Brain Drain as Migration

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Brain Drain is understood to be the loss of skilled intellectual and technical labour through the movement of such labour to more favourable geographic, economic, or professional environments.[1] 

According to Robin Cohen, Professor of Development Studies and Director of International Migration Institute, University of Oxford, "the expression 'brain-drain migration' was popularised in the 1960s with the loss of skilled labour-power from a number of poor countries, notably India. Of particular concern was the emigration of those with scarce professional skills, like doctors and engineers, who had been trained at considerable expense by means of taxpayers' subsidies to higher education."[2]


According to the article "Beyond brain drain, Human capital increasingly votes with its feet" in the Economist, nuances in the terms need to be taken into account when considering "brain" related terms.

"Brain drain: when a country loses more educated brains than it can replace. Brain waste: when people go abroad to do work that pays better but is less skilled than what they would do at home. Brain export: when educated workers leave their home countries but more than pay for their absence through remittances, technology transfer and boosting their native countries' workforce when they return. Brain globalisation: the recognition that international mobility of skilled human capital is now an integral part of life in multinational companies and the global economy. Brain circulation: refers to skilled workers moving between countries to ply their trade. Brain exchange: when multinational firms move skilled workers between their operations in different countries—having cosmopolitan workers, especially executives, is increasingly seen as a competitive advantage in leading global companies."[3]

Solutions Put Forward by Cohen 

Since it is impossible to forbid emigration for political reasons, this strategy has been closely linked with regimes in the Soviet Union and East Germany. Such repression would not be feasible today. Robin Cohen puts forward 5 solutions, noting that each is not without problems. 

"1. Emigration can be delayed. Normally, delay strategies involve some element of public service. For example, doctors may be asked to stay on for two years after their training to 'pay back' what they 'owe' to society. A more sophisticated strategy is to incorporate delay within the training period, thus ensuring that certification follows rather than precedes a spell of public service. (This is the position advanced by South Africa's Minister of Health.)
2. Emigration can be inhibited either in the destination or source countries. The main constraints in the destination countries are the labour market and immigration policies, but at high skill levels another important consideration is the portability of qualifications. Increasingly, this inhibition is falling away as educational franchise operations and international certification expand. Emigration can be inhibited in the source countries by developing special privileges for scarce groups through pay incentives, enhanced research budgets and laboratory and hospital subsidies.
3. A relaxed, market-driven solution is to ignore the emigration of skilled workers and let a brain-drain from poorer countries replace lost skills.
4. A more interventionist variation of the market solution is to recruit in target countries while developing immigration incentives. (In Canada, for example, foreign doctors working in rural areas are given accelerated immigration status.)
5. It might be possible to reduce the negative effects of the brain-drain by promoting links with skilled nationals and former nationals abroad."[4]



There has been a noticeable increase in the evolution of the share of women in the migrant population by main region, 1960-2005 (see chart). According to John P. Martin from the OCDE, "Emigration rates increase with educational attainment, are higher for highly skilled women are higher than for men and the gender difference in the brain drain is highest for African countries"[5] He continues by explaining that there is currently a gender balance in immigration, yet women are over-represented among the brain drain. The gender bias is stronger for poorer countries and there is a possible negative impact of emigration of highly skilled women on development. [6];

This leads him to conclude the following policy implications:

  • Need to evaluate the impact of targeting highly skilled women for migration in the domestic and caring sectors
  • Strengthen opportunities for highly skilled women in developing countries
  • Gender dimension of brain drain must be included in efforts toward better policy coherence for development


  1. Definition of "brain drain"
  2. Cohen (1997), "Brain Drain Immigration", South African Commission on International Migration
  3. Article in the Economist Jan 2008, "Beyond brain drain"
  4. Cohen (1997), "Brain Drain Immigration", South African Commission on International Migration
  5. [ OECD Women on the Move: The Neglected Gender Dimension of the Brain Drain, PDF Version]
  6. [ OECD Women on the Move: The Neglected Gender Dimension of the Brain Drain, PDF Version]

See Also

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