BRAIN DRAIN OR OVERFLOW?

Despite the amount of attention devoted to the "brain drain" in recent years, no firm consensus has emerged as to whether or not one exists. Today we know much more about the international migration of professional manpower than we did five, four or even three years ago. But the "more" we know is mainly facts, and not all that many; men still have difficulty saying what the facts mean and deciding whether or not the brain drain constitutes a problem of "disturbing dimensions"-as the Pearson Commission called it.

Instead of mass movements of relatively unskilled and untutored peoples into the world's empty spaces, international migration has increasingly become the movement of people with education seeking opportunities in more developed countries to use skills that education has given them. The dramatic increases in foreign study since World War II, the explosion of international communications and the decline in the cost of travel have combined to internationalize the market for educated manpower to a degree previously unknown. This widening of the market, combined with full employment in the West, has greatly increased competition for professional manpower, especially the competition for exceptional talent. For some employers, this international competition has brought trouble; for many individuals it has brought opportunity.

There can be no quarrel with the statement in the United Nations Report[i] that "highly trained personnel from many developing countries are emigrating to a few major developed countries, that the size of this flow is large and that it is increasing at a rapid rate." But there is great question whether this migration is seriously hurting the countries that are the net exporters of trained manpower. The surprising fact is that in most developing countries the number of professionally trained people who are becoming available for home employment is rising, not falling, and in country after country the numbers are rising faster than their economies can absorb them. One certainly cannot make this statement about all countries, or even all underdeveloped countries. But if we begin with the Big Picture about professional migration from the less developed world, it appears to be not a drain but an overflow. The less developed countries (LDCs) are not being stripped of manpower they badly need; more often than not they are being relieved of manpower they cannot use.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis