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Debating the brain drain: an excerpt on emigration

In October, authors Gillian Brock and Michael Blake wrote an insightful post on the high levels of migration of talented people from underdeveloped countries to developed ones. Below is an excerpt from their book, Debating Brain Drain, which provides more background information on this concerning issue.

The basic needs of desperately poor people rightly command our normative attention. We are concerned not only about the fact that there is poverty and unmet need in the world today, but also the scale of this needi­ness—so many in the world lack the basic necessities for a decent life. Some of these widespread, severe deprivations include lack of food, clean water, basic healthcare, primary education, basic security, infrastructure, and an environ­ment that can sustain and ensure secure access to these goods and services. An important part of enjoying the basic goods and services necessary for a decent life is the availability of skilled personnel able to provide these. Here there are severe shortages, especially in developing coun­tries where needs are gravest. For instance, about 2 million more teachers and 4.25 million more health workers are needed to supply basic health and education for all. These shortages are exacerbated by high numbers of skilled per­sonnel departing developing countries and seeking better prospects for themselves in developed ones. What, if any­thing, may developing countries defensibly do to stem the flow? This is the central question that orients my work in this book.

Before I can explain my approach to answering this question, further background is necessary. As noted, fuel­ing the shortage of skilled personnel is the very high rate of emigration among those with the necessary skills, a problem commonly referred to as “brain drain.” Though brain drain occurs in most sectors, brain drain among health professionals is particularly widespread and dam­aging for developing countries. These countries typically have poor health care resources anyhow, so the loss of trained healthcare workers is felt even more than it might be in places that are better resourced. In some cases, the departure of healthcare workers from developing coun­tries threatens the viability of the healthcare systems in those countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Skilled workers often have good reasons for wanting to leave poor countries of origin. Inadequate remunera­tion, bad working conditions, lack of professional develop­ment opportunities, lack of security, and lack of funding are important factors in their decision to leave. Developed countries frequently appear to offer better pay and work­ing conditions, or career and training opportunities that are not available in developing ones. Departure seems to be an entirely rational decision under such circumstances. Skilled workers, like everyone else, should have the right to exit countries in which they no longer wish to live. But there are normative questions about citizens’ responsibili­ties, fair terms of exit, and whether migration should be managed to ensure the burden of migration does not fall disproportionately on the world’s worst off, so that those who benefit from movement across borders do not also impose impermissible severe losses on those who suffer disadvantage because of that movement. As we discuss, these losses sometimes include significant reduction in educational and health services, poor health and educa­tional attainment, public funds wasted on expensive ter­tiary training which does not benefit citizens, fiscal losses, and—more generally—loss of assets required for benefi­cial development. As I also discuss, there are various ways to ensure that movements work well for all significant stakeholders, but one such way, for which I argue, is that developing countries may permissibly tax citizens who depart under certain conditions. I also argue that they may reasonably expect citizens with relevant skills to assist fel­low citizens for a short period of compulsory service under certain important conditions. Compulsory service and tax­ation are two kinds of measures that developing countries may take to help reduce poverty in their countries.

While there has been considerable normative theo­rizing on the topic of immigration, most analyses have focused on the relation between the migrant or prospective migrant and the society she will join—issues of admission, accommodation, integration, and so forth. By contrast, in this work I focus on the more neglected relationship between the migrant and the society she will leave, and the normative implications of her departure. The central ques­tions for analysis are these:

(1) Are there setbacks to significant interests that result from the departure of migrants?

(2) Even if there is such damage, is this compensated for by benefits that result from their exit?

I argue that, overall, departures can result in important net losses, which raises the following further questions for analysis.

(3) What kinds of policies might best address the identified harms?

(4) When there are important losses, what may gov­ernments permissibly do to address those losses?

(5) How should burdens associated with addressing harms best be distributed?

(6) Is it fair to impose costs on emigrants?

(7) What kind of normative account can best support appropriate burden-sharing arrangements?

Featured image credit: Passport, CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Robin Anderson

    It’s not just Developing Countries – ask Ireland

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