessimistic take: “Some worry that with less talent in the country there is less chance that Portugal will be able to innovate its way out of the downturn.” Other articles report that brain drain is causing alarm—though this alarm seems to be mostly in the media. (One recent exception is this piece in The Economist).

“Brain drain” will ultimately not be bad for Portugal just as it has not been bad for Africa. And just as Europe would never suggest barriers to skilled migration, Africa will certainly not consider this either.