How extensive is the “brain drain” and which countries and regions are most strongly affected by it? This article estimates the extent of migration, by level of education, from developing countries to the United States and other OECD countries.
PERHAPS the oldest question in economics is why some countries are rich while others are poor. Economic theory has emphasized that differences in the educational levels of the population are an important part of the answer and that improved schooling opportunities should raise incomes in developing countries. Yet, while there is little doubt that highly educated workers in many developing countries are scarce, it is also true that many scientists, engineers, physicians, and other professionals from developing countries work in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe. This phenomenon, often referred to as the “brain drain,” was noticed as early as the 1960s and has been a contentious issue in the North-South debate ever since. One important implication of the brain drain is that investment in education in a developing country may not lead to faster economic growth if a large number of its highly educated people leave the country. Also, efforts to reduce specific skill shortages through improved educational opportunities may be largely futile unless measures are taken to offset existing incentives for highly educated people to emigrate.
But how extensive is the brain drain? Which countries and regions are especially affected? Do highly educated professionals from developing countries living abroad represent a sizable proportion of the pool of skilled workers in their countries of origin or too small a number to worry about? Unfortunately, attempts to answer these important questions quickly come up against a formidable barrier: there is no uniform system of statistics on the number and characteristics of international migrants. Also, source countries typically do not keep track of emigrants’ characteristics, and, although some receiving countries do, their definitions of immigration differ. Thus, it is difficult to measure precisely the flow and levels of education of immigrants. Further, it has only recently become possible to measure the stock of educated workers in each source country—the pool from which brainpower is drained.
Suggestions for further reading:
Robert J. Barro and Jong-Wha Lee, 1993, “International Comparisons of Educational Attainment,” Journal of Monetary Economics, Vol. 32 (March), pp. 363–94.