brain gain

Brain drain

A brain drain or human capital flight is a large emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge, normally due to conflict, lack of opportunity, political instability, or health risks. A brain drain is usually regarded as an economic cost, since emigrants usually take with them the fraction of value of their training sponsored by the government. It is a parallel of capital flight which refers to the same movement of financial capital. The term was coined by the Royal Society to describe the emigration of "scientists and technologists" to North America from post-war Europe. The converse phenomenon is brain gain, which occurs when there is a large-scale immigration of technically qualified persons. Brain drain can be stopped by providing individuals who have expertise with career opportunities and giving them opportunities to prove their capabilities.

Brain drains are common amongst developing nations, particularly former colonies like much of Africa or the island nations of the Caribbean.


Brain drain phenomena in Europe fall into two distinct trends. The first is an outflow of highly-qualified scientists from Western Europe mostly to the United States. The second is a migration of skilled workers from Eastern and Southeastern Europe into Western Europe, often made easy by new EU membership,, although there is evidence that the trend is slowing. The European Union has noted a net loss of highly-skilled workers and introduced a "blue card" policy-much like the American green card-which "seeks to draw an additional 20 million workers from Asia, Africa and Latin America in the next two decades".

Although the EU recognizes a need for extensive immigration in order to mitigate the effects of an aging population , nationalist political parties have gained support in many European countries by calling for stronger laws restricting immigration. Immigrants are perceived as a burden on the state and cause of social problems like increased crime rates, even in the absence of hard evidence.

Western Europe

In 2006, over 250 000 Europeans emigrated to the United States (164 285), Australia (40 455) , Canada (37 946) and New Zealand (30 262). Germany alone saw 155 290 people leave the country (though mostly to destinations within Europe). This is the highest rate of worker emigration since reunification, which itself was equal to the rate in the aftermath of World War II. Portugal is suffering the largest drain in Western Europe. The country has lost 19.5% of its qualified population and is struggling to absorb sufficient skilled immigrants to cater for losses to Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.

Central and Eastern Europe

Central and Eastern European countries have expressed concerns about extensive migration of skilled labourers to Ireland and the United Kingdom. Lithuania, for example, has lost about 100 000 citizens since 2003, many of them young, well-educated, to emigration to Ireland in particular. (Ireland itself used to suffer serious brain drain to America, Britain and Canada before the Celtic Tiger economic programs.) Similar phenomenon occurred in Poland after its entry into the European Union. In the first year of its EU membership, 100 000 Poles registered to work in England, joining an estimated 750 000, mostly uneducated residents of Polish descent. However, with the rapid growth of salaries in Poland, booming economy, strong value of the złoty, and decreasing unemployment (which fell from 14.2% in May 2006 to 8% in March 2008), the flight of Polish workers is slowing. In 2008 people who came back outnumbered those leaving the country.

South Eastern Europe

The rapid and large-scale departure of highly-skilled workers from Southeastern Europe has caused concern about those nations developing towards inclusion in the European Union. This has sparked programmes to curb the outflow by encouraging skilled technicians and scientists to remain in the region to work on international projects.


Conservatively speaking, "Brain drain has cost the African continent over $4 billion in the employment of 150,000 expatriate professionals annually. According to UNDP, "Ethiopia lost 75 per cent of its skilled workforce between 1980 and 1991," which harms the ability of such nations to get out of poverty. Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia are believed to be the most affected. In the case of Ethiopia, the country produces many excellent doctors, but there are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than there are in Ethiopia.. South African President Thabo Mbeki said in his 1998 'African Renaissance' speech:

"In our world in which the generation of new knowledge and its application to change the human condition is the engine which moves human society further away from barbarism, do we not have need to recall Africa's hundreds of thousands of intellectuals back from their places of emigration in Western Europe and North America, to rejoin those who remain still within our shores!

I dream of the day when these, the African mathematicians and computer specialists in Washington and New York, the African physicists, engineers, doctors, business managers and economists, will return from London and Manchester and Paris and Brussels to add to the African pool of brain power, to enquire into and find solutions to Africa's problems and challenges, to open the African door to the world of knowledge, to elevate Africa's place within the universe of research the information of new knowledge, education and information."

South Africa

Along with many African nations, South Africa has been experiencing a "brain drain" in the past 20 years. This is believed to be potentially damaging for the regional economy, and is almost certainly detrimental for the wellbeing of regional poor majority desperately reliant on the healthcare infrastructure given the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The skills drain in South Africa tends to demonstrate racial contours (naturally given the skills distribution legacy of South Africa) and has thus resulted in large "white" South African communities abroad. For details, see human capital flight in South Africa.

Middle East


The lack of basic services and security is feeding an outflow of professionals from Iraq that began under Saddam Hussein, under whose rule 4 million Iraqis are believed to have left the country. The exodus is fueled by violence, which, as of 2006, has seen 89 university professors and senior lecturers killed.


In 2006, the International Monetary Fund ranked Iran highest in brain drain among 90 measured countries. The estimated exodus of 150,000 people per year is thought to be due to a poor job market, and tense domestic social conditions.

Asia Pacific


Since China began market economic reforms in the late 70s, many Chinese began migrating to countries Western Europe, North America and Oceania. It is estimated that 30 percent of the 100 000 Chinese students who study abroad annually return to China. The fact is there are many more job opportunities, higher standard of living and education opportunities for Chinese living abroad . The Chinese government is trying to lure back its foreign educated professionals by tweaking its salaries, housing and job incentives. As China continues to expand and accelerate market reforms, it faces massive shortage of professionals in management, engineering, medicine, science, research and also having to compete with western countries for experts.

New Zealand

During the 1990s, 30 000 New Zealanders were emigrating each year. An OECD report released in 2005 revealed that 24.2% of New Zealanders with a tertiary education were living outside of New Zealand, predominantly in Australia. In 2007, around 24 000 New Zealanders settled in Australia. Student loans are cited as a reason, with graduates using higher foreign salaries to pay off their debts.

It has been noted that New Zealand also enjoys immigration of qualified foreigners, potentially leaving a net gain of skills.


The Philippines first began experiencing a noticeable brain drain in the 1970s, when the government set up a mechanism for international contract work. These Overseas Contract Workers were at first employed largely in Middle East nations, notably Saudi Arabia, but an increasing number of workers were taking contracts in Southeast Asia into the 1990s. The number of Filipinos working abroad in such contract work increased from 36 035 in 1975 to 214 590 in 1980.

As of 2006, it was thought that approximately 8 million Filipinos were working abroad. Philippine workers sent home more than $10.7 billion last year, equal to about 12% of the GDP. The drain has a damaging effect on the country's health care system. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 nurses emigrated between 1994 and 2006 . This trend continues, with around 15 000 nurses expected to emigrate from the Philippines in 2008. The outflow of medical professionals has forced the closure of medical schools and threatened hospitals.

In attempt to curb the migration of skilled workers, the government has implemented minor incentive packages. In 1989, the Balikbayan program was created to encourage Filipino emigrants, mostly living in the United States and Canada, to return to the Philippines as free-spending tourists. )

North America


Colonial administrators in Canada observed the trend of human capital flight to the United States as early as the 1860s, when it was already clear that a majority of immigrants arriving at Québec were en route to destinations in the United States. Alexander C. Buchanan, government agent at Québec, argued that prospective emigrants should be offered free land to remain in Canada. The problem of attracting and keeping the right immigrants is a constant in Canadian immigration history.

In Canada today, the brain drain to the United States is occasionally a domestic political issue. At times, brain drain is used as a justification for income tax cuts, although this causal relationship has been questioned. There is a drain from Canada to the United States, especially in the financial, software, aerospace, health care and entertainment industries, due to higher wages and lower income taxes in the U.S. The evidence shows that Canada is indeed losing its homegrown talent to the US, but while it is gaining skilled migrants from abroad, because the qualifications of these migrants are given no standing in Canada (see credentialism), many highly skilled migrants are forced into low-paying service sector jobs. However, recent anecdotal evidence shows that stringent US security measures after September 11th, 2001 have helped to end the brain drain debate in Canada.

United States

The 2000 United States Census Bureau published a special report on domestic worker migration, with a focus on the movement of young, single, college-educated migrants. The data shows a trend of such people moving away from the Rust Belt and northern Great Plains region towards the West Coast and Southeast. The area with the largest net influx of young, single, college-educated persons was the San Francisco Bay Area.

The country as a whole does not experience a large-scale brain drain to other countries, since it is often the destination of skilled workers migrating from elsewhere in the world.

Latin America

In many Latin American nations where enrollment at local medical schools is very high, there is a chronic shortage of doctors (with the exception of Cuba, Uruguay and Argentina).

A 2000 study revealed that a number of Latin American countries had, over the years, suffered a considerable loss of professionals. As a percentage of each country's corps of university graduates, the following percentages lived overseas:

The same study revealed that during the 1990s, a significant number of those who emigrated from Latin America were specialized professionals, constituting the following proportions as a percent of each country's volume of emigrants:

  • Argentina...19.1 %
  • Chile.........15.6 %
  • Mexico........2.6 %
  • Peru..........10.0 %


In 2007, Cuban officials claimed that 31 000 Cuban doctors were deployed in 61 countries. A large number practice in South America. 20 000 are employed in Venezuela in exchange for 100 000 barrels of oil per day. From Venezuela and Bolivia, where another 1 700 doctors work, it is thought that as many as 500 doctors may have fled the missions into countries nearby . Figures are dubious, since the defections are rarely made public.


Most of the Caribbean Islands endure a substantial emigration of qualified workers. Approximately 30% of the labour forces of many islands have left, and more than 80% of college graduates from Suriname, Haiti, Grenada and Guyana have emigrated, mostly to the United States. However, it is noted that these nationals pay valuable remittances. In Jamaica, the money sent back amounts to 18% of GNP. This calls into question whether this trend can be described as a true brain drain.

Brain gain

An opposite situation, in which many trained and talented individuals seek entrance into a country, is called a brain gain; this may create a brain drain in the nations that the individuals are leaving. A Canadian symposium in 2000 gave circulation to the new term, at a time when many highly skilled Canadians were moving to the United States, while simultaneously many qualified immigrants were coming to Canada from a number of different nations. This is sometimes referred to as a 'brain exchange'.

In 2000, the US Congress announced it was raising the annual cap on the number of temporary work visas granted to highly skilled professionals under its H1B visa program, from 115,000 to 195,000 per year, effective through 2003. That suggests a ballpark figure for the influx of talent into the United States at that time. A significant portion of this program was initiated by lobbyists from the computer industry, including Bill Gates. In the same year the British government, in cooperation with the Wolfson Foundation, a research charity, launched a £20 million, five-year research award scheme aimed at drawing the return of the UK’s leading expatriate scientists and sparking the migration of top young researchers to the United Kingdom.

See also



  • Lincoln C. Chen, M.D., and Jo Ivey Boufford, M.D. "Fatal Flows Doctors on the Move" New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 353:1850-1852 October 27, 2005 Number 17 online version, editorial
  • Cheng, L., & Yang, P. Q. "Global interaction, global inequality, and migration of the highly trained to the United States. International Migration Review, (1998). 32, 626-94.
  • Jeff Colgan, The Promise and Peril ff International Trade, (2005) ch 9.
  • David Heenan.Flight Capital: The Alarming Exodus of America's Best and Brightest (2005), brain drain in reverse as immigrants return home
  • Devesh Kapur and John McHale. Give Us Your Best and Brightest: The Global Hunt for Talent and Its Impact on the Developing World (2005)
  • Kemp, Paul. Goodbye Canada? (2003), from Canada to U.S.
  • Khadria, Binod. The Migration of Knowledge Workers: Second-Generation Effects of India's Brain Drain, (2000)
  • Kuznetsov, Yevgeny. Diaspora Networks and the International Migration of Skills: How Countries Can Draw on Their Talent Abroad (2006)
  • D. W. Livingstone; The Education-Jobs Gap: Underemployment or Economic Democracy (1998), focus on Canada online edition
  • Douglas S. Massey and J. Edward Taylor; International Migration: Prospects and Policies in a Global Market, (2003) online edition
  • Mullan, Fitzhugh. "The Metrics of the Physician Brain Drain." New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 353:1810-1818 October 27, 2005 Number 17 online version
  • Caglar Ozden and Maurice Schiff. International Migration, Remittances, and Brain Drain. (2005)
  • Ransford W. Palmer; In Search of a Better Life: Perspectives on Migration from the Caribbean Praeger Publishers, 1990 online edition
  • Ronald Skeldon and Wang Gungwu; Reluctant Exiles? Migration from Hong Kong and the New Overseas Chinese 1994 online edition
  • Michael Peter Smith and Adrian Favell. The Human Face of Global Mobility: International Highly Skilled Migration in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific, (2006)
  • David Zweig, Chen Changgui, and Stanley Rosen; China's Brain Drain to the United States: Views of Overseas Chinese Students and Scholars in the 1990s Institute of East Asian Studies, 1995 online edition

Online references

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