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The Brain-Drain Panic Returns

NEW YORK – While developed countries are angst-ridden over mostly illegal immigration by unskilled workers from developing countries, a different set of concerns has surfaced in Africa, in particular, over the legal outflow of skilled, and even more importantly, highly skilled, people to developed countries. This outflow is supposedly a new and damaging “brain drain,” with rich countries actively luring away needed skills from poor countries.

This fear is misplaced. At the outset, we have to distinguish between “need” and “demand.” Yes, many African countries need skills. But they are unable to absorb them, owing to several factors associated with economic backwardness.

In India in the 1950’s and 1960’s – a time when many professionals were emigrating – working conditions were deplorable. Bureaucrats decided whether we could go abroad for conferences. Heads of departments carried inordinate power. So, no surprise, many of us left. We Hindus may believe in an infinity of lifetimes, but we maximize our welfare in this one, just like everyone else.

Besides, simply holding people back, even if feasible, would do little for their countries. The “brain” is not a static concept. Trapped in Kinshasa, under appalling conditions, the brain will drain away in less time than it takes to get to New York.