In Praise of the Brain Drain

The standard view in policy discussions is that emigration of skilled workers from poor countries to rich countries is bad for development becuase it deprives poor countries of much-needed human capital and it reduces growth.

A new study by Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development challenges this view. Clemens shows that efforts to slow the so-called brain drain “generally brings few benefits to others, and often brings diverse unintended harm.” There is little evidence that limiting skilled migration improves growth or public finances in poor countries, while following such a policy may reduce the demand for education, international trade and capital flows, and the diffusion of ideas and norms. There is also a gap between the policy discussion (that takes the negative aspects of the brain drain for granted) and the research literature (that reaches much more ambiguous conclusions). Clemens also rightly stresses choice and freedom as central factors to consider when formualting policy–an element so far missing from the policy discussions.

The study was first released this spring as a background paper to the UN’s forthcoming Human Development 2009 annual report, which will focus on migration and incorporate much of Clemens’ work.