Brain Drain Revisited: The Economic Impact of Immigration

By Carrington, William J. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Brain Drain Revisited: The Economic Impact of Immigration


Carrington, William J., Harvard International Review


As the growth of protests directed at the Group of 20 has shown, world economies are becoming increasingly globalized in ways that create both opportunities and anxieties. Globalization manifests itself in many sectors of the economy, including increased trade in products, services, and ideas, the movement of factors of production such as capital and labor, and the movement of productive activities across international borders. One of the most closely watched of these patterns is the migration of highly-educated people across international borders, most commonly from relatively poor source countries towards relatively wealthy receiving countries. That migration is seen as an opportunity for the migrants themselves, but migration is viewed with more ambivalence by both the governments and residents of the source and receiving countries. This article examines patterns of recent emigration of the highly-educated from developing countries--the "brain drain"--and places that migration in the context of economic and policy analysis.

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Brain Drain Today

The modern era of mass migration to the wealthy countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is probably best dated to the 1960s when the United States ended 40 years of restrictive immigration policy and began admitting many more immigrants from a much wider range of countries. In recent years, the United States has admitted an average of about one million immigrants per year, with immigrants from Asia and Latin America accounting for about 80 percent of that total. While Canada and Australia have been primary destinations for international immigrants for decades and immigration from poor countries to Europe has increased substantially in the past three decades, the United States continues to play an important role in worldwide migration because of the many immigrants it accepts and because of the large number of countries that send emigrants to the United States. US immigration policy prioritizes family reunification, but it has also included preferences for immigrants with specialized skills, through the modern H1-B program, for example. Other countries, particularly Australia and Canada, have been more aggressive in their effort to recruit and their policies have led them to admit disproportionate numbers of highly skilled immigrants.

The large flows of skated immigration to Australia and Canada have been facilitated by both countries' use of a point system that makes prospective immigrants' admission easier if they possess specialized technical skills that are viewed as in short supply. Australia, for example, considers a prospective immigrant's age, level of schooling, work experience, English language ability, and occupational background in its skilled immigrant program. Doctors, engineers, mechanics, and carpenters are among the occupations viewed favorably in the Australian immigration process. One example of these policies' effects is that Vancouver, Canada was the destination for many highly-skilled immigrants from Hong Kong in the years leading up to the 1997 Change of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty. Some European countries, such as Germany, are increasing their use of education and skill as criteria in their immigration admission policies. Thus, the policies of receiving countries facilitate the emigration of highly-educated, highly-skilled workers from developing countries, though the United States pursues that strategy less vigorously than do many other receiving countries.

Who's Leaving: Examples of High Brain Drain

Emigration Rates by Country of Origin and Education Level,
for Selected Developing Countries, 2000

           Tertiary-educated  Primary-educated

Western Hemisphere

Haiti                   70.4               5.8

Guyana                  77.8              25.7

Africa

Belize                  59.5              10.7

Congo                   38. … 

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