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A Question of Equilibrium

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Apr 01, 2014 / 0 Comments

This article is the first in a 3 part blog series on brain drain in the context of international labour mobility. Its aim is to question the conventional wisdom and help devise win-win solutions to age old problems.


By Manjula Luthria*


On our drive home from a recent trip to the ski slopes we decided to add a bit of education to the vacation (despite vocal protests from the rear seat) and take a detour into the small town of Meyrin, located on the outskirts of Geneva. Meyrin is where the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is located, the home of the Large Hadron Collider where tales of dark matter, black holes and the end of the universe have added perennial newsworthiness to scientific inquiry. It was a memorable visit by all counts.  I relearnt my long-forgotten concepts of physics over a few hours, but what I saw in my first minute seized my attention and here’s a photo of the plaque in the lobby that got me writing this…


For those of us who have been thinking seriously about the complexities of global migration, we’ve seen this term -- brain drain – emerge, fade and reemerge constantly in the discourse around the pursuit of policies that create win-win outcomes. It always has. It’s an incredibly powerful term that has occupied the pysche, perhaps because a rhyme rolls off the tongue easily… but I think there’s another powerful reason why it holds.


The term “brain drain” invokes one of the deepest and universal of all human emotions – loss.  Loss that is permanent, detrimental and lamentable, hence it must be avoided. (Behavioural economics even tells us that humans prefer loss aversion rather than accruing gains.) Then add to this already powerful human emotion of loss, one more ingredient of drama -- rich countries benefiting from the investment of the poor countries, the rich robbing the poor, and it conjures a sense of wrongful doing.  Small wonder then, that the only right thing to do was to stop it.


And indeed this is how policies to deal with the “problem” of skilled emigration were conceived, designed and implemented. Decades ago, some countries imposed exit visa type of restrictions on the emigration of highly qualified referring to its departing citizens as traitors, others mandated the signing of contracts promising return or monetary penalties. Well known academics proposed a tax  on rich countries who imported skilled workers from poor countries, respected medical journals calculated compensation  owed to poor parts of the world nd international organizations formulated terms like ethical recruitment  to manage the recruitment from places which faced skill shortages. The biggest defense of such policies has been that they were well intentioned.


How we judge these policies and their outcomes, depends largely upon how we frame the counterfactual.  In the above cases, the imagined non-migration of teachers and nurses leads to empty class rooms filling up with teachers, and empty rural medical clinics with the unattended sick filling up with nurses. The reality is far more complex though – characterized more often by unemployment amongst teachers and nurses, and the absence of other critical inputs  that go into delivering quality education or health care. Often “brain-down-the-drain” captures this counterfactual to emigration.


This ill-understood complex reality must now confront a rapidly emerging global labour market for skills. In these markets, the pull factors of biting skills shortages in high paying locations will be the norm, and the idea of being able to keep people tied to their places of birth or even training will have to be revisited. (Needless to say the idea of doing so by undertaking an investing upwards of 6 billion euros like the CERN lab is not an option for most labor origin countries.) If these are the market forces at play, then are there ways to embrace these forces, instead of fighting them, to create new win-win solutions?  


For the International Labor Mobility  program at the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI), this has been an important focus of our work.  We have developed an exciting set of ideas and will be presenting them in a series of products over the coming days. These could help to reframe, reset and advance our thinking substantially on this important issue.


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