Skilled Migration and Brain Drain

Skilled migration is a major trend among current migration patterns, being fuelled by the development of knowledge economies and by the emergence of a global labour market for skilled professionals. It is also a major source of concern for many less developed countries, which fear the negative consequences of the loss of skilled nationals in terms of economic and human development. This is also one of the major critics to the Migration without Border scenario developed by UNESCO as, it was argued, it would enable rich countries to freely attract skilled professionals from poorer countries that most need them, hence jeopardising development and creating unfair situations in which rich countries exploit the skilled workforce of LDCs. Brain drain is therefore a major concern for the international community, and there is a need to innovatively think about the way in which people’s aspiration toward mobility and migration can be reconciled with states’ right to development

Five major issues will be explored:

  • The ethics of brain drain: Brain drain is not only an economic issue, but raises a wide range of ethnical, legal and philosophical questions. Under which ethical framework can the outflow of skilled individuals from a developing country be understood as a problem? How does individual freedom – and in particular the recognized human right to leave one’s country – relate to this negative conceptualization of migration? On what principles can human beings be expected to contribute to the development of their nation-state and, conversely, what are the responsibilities of governments when it comes to addressing brain drain? How is one to think simultaneously the right to leave and the rights to development, education or health? Should ‘decommodified’ sectors such as health or education be approached differently? These ethical issues are made further complex because brain drain, while not only a south-north matter, is most frequently addressed in a world justice perspective, according to which rich countries would benefit from the human capital of poorer countries. In other words, what would be a ‘fair’ skilled migration policy, or can there be one?

  • Brain drain between states, markets and people: Brain drain is driven by at least three dynamics: powerful market forces create a world labor market that incites some people to take jobs abroad, thereby challenging states’ ability to ‘manage’ human mobility; governments proactively design policies to recruit the best and brightest, while others have schemes to export their workers; and finally, people themselves are endowed with agency and develop strategies to migrate. What are the relations, and possible conflicts, between these three forces? How different are their outcomes? For example, if one assumes that only motivated and enterprising people manage to emigrate, are not all forms of migration a loss for sending countries? In other words, where and when does brain drain start? And what can governments realistically do? To what extent can they influence market forces and migrants’ agency? In other words, in whose interests are (skilled) migration policies designed? Should they aim at improving the functioning of labor markets, at maximizing countries’ benefits, or at ensuring people’s well-being and access to rights?

  • Brain drain and education politics: A major assumption within brain drain debates is that skilled migrants are trained at their government’s expenses, but fail to pay back because they leave and enable other countries to benefit from their skills. How does this relate to the politics of education, and especially to the privatization of higher education? Is such a privatization, if and when it occurs, a consequence of brain drain or rather the product of new economic model for universities? What would be the relevance of brain drain in a hypothetical world in which training and skills’ acquisitions would be entirely private? Education policies raise further questions with respect to brain drain: how can the widely acknowledged benefit of international mobility for students (as testified by exchange programs such as Erasmus-Socrates in Europe) be related to brain drain? How can one rethink the ‘deal’ between students and their governments in an era in which mobility is not only valorized but also sometimes required for some careers? Are schemes that foresee a certain number of compulsory working years in the funding country, in exchange for mobility support, efficient and recommendable?

  • The genealogy of a concept: Brain drain, while a matter of very contemporary preoccupation, has a long conceptual history, having been defined, constructed and addressed in quite different ways during the last decades. The issue is not simply to trace the history of a concept and its different definitions, but also to understand who has promoted it, in which economic, political and intellectual context, and on the basis of which interests. How has brain drain been linked to development? How has it entered the agenda of different governments, and of the international community? In addition, other notions (brain gain, brain waste, brain circulation, care drain, youth drain, etc.) are increasingly widespread, but also conferred somewhat different meanings. Are these notions connected to empirical evolutions in skilled migration patterns, or are they rather the merely rhetorical product of the involvement of new actors and stakeholders in this field? In other words, what are the dynamics at work in the construction of brain drain as a political/policy issue?

  • The future of brain drain and skilled migration: What are the perspectives for the future of brain drain and of skilled migration policies? Can this issue be part of inter-state agreements, whether at the bilateral, regional or multilateral level, in order to ensure more efficient (and perhaps fairer?) approaches? While some (usually non-binding) international initiatives have been taken, in the health sector in particular, what is their impact and how can they evolve? Is there for a role for international organizations in addressing brain drain? How realistic are the options based on circulation, the role of diasporas or ICTs, especially in a world in which the control of human mobility is a major concern for most governments? Is the underlying assumption that individuals are to contribute to the development of their nation-state still relevant in an inter-connected world that calls for ‘cosmopolitan’ solutions? Can one hope to achieve triple-win solutions (for receiving and sending states and for people themselves)? In a context in which migration is (rightly or wrongly) blamed for many problems, including for example security, welfare or social cohesion, under what conditions and assumptions can one develop a positive understanding of the impact of migration on development and of mobility as an asset?

The strategy will consist of bringing together a network of researchers, experts, NGOs and policy-makers to collect a wide range of best practices, innovative ideas and suggestions for future policies. This forward-looking endeavour should make possible a rethinking of the terms of the ‘brain drain’ problem and the formulation of fresh ideas to revitalise the debate. These will be circulated through publications. In a second stage, concrete initiatives will be taken to actually put these innovative ideas into practice and disseminate them among relevant stakeholders and policy-makers.

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