Most governments of less-developed countries still consider the exodus of high-skilled professionals from their home countries—a phenomenon known as brain drain—as a loss and potential threat to national development. Some leaders and experts in these countries are sceptical as to whether investing in higher education (relative to K-12) should even be a priority, as university graduates often leave their home countries permanently to seek better career opportunities in more advanced countries. Does this mean that less developed countries should invest less in higher education and design policies to keep all their talent at home?
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.
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 ties or even short-term stays, if not returning permanently. In fact, both of us left our home countries after receiving advanced degrees and still work in our host countries, but remain highly engaged with our home countries, bridging between the two in the academic and policy communities. We call these types of home-host interactions brain linkage. Engaged, high-skilled migrants who create such transnational bridging between the host and home countries significantly enhance the social and economic fabric of the developing home countries.
Empirical cases and policies in Asia 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 after suffering from brain drain: 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.
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 shouldn’t 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. Permanent and temporary return programs, as well as diaspora engagement policies, do just that. In this regard, it is very crucial to have a critical mass of educated professionals in the home country to facilitate brain circulation and linkage and that is why developing countries must continue to invest in higher education.
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.
Gi-Wook Shin is professor of sociology and director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University and Rennie J. Moon is associate professor at the Underwood International College at Yonsei University. This essay is drawn from their study “From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation and Linkage” sponsored by the Asia Development Bank and published by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.