Brain drain: causes and implications

Published Oct 18, 2004 12:00am

The term "brain drain" designates the international transfer of resources in the form of human capital i.e., the migration of relatively highly educated individuals from the developing to developed countries.

This phenomenon, in the terminology of development economics refers to the loss of high quality manpower, which was once productively employed in the native country. The last decade has seen an increase in the international mobility of highly skilled, talented individuals in response to the expansion of the knowledge economy accompanying globalization.

This international movement of human capital can be identified, in practice, as the movement of scientists, doctors, educationists, engineers, executives, and other professionals across frontiers. These are people with special talents, high skills and specialized knowledge.

The irony of international migration today is that many people who migrate legally from poor to richer lands are the ones that the Third World Countries can least afford to lose: the highly educated and skilled. Since the great majority of these migrants move on a permanent basis, this perverse brain drain not only represents loss of valuable human resources but could prove to be a serious constraint on the future economic progress of Third World nations.

Expenditure on education in Pakistan and other developed and developing countries: Research undertaken both in developed and developing countries reveals that for an increase in output, the quality of labour is more important than the quantity. A clear picture emerged if one looks at the experience of different countries. No country with educated and technically trained human resource is poor and no country with a predominantly illiterate, untrained human resource is rich.

In general the quality of human resource is much more critical in economic development than the availability of natural resources. Japan is a country which has almost no mineral or energy resources but has high economic productivity because of highly literate, trained and an efficient workforce. Rapid progress of the East Asian countries is largely attributed to their excellent system of education.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan we have not paid due attention to the general education of the masses and as a result, the country is far behind than others of the region in education sector. According to official sources, the current literacy rate in Pakistan is 51.6 per cent where female literacy rate is 39 per cent while that of male is 64. It means that two women out of every three and one man out of every three men are illiterate.

The following table shows the national actual expenditure on education in Pakistan as a percentage of the GDP.

Table 1 reveals that the expenditure on education as percentage of the GDP is much below than what it actually deserves. The GDP percentage from 1998-99 onward was behind as compared to 1997-98. This reflects how the education sector has been neglected.

TABLE 1: NATIONAL ACTUAL EXPENDITURE ON EDUCATION AS A PERCENTAGE OF GDP (Rs IN MILLION)
Items 1997-98 1998-99 1999-2000 2000-2001 2001-2002
 Actual Expenditure 49083 49407 54002 57053 66022
% of GDP  1.83  1.68  1.71 1.66 1.8
Source: Government of Pakistan 2004

Table 2 shows the comparison of education expenditure with other countries brings forward a picture which exhibits the importance of this sector in Pakistan. It reveals that our expenditure on education is the second lowest and it is amazing to note that we are far behind in expenditure on education as compared to the countries that are not much economically sound i.e., Bangladesh and Nepal .

TABLE 2: PUBLIC EXPENDIUTRE ON EDUCATION AS PERCENTAGE OF 2001-2002 GDP
COUNTRY PUBLIC EXPENDIUTRE ON EDUCATION
Argentina 4.6
Bangladesh 2.3
Canada 5.2
China 2.2
India 4.1
Nepal 3.4
Pakistan 1.8
South Korea 3.6
Sri Lanka 1.3
UK 4.4
Source: World Bank

The present government has realized the importance of education and consequently the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has been established with a view to guiding higher education policy and assisting universities and degree awarding institutes in the pursuit of quality education at the seat of higher learning, both public and private.

Its objective is to work with the academic community for qualitative and quantitative improvement of higher education and to aid in the socio-economic development of Pakistan. Besides, the Education Sector Reforms (ESR) are designed with a view to increasing access, enhancing equity and improving quality at all levels of education.

Developed countries immigration policies: In order to accumulate human capital, many industrialized countries are aiming to attract highly skilled immigrants. Among them are the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. The policies that encourage such movement target highly trained science and technology personnel, particularly from developing countries.

These trends are likely to have been confirmed in the 1990s in the face of the increasingly "quality-selective" immigration policies introduced in many OECD countries. Since 1984, Australia's immigration policy had privileged skilled workers, with the candidates selected according to their prospective "contribution to the Australian economy".

Canadian immigration policy follows along similar lines, resulting in an increasing share of highly educated people among the immigrants selected; for example, in 1997, 50,000 professional specialists and entrepreneurs immigrated to Canada throughout the world with 75,000 additional family members, representing 58 per cent of the total immigration.

In the US, since the Immigration Act of 1990 - followed by the American Competitiveness and Work Force Improvement Act of 1998 -, the emphasis has been on the selection of highly skilled workers through a system of quotas favouring candidates with academic degrees and/or specific professional skills. For the latter category, the annual number of visas issued for highly skilled professionals (H-1B visas) increased from 48,000 in 1989 to 116,000 in 1999, the totality of this increase being due to immigration from developing countries, especially India.

Situation in Pakistan: At present, Pakistan is also facing the problem of brain drain. The migration of professionals to foreign countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has increased considerably in recent years. Young, educated, and skilled Pakistanis, particularly engineers, doctors, IT experts, scientists and other professionals have either left the country or are planning to do so. This situation hinders the government from achieving its proposed goals. To date, no serious efforts have been made to stop this disastrous brain drain.

According to IMF, the migration rate (from Pakistan to the OECD countries) of individuals with a tertiary education is more than seven per cent, while for India it is about 2.7 per cent; these figures, however, fail to take into account the sizable flow of professionals from the subcontinent to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates and therefore neglect an important component of the brain drain from the relevant source countries. The estimates show that there is an overall tendency for migration rates to be higher for highly educated individuals

The latest Gallup survey indicates that not only qualified professionals and university graduates want to leave the country, but even semi-skilled and unskilled workers want to migrate in search of better prospects. About 62 per cent of the adults interviewed for the survey expressed the desire to go abroad to work, while 38 per cent say that they would prefer to settle permanently outside the country. This shows that many Pakistanis are gradually losing faith in the country's economic future.

According to a study the ratio of researchers and scientists, who opted for working in foreign companies, is higher in the research wing and breading and genetics institutions of the agriculture department. In some departments of agriculture research institutes, over 30 per cent seats are vacant, mainly due to the fact that the researchers left the country for better opportunities. And, due to ban on recruitments, since 1993, these vacancies could not be filled.

Remittances vs brain drain: No doubt that we are getting foreign remittances as a result of brain drain. But could we think that the money they send could be a better substitute in exchange of the services what they are extending for others and becoming a source of their rapid economic, scientific and technological development. If proper infrastructure is provided to them within the country, Pakistan could earn manifold than the money is received as foreign remittances.

Factors responsible: Economic factor, however, is not the sole factor involved in brain drain. There are also other factors that contribute to the migration of skilled people to developed countries from developing nations. One of the important factors behind the acceleration of brain drain is low income at home. Skilled and educated people expect some kind of reward. But when they get no reward for their hard work and labour, they feel disappointed and frustrated.

The value placed for a scientist with an advanced level degree in Pakistan is Grade 17, with a salary that is even insufficient to meet the basic requirements of a family. Grabbing the opportunity, the advanced countries take away these people by offering them lucrative incentives.

In addition to low economic incentive, promotion process in developing countries is also very slow. It takes them several years to get promotions. Apart from that, mutilation of merit is a routine feature. Non-deserving people bypass the deserving ones. All the frustrated scientists and skilled people feel compelled to leave the native country in search of better opportunities.

In Pakistan's case, professionals who are going abroad are mostly government servants and belong to the scientific community. These are the people who complain about the general attitude of society towards professionals, particularly scientists.

An important determinant of the international migration of scientists and technology experts is the availability of resources to conduct research and higher salary levels for researchers in recipient countries. These are the things that facilitate the experimentation and creative process. Unfortunately, the funds allocated for this purpose in developing countries are very meagre, which often leads to the rusting of intellect. In Pakistan annual average expenditure on education from 1997-98 to 2001-2002 has been 1.7 per cent of the GDP.

The available information shows huge disparities in the distribution of resources for science and technology, between developed economies and developing countries' GDPs. According to UNESCO (2001), the developing countries that account for 78 per cent of world population (and 39 per cent of world GDP) only contributed to 16 per cent of global research and development (R&D) expenditure in 1996-97. In contrast, the developed economies with 22 per cent of world population account for some 84 per cent of global R&D expenditure.

One of the major causes of brain drain is the growing frustration among the youth and the non-availability of opportunities in the existing social set-up.

Implications: The implications of the brain drain phenomenon are disastrous. It entails loss of strategic manpower from key positions. An outflow of such manpower creates many dislocations. It seriously affects skill formation and involves the loss of money invested in education and training. The loss of strategic manpower affects education, research & training, infrastructure building, creative talent, present and future technology and the entire intellectual milieu of a country and creates a growth retarding backwash effect.

Trained and skilled people constitute a very scarce resource for poor countries. Losing them sets development back in these countries. In fact, many countries, having lost their best brains to the industrial world, have had to import expensive consultants from abroad. Such a cycle of events sometimes represents a double loss. An economy spends its precious resources to educate and train its people. Losing them to developed countries is a form of reverse foreign assistance, from resource-poor to resource-rich countries.

Another important implication of the brain drain is that investment in education in a developing country may not lead to faster economic growth if a large number of its highly educated people leave the country. Also, efforts to reduce specific skill shortages through improved educational opportunities may be largely futile unless measures are taken to offset existing incentives for highly educated people to emigrate.

Remedies: If Pakistan is serious about stemming its alarming brain drain, it must provide:

1. Better job opportunities that properly remunerate workers based on their skills and talents.

2. Proper infrastructure be provided for research and development.

3. A system of merit be adopted, otherwise, it will continue to lose its skilled labour to countries where benefits and opportunities are plentiful.


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