Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Brain Regain

DUBAI – In 1968, while studying at the Mons Officer Cadet School in the United Kingdom, I needed to visit a hospital. There I met a doctor who, to my surprise, spoke fluent Arabic. I learned that he was new to the UK, so I asked if he intended to stay long or return home. He replied with an Arabic saying that translates as: “My home is where I can eat.”

That doctor’s words stayed with me for many years, because they underscored the contradiction between our idealized view of “home” and the harsh realities of life that push talented people to leave their homes.

The doctor was a classic case of the “brain drain” phenomenon that has afflicted developing countries for decades. These countries spend scarce resources educating doctors, engineers, and scientists, in the hope that they will become engines of prosperity. Then we watch with dismay as they migrate to the West, taking with them the promise of their talent.

It is, of course, everyone’s right to choose a better life, wherever in the world they wish. We understand why they go. Talent is drawn – like a magnet – to opportunity.

For the countries left behind, however, it feels like an endless vicious cycle: they need talent to create opportunity; but without opportunity, talent gravitates to the bright lights of the West. Indeed, the United Nations and the OECD report that migration for work has risen by one-third since 2000. One in nine university graduates from Africa now lives and works in the West. Many will not return: skilled workers are six times more likely to stay away.

But now something remarkable is happening. In some countries, the brain drain has reversed its flow. The causes are fascinating, and there is reason to be optimistic that the vicious cycle can be broken, transforming the balance of hope and opportunity between developing and developed economies.

A new study by LinkedIn, the world’s largest online professional network and recruitment platform, has measured the net international movement of talent among its members. Topping the list as a destination for talent is my own country, the United Arab Emirates, with a net talent gain of 1.3% of the workforce in 2013. Other net “talent magnets” include Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, South Africa, India, and Brazil.

Most interesting, fewer than one-third of net talent importers are developed countries. In fact, the top talent exporters in this study are Spain, the UK, France, the United States, Italy, and Ireland. Rich countries that until recently had been tempting away our brightest minds are now sending us their own.

Of course, this is only one study, and many poor countries still suffer from a chronic talent exodus. OECD data show that many countries in Africa and Latin America have migration rates for graduates above 50%.

We do know that brain drain is often a function of safety and security as much as economic opportunity. Part of the tragedy playing out in Middle Eastern countries beset by conflict and instability is that if only their most talented sons and daughters could apply their skills at home, they would become part of the solution: agents of peace through development. This makes it all the more important to examine how some developing countries succeeded in reversing the outward flow.

The basic ingredient is opportunity. Talent flows naturally to countries that create an environment for economic growth; that make life easy for enterprise; that attract and welcome investment; and that nurture a culture of achievement. Skills are attracted to challenge and possibility.

Opportunity on this scale is becoming a scarce commodity in many parts of the West. But this is not the case in the developing world – at least among countries with the appetite and determination to deploy strong governance and continually raise their competitiveness.

Second, quality of life matters greatly. A generation ago, many talented individuals would consider working outside the West a “hardship posting.” Today, standards of living in the UAE, for example, are among the highest in the world. We have shown that the business of reversing brain drain is also the business of creating a better life for citizens and residents. Building happiness is, after all, the primary business of good government everywhere.

Ours is a story of great hope for the Middle East in particular, where generations of conflict and despair have driven high levels of outward migration. I have always argued that, besides good governance, the best solutions to the divisions and strife of the Arab world lie in grassroots development and economic opportunity. Now, we have shown that it is possible to reverse the forces that had driven away our most talented young people.

Another source of hope is that this turnaround can happen remarkably quickly. Research shows that small countries suffer disproportionately from brain drain. But we have shown that even for a small country like the UAE, and even in a region divided by conflict, it is worth building an island of opportunity.

But let me be clear: reversing brain drain is about more than plugging a leak. It means turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. By attracting the best talent from around the world, we can create a vibrant and diverse society that fuels innovation and prosperity – which in turn attracts still more talent.

To make this work, we must believe in people. Human beings – their ideas, innovations, dreams, and connections – are the capital of the future. In this sense, the “brain regain” is not so much an achievement in itself as it is a leading indicator of development, because where great minds go today, great things will happen tomorrow.

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    1. Commentedİlter Yavuz Kıl

      The data and the graph seem little bit tricky and misleading to me. There might be some natural barriers like language, minimum financial requirements or visa policies for brain drain. These barriers might be easier to overcome by the young talents in developed countries. To understand the graph in the article we need much deeper analysis on why and how educated people settle down in other countries.

    2. Commentedsaleh Mohammed

      This is a good article and a good start in recognizing one of the elements needed to build a nation. It is the human factor. However, Does Brain Regain mean simply "hired help" where experts and talented professionals are moving to where the opportunity is, getting highly compensated for their perceived value, building wealth and then moving back to home base (US, UK..)? - This is a fundamental question here. If that is the case then - I believe the trend can and will be reversed with time (most of these professionals would send their children back to home base for higher education and none return).
      Allow me to propose another question: Why did the doctor leave his home country and moved to the West? The answers are many and multifold. It is the opportunity to success, be respected as a professional, and have an equal opportunity to live (eat) – not only for him but for generations that follow. They will be part of building the new home and be happy while doing it. Isn’t that a powerful concept? It is so powerful it is beautiful.
      Here is what – I suspect- the doctor and other professionals like him/me and their families where offered, they were offered a home, a country they can call their own as they become citizens of that country. It is nation building. It is a sense of purpose.
      This magnet can be a more powerful one if the above is considered.

    3. CommentedPer Kurowski

      Much more important than avoiding brain drain… is avoiding heart drain

    4. CommentedJoshua Ioji Konov

      The right economic and immigration policies as it is happening in Dubai attract and contain talents that creates environment of competition and optimism. The Rule of Law in business and life brings the best from all.

    5. CommentedNathan Weatherdon

      In a global economy with geographic mobility for workers, perhaps citizenship benefits such as freedoms, rule of law and other benefits may serve as the main attracting factors for human forms of accumulated capital.

      This will be all the more true for tasks which can be easily performed with internet access.

    6. CommentedJacopo Piscina

      I think that talents move to the United Arab Emirates because you pay them the money you get from oil and gas. Just like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. I would not say that my country is paridise if I earn 85% of my money from the exportation of natural resources. But I'm not the ruler of Dubai.

    7. CommentedWaleed Addas

      Civilizations draw many people at different stages in history. One day the Islamic World was a great "magnet" that drew many talents to live and work under its realm where knowledge creation thrived for many decades. I believe history will repeat itself and strongly believe that Islam's full potential is yet to be unleashed at the global level since still Islam has so much to offer but is not tapped well. With more visionary leaders such as M.Al-Maktoum, this dream and the breaking of the vicious cycle will surely be maintained and realized, insha'Allah.

    8. CommentedMohamed M. Tighilt

      "the best solutions to the divisions and strife of the Arab world lie in grassroots development and economic opportunity" -

      Well said ! All the strife of the Arab World has been a result of years of colonial impoverishment and ignorance. The post-colonial Arab countries remained vulnerable to exploitation via other means and as you have stated "The Brain Drain" has exacerbated the social and political conditions which needed an overall educational reformation.

      We have seen economic opportunity in Dubai bring together Arabs and Non-Arabs of different creeds, nationalities and beliefs co-existing and contributing to the local prosperity. When economic opportunities exist that support educational reforms and personal development, there is no more room for the primitive thinking that has tainted the other countries.

      fundamentalism, radical opposition, ethnic divisions, prejudices, and all the other diseases that have hampered other Arab Countries are symptoms of impoverishment, poor social conditions and the lack of opportunity to even "eat".

      While the more talented ones have managed to leave the harsh social realities and hence the "Brain Drain", the more unfortunate ones with no skill or knowledge to offer overseas stayed behind, and at times, have expressed their frustration with desperate means.

      grassroots development and economic opportunity is the way to move forward !

    9. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The idea is very good.
      But for it to truly work first we would need to change the paradigm we exist in today.

      The whole expressions "brain drain" reflects very tangibly that it is "draining, stealing" something.

      And the reason we have to "drain, steal" is that we are in ruthless competition with each other, trying to succeed at the expense of others.

      Moreover the "vibrant and diverse" society the article talks about today is global, humanity has evolved into a fully interconnected and inter-dependent network.

      In such an integral system draining, dislocating, relocating reversing draining does not make any sense. We are all sitting on the same boat, the success of the individual is completely dependant on the success of the collective.

      We have to learn how to work in a mutually complementing manner.
      Then each specialist, professional could actually stay where they are, or where they could do their work most efficiently for the sake of the whole collective.

      Thus instead of buying the best players for the local team as in soccer for example, we could always put together an All Star, World's Best Team for the sake of the whole global humanity.

      All our problems today are global and mutual, and thus all the solutions have to be global and mutual too.