Can Brain Drain Generate Gains for Less-Developed Countries? A Look at Empirical Cases in Asia

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The migration of highly-skilled professionals from their home countries—a phenomenon known as brain drain—poses pressing challenges for less-developed countries. Some experts even question whether it is wise to invest in higher education in these countries, as the educated students and professionals may permanently leave for better opportunities elsewhere. Could brain drain, however, have a silver lining? What should less-developed countries do to be competitive in the war for global talent?

Professor Gi-Wook Shin, Director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, has co-published a working paper, “From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation and Linkage,” that examines these questions, drawing on case studies in Asia. In the following conversation, Shin sits down with Noa Ronkin, APARC’s associate director for communications and external relations, to explain his findings and their policy implications.

Why did you decide to study brain drain and the factors that motivate high-skilled professionals from less-developed countries to return to or engage with their home countries?

My research interest in this subject stems from my own personal experience. I was born, raised, and educated up to college in South Korea. When I left to attend graduate school in the United States, I had every intention to return to South Korea, yet I am still here. Am I a case of brain drain for South Korea? From a conventional perspective, the answer is yes. If, however, we examine the question from a different perspective, in the context of globalization and increasing human mobility, then the answer may not be so clear cut.

The research project that my co-author, Professor Rennie Moon and I discuss in this particular paper started when the Asia Development Bank (ADB) asked me to look at evidence for the development benefit of high-skilled, Asian migrant professionals to their home countries. International development agencies such as ADB are facing challenges to their efforts to build colleges in developing countries from experts who are concerned that such higher education aid may lead to a brain drain and who argue that it is better to invest in K-12 schools. Our study, however, paints a more complex picture of brain drain.

You claim that there is an upside to brain drain: that migration of high-skilled professionals can, in fact, have social and economic benefits for the home countries. Could you explain your argument?

Despite efforts to bring talent back home, some people will choose to remain in the host country after education. In the past, this was considered straightforward brain drain. However, such students and emigrants who gain footing in the host country may engage with their home countries through business visits or even short-term stays, if not returning permanently. We call these types of home-host interactions brain linkage. Engaged, high-skilled migrants who create such bridging between the host and home countries significantly enhance the social and economic fabric of the developing home countries.

In considering brain linkage, we must shift from a view that regards labor primarily as human capital to a new model of labor as social capital. This is a topic I elaborated on in my recent book, Global Talent: Skilled Labor as Social Capital in Korea, that I co-authored with Professor Joon-Nak Choi. When educated professionals permanently leave their home countries, it is true that those countries lose the totality of education, skills, and experience embodied by these individuals. But when they stay engaged with the home countries, these countries gain from the productive capacity embodied in the ties and networks linking many individuals and organizations. Social capital provides less tangible but equally important benefits, such as enhanced trust and cooperation, information sharing, and improved access to innovations. Therefore, in a global market economy, given the importance of transnational social capital, developing countries should focus less on preventing brain drain and more on encouraging brain circulation—that is, permanent return migration of young people sent for education abroad—and brain linkage

What did you find in your research that supports this argument?

We looked at empirical cases and policies in Asia that demonstrate that high-skilled migrant professionals actually make significant contributions to their home countries, beyond monetary remittances.

Taiwan, for example, has experienced significant brain circulation: in the late 1980s, many U.S.-educated Taiwanese engineers began to return home, through active government recruitment and opportunities created by the development of the semiconductor and electronics industries. Returnees became important investors and entrepreneurs, particularly in the design sector. Brain linkages also became important as a growing cohort of highly mobile Taiwan-born, U.S.-educated engineers began to work in the United States and Taiwan, regularly commuting across the Pacific, although they did not return permanently.

Or consider India, which is now the second-largest provider of international students to the United States after China. As in China and Taiwan, strong government development initiatives and waves of liberalization of regulations helped promote brain circulation. The significant role of Indian returnees in building the Indian information technology industry since the 1990s is well documented. India’s highly skilled diaspora also played an especially active role in establishing formal networks that promoted brain linkages.

That is why developing countries must continue to invest in higher education. Unless there is a critical mass of educated professionals in the home country, brain circulation and linkage would not be possible.

What are some of the policy recommendations that you make based on your findings?

Certainly there is a risk of brain drain for developing countries, but the alternative is isolating themselves from the world in an attempt to keep all their talent at home. The key question for developing countries is not how to prevent talented people from leaving for better opportunities, but how to convert a possible brain drain into brain circulation or brain linkage.

Developing countries should not be afraid of risking the loss of their talent; ironically, you have to lose before gaining. Let young people go and get their education and training, but identify the economic and social factors that are important in attracting or motivating migrant high-skilled professionals to return or engage with their home country, then design initiatives to cultivate talent for national development by implementing brain circulation and brain linkage policies. The focus should be on how to attract those people to engage, not how to prevent them from leaving. In our paper, we discuss permanent and temporary return programs, as well as diaspora engagement policies.

We also suggest that future research should include conducting more comprehensive studies that map talent flows in the Asia-Pacific region using a transnational social capital framework. Such research, as in our current study, has broad applications, for, ultimately, whoever wins the war for talent will prevail.