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Brain drain or brain gain?
06 Apr, 2009 09:08:25
By W A Wijewardena
Apr 06, 2009 (LBO) - Many have expressed their concern about the rising incidence of educated youth leaving the country for employment in developed countries.
The protest against the practice, commonly known as 'brain drain', is based on both economic and non-economic reasons. Economic Reasons

The economic reasons adduced against the brain drain take the following form.

The educated youth are the pillars of the country’s wealth creation. When they leave the country’s shores for work in other countries, the home country loses their talents stunting its ability to create further wealth. Hence, instead of the country that took trouble to breed and nourish them, other countries that did nothing about it become beneficiaries. Economists call this phenomenon getting free benefits or ‘free riding’.

The poor countries are poor because, they have not been able to get the benefit out of the talents they have created by spending money on educating the youth. As a result, firms that could have produced an exportable output by using their talents are unable to export. The government which could have raised its efficiency by hiring the educated youth will not be able to serve the people properly.

Hospitals, both public and private, are unable to treat the patients because of the shortage of qualified physicians. Engineering firms are unable to build new structures because of the shortage of engineers. Schools are unable to teach students, specifically subjects like mathematics, science and English, because of the shortage of qualified teachers. In this manner, the brain drain has adversely affected the whole economic life hindering the economy’s ability to grow.

Non Economic Arguments The non-economic arguments against the brain drain have been made on patriotic and social grounds.

The youth have been educated by the nation at great costs under its free education policy. They are, therefore, expected to pay back their debt to the nation by serving the home country. Hence, if they leave for foreign countries, they do not repay their debt to the society. It is, therefore, an unpatriotic act on their part to serve some other country that has done nothing for their uplift.

Further, the developed countries, having used their talented labour relatively at lower wages, will produce exportable products and export the same to poor countries at artificially fixed high prices. Hence, poor countries are exploited by developed countries twice: first, by robbing the poor countries of the talented labour; second, by selling the goods produced by hiring such talented labour at artificially high prices.

On social grounds, the educated youth who leave their shores for foreign countries are not treated well by their host countries. Many of them have to settle for jobs totally unrelated to their skills and talents. Instances of neurosurgeons working as taxi drivers in the initial phases of their life build-up in the host country are often mentioned. This is a type of discrimination which these educated people would not be subject to in their home country. They have, therefore, become the victims of the ‘double standards’ which the rich countries are practising on the migrant workers from poor countries.

Many have, therefore, suggested that the government prohibit the educated youth leaving the country for jobs elsewhere.

Is the ‘Unpatriotic’ Argument Valid?

The unpatriotic argument is based on two facets of reasoning related to each other. In one way, it says that one could serve his country only by residing within the territory of his country. It also reasons out that one could serve his country only by serving his government or a firm belonging to a fellow citizen. Any other way of earning livelihood is an unpatriotic act.

This argument is valid only if all the different production processes involved in a product are completed in a single country. But today, production takes place in what is known as ‘global factories’. These factories simply assemble different inputs from different countries into a final product.

Hence, a product today does not belong to a single nation. No country today can take pride in calling a product ‘made in that country’ alone, since it is the outcome of contributions made by many.

For instance, a shirt labelled as being ‘made in Sri Lanka’ does not belong to Sri Lanka alone. Its fabric would have come from China; buttons from India; thread from Malaysia; design from France; sewing machines from Japan; electricity out of oil imported from Iran and so forth. It is only what the economists call the final value addition – that is, salaries paid to workers, remuneration to owners, interest paid to banks and rent paid to land owners – that truly belongs to Sri Lanka.

Does rice produced by Sri Lankan farmers belong to Sri Lanka in its entirety? The popular view suggests ‘yes’, but the truth is in the negative. What belongs to Sri Lanka is only the labour of the farmers, the value of seed paddy, water and land used and the services such as milling, wholesale and retail trading provided by other participants.

In addition, a lot of other inputs used in rice production come from other countries: fertiliser from Iran, tractors, trucks and paddy mills from Japan and China, fuel from Malaysia and pesticide from Germany. Hence, every grain of rice produced in Sri Lanka is a global product of which only the final form is turned out on Sri Lanka’s soil.

Hence, today’s products are not national, but global products.

It, therefore, does not matter whether a person works in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. As long as he works in the production chain, irrespective of the country and irrespective of the employer, he serves Sri Lanka.

Is allowing the educated Sri Lankan youth to work abroad a sin?

Sri Lankan educated youth working abroad bring many benefits to the country.

First, Sri Lanka, through its well established higher education machinery, turns out a large number of professionals such as accountants, doctors, engineers and managers. The country’s economy does not expand sufficiently to absorb all these people into productive employment. Hence, the unemployment among the educated youth of the country is the highest among all sub-categories.

Unless they are provided with job opportunities, it is inevitable that they become socially hostile and economically burdensome. It could lead to social tensions that could tear the otherwise coherent social fabric into pieces. Hence, foreign employment for the educated youth is a ‘safety valve’ to release the social tensions.

Second, foreign employment also serves as a ‘shock absorber’, when the economies are subject to periodical economic downturns. When an economy improves year after year, it provides increased and lucrative job opportunities to people. However, when it is in the reverse, jobs become scarce and less remunerative. In such a temporary shock, some facility should be made available to keep the redundant workers occupied. The opportunities afforded to local labour to work in foreign countries help the economy to absorb the shock.

Third, labour is human capital and like any other capital unit, it is also subject to fast obsolescence. The knowledge base of the world changes rapidly, making the old workers unfit to fulfil modern jobs, unless they have re-educated themselves. Workers in developed countries automatically get exposure to new technology, better work practices and modern management techniques.

This, therefore, serves as a university of learning for the educated youth who seek employment in developed countries. Many such workers from India and China have now returned to their home countries, bringing back with them, the new skills they have mastered whilst they were employed abroad. It actually adds value to the home economy by raising the quality of its work force.

Fourth, like the ‘return of the prodigal son’, workers who had held high-tech and high-skilled jobs in developed countries have started to return to their home countries with their savings and a skills base to commence world class businesses in those countries. The experience and exposure they have got have helped them to integrate the local businesses with the global economy, thus reaping the benefits of the rising global trade in goods and services.

Fifth, when the educated youth leave a job market, it reduces the excess supply and raises the salaries of those left behind. It also provides incentives for others to acquire skills and enter the job market. Hence, the exodus of existing workers from one market to another always raises the welfare of those remaining behind.

Brain Gain

People who leave their home country to settle in a foreign land are referred to as the ‘Diaspora’ of that home country. In times to come, they become a formidable force representing the home country in the foreign land ready and willing to support the home country whenever that country needs external support. This was amply demonstrated when India issued India Resurgent Bonds in 1990s to build its foreign reserves after the reserve level fell to a very low critical level. The bond issue was oversubscribed by the Diaspora.

In addition, those who work abroad send regular remittances to maintain their family members at home. Those remittances in hard currency form a significant flow of foreign exchange in the home country to finance its balance of payments deficits, specifically at a time when the country has been hit by an unexpected increase in the prices of essential import goods or a fall in the prices of its export goods.

Sri Lanka was one of the beneficiaries on this count in the last two decades. The annual flow of such remittances in 2008 was closer to 3 billion US Dollars. These remittances financed about a three fourth of the high oil bill in that year.

Remittances by migrant workers have been an important source of foreign exchange for many poor countries. The notable examples are Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines. Sri Lanka’s history has recorded a plenty of instances where the country had used the foreign skilled workers to construct giant reservoirs, huge pagodas, sophisticated irrigation channels, marvellous monumental buildings and artistically sculptured statues.

These skilled engineers and artistes were paid at that time in gold which was an outflow of resources from the country. Yet the payments were made because their services were needed by the country due to a shortage of such skills compared to the requirements. In today’s parlance, it was a reverse brain drain for Sri Lanka and a brain gain for the home countries of those skilled workers and artistes.

Hence, in the current context, allowing the educated youth to work in foreign countries is no longer a ‘Brain Drain’.

It is indeed a ‘Brain Gain’ that deserves being encouraged by every poor country.

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15. Student Apr 07
The important thing is if the Sri Lankan state spends money to create talented people, they have to also ensure that the country is growing and has enough attractive opportunities to employ those talents. Otherwise our talents only go to enrich other nations and we merely receive an export income.

As Mr.Wijewardene says sending talent out is good if only we can ensure that talent returns to us when we need it. Or even if talent remains overseas, that it benefits the productive capacity of our country.

Like India and China, we too have to create an environment conducive for talent to get directed back home to enrich the productivity of our country. Otherwise Sri Lankan talent becomes a mere export commodity that only brings in revenue to our national account, but really does not add to the human capital in our national balance sheet.

14. Lakshman Dalpadado Apr 07
Instead of thinking of brain drain , shouldn't the government think it as a good export market for Exporting professionals? Thats what India is doing- training and exporting doctors, nurses, engineers and IT professionals through out the world. India produces far more nurses that they need - Bangalore( Karnataka) alone has more than 200 nurses training schools!!

Three of the top fortune 500 companies are headed by Indians( Citi, Pepsico and Motorola) . Very soon an Senator of Indian origin will be contesting for presidency in USA. If there is a demand in other countries for our professionals why not consider it as a export market and exploit it.

I am trying to export stray dogs to countries like holland where there is a great demand for pets!!

13. SHA Apr 07
I do not fully agree with that.Government should prohibit the proffessionals in the essential services.For eg Health sector,etc.Other professionals like Accountants and all should have their freedom to selct.

Because they do not have enough demand in Sri Lanka. Atleast they can serve the country by earning foreign remitance to the country. Which is one of the makor contributor which holds the country.Why dont you think in that aspect.

12. lakshman Dalpadado Apr 07
Mohammed Imran-
I disagree with your comments

1. Everyone pays some tax or the other.
2. Education is ' Free' only at the point of delivery- at the end everyone pays. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
3. In Sri Lanka so called 'free' education is a birth right to all
4. Educated people are the ones who have made use of the free education . Shouldn't we penalise those, who have failed to make full use of free education rather than the ones who have actually made some effort?
5.The Sri lankan diaspora has made immense contribution to the financial, economic and social well being of this country, even though some have decided to live abroad-- excluding certain groups of course!

11. Mohamed Imran Apr 06
Like many of us have agreed upon, it sure is a wonderful read. With many logical reasoning to support the claim. However, sadly, the question still remains, how many of these 'so called migrants and Diasporas' returning back to serve our Sri Lanka?

When will the time be ripe for Sri Lanka to reap the benefits of having educated these 'long-ago once upon a time youths' who left to seek greener pastures? After all, they were educated by the tax-paying citizens of our country impoverished in poverty and savaged by civil war.

10. Lakshman Dalpadado Apr 06
I think everyone should go abroad ,at least for a period, either to work or learn - especially to a european country. There are many benefits:

1. Learning to work effectively, efficiently and with safety.
2. Improving socio-economic status
3. Learning about good governance
4. Learn about good customer service
5. Lear how to drive safely and with consideration to other road users.
6. Learn about individual rights, obligations and proper social etiquette.
7. Value of human rights
8. Learn Animal welfare
9. Learn about environmental concerns and population growth
10. Learn other cultures and values

Yes- there is lots to learn!

9. LR Apr 06
Nice story, but it does not address the reason(s) why people feel the need to migrate. This will useful and could be an eye opener. Which could help to reverse or stem the flow..
8. Laknath Apr 06
In my view skilled people who are leaving the country could be broadly categorised into two groups:

Short/medium term employment Long term employment/migration

Short/medium term employment

Most of young skilled people are leaving with the intention accumulation of capital which they do not inherit in SL. If you look in to the income & expenses pattern of these groups, you may note that their savings is a very high percentage (some time high as 70%-80%). These savings generally flow back to SL. This group may return to SL after accumulation of a certain level of capital. Such capital may typically represent in real estate, vehicles and in deposits (ex. NRFC). Some may start their own business using overseas experiences and some may integrate into the workforce.

I believe this group is the one Mr. Wijewardena referred as brain gain.

Long term employment/migration

People who migrated under various highly skilled migration schemes comes under this category. They may not send their funds back to SL or contribute from their experience to SL.

In most cases this is permanent loss (except for people who return for retirement) and should be considered as a brain drain.

Movement between two categories

It is common that a substantial portion of people who are leaving under the first category later end up in the second category. They may indefinitely extend their level of capital requirement (original intention) or may get in to the changing life requirements (child education…). Once they are moved to the second category, remittances would be stopped and could not count for future contribution to SL. Thus, movement from the first category to the second is also a brain drain.

7. Rajan Apr 06
Indeed, this is a very important topic to talk about.Even for the LBO page i have emailed them sometime back to open a web-site for foreign educated graduates and professionals. Additionally, i've recommended some Sri Lankan government officials to open such a strategically important section for foreign graduates/professionals. Yet i don't see whatso authority is taking such an action.

I after completing my post graduate studies in Europe, i wanted to go back to Sri Lanka and wanted to trade my experience over there. I sent my CV for a number of reputed companies. They haven't atleast responded me. Its not only me, but there are many others who experienced the same. So how can the people like us offer our motherland with our knowledgeble resources.

6. pp Apr 06
More than 75% of people who migrate (as opposed to thise who go for shorter term empoloyment) overseas do it for NO LOGICAL REASON. it's just the "herd" mentality or due to some kind of inferior complex they have.

Many who migrate anyway are not the best performers and they end up being worser, unhappier and frustrated in the medium to long term in addition to not being able to establish financially independent as well. Smarter ones come back. I think it is very good for the country that such peolple leave anyway as they are unlikely to be productive anywhere.

There are some exceptions for example in some job categories there are no jobs here ........

5. Thambapnniya Apr 06
A very timely article!!!!!
We are at cross road here... with the end of LTTE we are hoping for economic resurgence...

You made a very good point about helping a country at a time of need....!!! This is not just economic sense but political social and every other aspects Diaspora can help!!!! GoSL need to understand... that for the country to be truely self reliant we need representatives ambassodors foreign countries.

One must admire how the LTTE operated within tamil diaspora... how they engaged with the tamil diaspora and maintain tamilness its absolutely mind bogling!!!!

so just imagine if the GoSL device strategies to engage with the Sri Lankan Diaspora what we can achieve!!!!! imagine if we had mechanisms in place decades ago...

So please engage with the studentsI. Hae schemes scholarships etc... to bring back the students as well as send them back

PS: I am one of the students is hoping that GoSL will do this!!!! because trust me there are many like me who can't even speak the language are more patriotic and put the country first before self than many of those who reside in Sri Lanka!!!!

4. Pinsalee Apr 06
I read with much interest what you wrote. There is another fact that needs to be mentioned as I have first hand knowledge on it. Let us call this person X. He was educated in SL and entered the U of Colombo - won the studentship award at the first exam and did extraordinarily well right upto the finals but was victimized by a set of lecturers and deprived of a 'class' which he rightly deserved.

Instead 'classes' were awarded to favourites who were mediocres. USA assessed 'X' on his own merits - he was an all-rounder, a very practical and enterprising youth - but deprived of a 'class' which did not mean a thing to 12 prestigious univs in USA who selected him for Grad studies. He picked one of the best and completed the doctorate. Presently he is doing cutting edge innovative research, won the Excellence in Teaching award on 3 consecutive semesters and is now a top scientist whose work is commended and looked upto.

This is just not one single case but many are the victims of University staff mafia who have left SL and doing great in other parts of the world - whereas these same half baked teachers are still holding sway in the same places.

Strangely most of their favourites with a 'class' have fallen by the wayside. This too is one aspect of the 'brain drain' - Evaluation of university teachers is unheard of in SL! Nor is there provision for rescrutiny of answer scripts of univ students in SL - a facility given to GCE OL and AL students. It would be good to collect data on students who have been victimized by the universities over the years who have left SL purely on account of this.

3. Pradeep Apr 06
Hi Janaka,
You do have a valid point. However you are also making a generalised assumption about migrants. I personally know people who have migrated and have no intention of coming back not only sending money to support parents but also sending additional funds to help marginalised or poor in Sri Lanka.

This would not have been possible if these people did not have the added benefit of an increased earning power. But I do agree there are some who totally wipe their hands off the country of birth and upbringing, which I personally think is not correct. Those decisions are made based on personal conviction a person may hold.

2. Apr 06
Thank you, Mr. Wijewardena, for a very poignant informative analysis. While there are many points with which I agree, and several with which I do not, let me draw from my personal experience to add to the `non-economic' factors for young professionals such as myself leaving SL for Western nations. Several years ago, I vowed to remain in Sri Lanka and serve my country.

I was educated at a Sri Lankan univesity at the public's expense, and then proceeded abroad for my doctoral training. I returned to Sri Lanka to conduct the research required for my work, well funded by a prestigious research agency, and secure in the knowledge that my work was cutting edge and at the very forefront of my discipline's global knowledge base.

It was then that I realised that the Sri Lankan state really does not care much for its citizens who are key knowledge producers at a global level. To make a long story short, I was constantly hounded by the police who could not grasp the concept of social research - as were some of my research informants.

Explanations of my constitutional right to live/conduct my work/research in any part of the country was a concept the police did not understand. I conducted my work under a constant pall of fear, hanging over me like the sword of damocles, fuelled by a culture of suspicion that has gripped this country. I cannot even fathom what would have happened if I was a researcher belonging to a numerically minority community.

As a citizen, I had no recourse to my rights, not any access to legal recourse when these rights were being infringed upon. My only option was to use power and influence which I had access to, but which on principal, refuse to use. It is this horrific lived experience, the anti-intellectual culture, and the failure of the State towards one of its own researchers that ultimately persuaded me to break my vow never to leave Sri Lanka.

Even as I was facing these obstacles, Australia was holding open a door for me. So it is that I settled in Sydney, where I can live my life and conduct my research without any fear of my rights being infringed upon. And if they are, with a system in place to have those concerns addressed.

1. Janaka Apr 06
The problem with the migration is professional who migrate won't come back to country. Then there is no need for them to send money to country.We get money from people who have gone only for work assignment. Migration is completely different story.

Other side of this is that there are educational courses specifically targeted for qualifying visa and finally no value for the country.