Stopping Brain Drain Is a No-Brainer

Published on October 9th, 2015

Ethiopia’s state minister of health observed several years ago that there were more Ethiopian doctors practicing medicine in Chicago than in Ethiopia. Is there something wrong with this picture?

Is it a good thing that the United States is taking medical talent away from a poor country like Ethiopia, where much of the population lacks access to adequate medical care? As Wikipedia notes, “Ethiopia experiences a heavy burden of disease mainly attributed to communicable infectious diseases. . . .” Also contributing to this burden is a “high turnover of human resource[s].” In the U.S. we have 24.2 doctors per 10,000 people. In the Ethiopia the ratio is 0.3 per 10,000 people.

No, this picture doesn’t seem quite right. Meanwhile, immigration advocates proclaim that a liberal immigration policy allows us to import the “best and brightest” people from all over the world. Also, they commonly maintain that we have a moral duty to let people in poor countries come here for “a better life.” Seldom do they reflect on whether this policy will provide a “better life” for the vast majority who remain behind.

Students around the world“Brain drain” is a term used to describe the transfer of talent from poor to rich countries through immigration. An individual who has reflected on this issue considerably is Paul Collier, a professor of economics and public policy at Oxford University. He is the author of Exodus: How Migration Is Changing Our World.

Collier maintains that “The migration that research shows is unambiguously beneficial is the kind in which young people travel to democracies like America for higher education and then go home.” By doing so they can benefit their societies with the knowledge and skills they have gained. He believes that brain drain may not be so much of a problem for some relatively poor countries like China and India which have large populations. With their numbers, he maintains, they can afford some loss of talented people. Other commentators disagree.

In any case, the impact of brain drain is much worse on smaller countries that lose skilled and educated people at a much greater rate, both numerically and percentage-wise. Ghana, Collier notes, loses its best and brightest at a rate of 12 times that of China. He also cites Haiti where 85 percent of its educated youth depart for other countries. The consequence of that exodus, says Collier, is “devastating.”

The idea that America needs the “best and brightest” of the world rests on the faulty assumption that – with a population of 322 million – we don’t have enough of them here to meet our needs. Commonly, for example, we hear from immigration advocates and business spokesmen that there is an unending shortage of native-born Americans who are qualified to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Someone who takes strong issue with this claim is renowned consumer advocate and past presidential candidate Ralph Nader. If that is true, Nader asked, then why do we have 9 million Americans with STEM degrees, while only 3 million of them actually have jobs in their specialties? The apparent answer is that U.S. companies prefer to import foreign STEM workers because they can pay them less and work them harder than Americans.

Nader observed that this policy harms their countries of origin as well as American job seekers. He charged that corporate lobbyists and others ignore “the consequences of brain drain on developing countries. While the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is stressing the need for developing countries to build up their ‘human capital,’ back in the U.S., the corporate powers-that-be and their allies are undermining this tenant of U.S. foreign economic policy.”

Immigration advocates also argue that a liberal policy enables us to attract another superior category of people – those who seek to escape repressive governments because they love freedom. But we might wonder how their countries ever will gain freedom if all the freedom lovers leave. To illustrate, Poland threw off the yoke of Soviet oppression, thanks in large part to the efforts of Lech Walesa. He chose to stay home and struggle for liberty, rather than run away. Recently he criticized migrants fleeing to Europe for not following the example he set.

Certainly it is understandable that good and gifted people would like to leave unpleasant circumstances. Yet many of them also feel a duty to their native lands. As their choice hangs in the balance, we can help their countries by encouraging them – with immigration restriction – to choose the path of duty.

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