The Great Brain Robbery: Education Has Long Been Seen as One of the Key Strategies for Reducing Poverty in the Developing World. but Skills Shortages in the West Have Led to Increasing Numbers of Tertiary-Educated Workers Being Lured Away from Their Home Nations by the Promise of Higher Pay and Better Conditions-The So-Called Brain Drain. but Is This the Simple Act of Exploitation That It Appears?

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IN THE PAST ten years, an increasing imbalance has emerged in the global distribution of knowledge and skills. A few rich countries have sought to maintain their elite status by systematically draining the developing world of its human capital. The UK is one of the worst offenders: new research shows that more than 20 per cent of doctors working in the NHS are from the developing world.

And as the West hoards the world's intellectual capital, the developing world is robbed of its most precious resource. In the past 40 years, the number of tertiary-educated migrants leaving Africa has increased by more than 1,000 per cent. According to the International Organization for Migration, the continent has already lost one third of its human capital, and in some countries, the figure is higher still.

This is the brain drain. Or, at least, this is the brain drain as it has been presented to us.

As the Daily Mail maintains its pressure on the government over asylum seekers, the liberal British media has joined the immigration debate. The West now stands accused of poaching the best minds from impoverished nations, in the process fuelling economic decline, insecurity, corruption and the spread of disease.

Under growing pressure from activists and lobby groups, the British government is devising measures to regulate the recruitment of skilled professionals from the developing world. But is this really the answer? Will restricting immigration really solve the problem?

In reality, the brain drain isn't just about migration. Behind the shocked headlines and impassioned editorials, there's a growing consensus that the root of the brain drain lies not in the UK, the USA or any other developed nation, but in the countries where poverty is driving their best minds overseas. As such, the solutions to the brain drain lie not in restricting migration, but in development--in removing trade barriers and providing investment--in order to provide a climate in which doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists and teachers will want to work and live.

Alarmingly unbalanced

According to the UN, between 1990 and 2000, the total number of international migrants rose from 154 million to 175 million. A large proportion of these people were skilled migrants. In fact, the World Bank estimates that their number grew by 800,000 each year during the 1990s. At the same time, the distribution of skilled migrants has become alarmingly unbalanced. While 60 per cent of all migrants were living in the developed world in 2000, an incredible 85 per cent of those with tertiary education were resident in just six countries: 50 per cent in the USA, 20 per cent in Australia and Canada, and 15 per cent in the UK, Germany and France.

Although skilled migration isn't a new phenomenon, it has been facilitated by globalisation, according to Professor Frederic Docquier of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, one of the authors of a new World Bank report on the brain drain. "Today, economic activity is increasingly concentrated in regions where productivity is highest," he says. "As a result, there is a small set of countries with a strong industry, a highly skilled labour force and a lot of activity that prove to he the most attractive to skilled workers."

In the UK, the total number of work permits issued annually between 1995 and 2002 rose from around 25,000 to 129,000. Skilled workers represented a substantial proportion of this increase and accounted for more than half of all permits issued in 2002. Other developed nations have experienced similar increases. In the USA, for example, the number of visas issued to highly skilled migrants rose from 110,200 in 1992 to 355,600 in 2000.

Although there are no data on global trends, the evidence suggests that health and IT are the principal sectors involved. In the UK, the number of permits issued to computer specialists between 1995 and 2001 rose from 1,827 to 15,875, while those for health professionals increased from 1,774 in 1995 to 22,271 in 2002. …