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.

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Returning to El Dorado

By Tanja Goodwin Expect to see controls on African migration increase dramatically any time soon. Oh, and just to clarify: that’s migration TO Africa, not FROM Africa.

Portuguese, facing high unemployment and their economy plagued by austerity, are flooding the shores of Angola and Mozambique. Angola has again become Portugal’s El Dorado as unprecedented numbers of Portuguese workers have flocked to the former colony: from 2006 to 2009 alone the number of visas issued for Portuguese increased from 156 to 23,000. Some already complain about difficulties in obtaining legal permissions to stay in Angola. The number of Portuguese workers settling in Mozambique has increased by more than 30 percent over the past two years.

It’s likely just a matter of time before some African countries limit their “green cards” to prevent European immigrants from stealing Angolan and Mozambican jobs. Undoubtedly, Africans will try to protect their cultural identities by banning Port Wine from their menus, for example. Immigration officials may soon be allowed to deny pregnant Portuguese women entry into Angola or Mozambique at their discretion to avert the birth of “anchor babies.”

At least African countries don’t have to fear that Portuguese will be living off their welfare programs. Portuguese seem to find well-paying jobs: Remittances sent from Angola to Portugal have increased more than seven-fold. In 2009, they even surpassed remittances sent from the UK.

500 years after Vasco da Gama’s first landing in Mozambique and Diogo Cão’s arrival in Angola, the Portuguese are heading south again. No doubt, their greeting manners have improved. This time they’re coming with resumes, not rifles.

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