Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Brain Drain Essay

I haven't had much time for blogging lately, as work is piling up. In lieu of blogging today, here's an essay that I wrote last year for an essay contest about immigration (sponsored by The Economist). Hope you like it:

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In Praise of the Brain Drain

My wife’s family is a giant brain drain. Though my father-in-law and his several siblings now live in North America or Europe, they grew up in a different world: the Afghanistan of the 1950s and 1960s.

Nature was not kind to Afghanistan. The terrain is mostly desert surrounded by mountains. The result is beautiful in a sense, but beauty doesn’t make a land easy to farm, or to navigate by water or railway. In the 1950s, most Afghans scraped a bare existence out of the land, anxious for their very survival. Food was scarce: An uncle of mine remembers standing in line to buy bread, then standing in another line to buy sugar. Even in Kabul, the largest city and the home of my wife’s family, the streets had open sewers and the infant mortality rate was 1 in 7.

Nepotism was all-important. You could hope for success, perhaps even for a scholarship to study overseas, if you or your family knew the king (Mohammed Zahir Shah), or the members of his family who filled out most of the key governmental positions.

My father-in-law’s family didn’t. This only spurred them to seek education by any means possible. My wife’s oldest aunt was one of the first women in Afghanistan to graduate from college, where she studied mathematics and physics. Following the trail she had blazed, another aunt studied to become an obstetrician, while my father-in-law and two of his brothers went to medical school. (Another brother was still in secondary school at the time.)

But they weren’t satisfied in Afghanistan. Even as educated people, it was difficult to find any opportunities for advancement. My father-in-law remembers, for example, that when he had finished medical school and was supposed to be trained by older and more experienced doctors, they were reluctant to train him because of professional jealousy.

One by one, then, my wife’s family all emigrated to various Western countries. My wife’s oldest aunt, for example, married an Afghan who had studied at Cornell, and together they emigrated to Canada, where he became a college professor. My wife’s obstetrician aunt left for Germany, where she still lives. Another uncle studied voraciously from the time he was 12, all in the hope of winning a scholarship to study in America as an exchange student. The studying paid off: At age 16, he won a scholarship as the top scoring student on a national exam. He ultimately earned a PhD here, and became a science professor.

Another uncle’s story is the most dramatic. After graduating from medical school, he practiced briefly in the Herat province in western Afghanistan. But the Communists had invaded, and were making an especial effort to kill well-educated Afghans who had relatives in Europe or the U.S. – precisely his situation. He decided to flee. This meant joining a group of about 20 people who had hired a guide to take them on foot over the mountains to Iran. (This was a particularly nerve-wracking enterprise, given that some guides would take a fee for their services and then earn a second fee by ratting out to the Communists.) They walked over the mountain passes by night, hiding from Soviet bombers during the day. At long last, he made it to Iran, where he later emigrated to California.

And there is my father-ln-law, who came here in 1971 with nothing more than a suitcase in his hand. He was eager to work in an environment where he could actually learn from older professionals, and once here, busily started relearning medical terminology in English. After seven long, penniless years – he often depended on his landlady for the very food he ate – he was finally able to pass the medical boards. He now has a successful family practice in Atlanta.

* * *

This is what a brain drain looks like from the inside. But the issue is much broader than my family’s experience. Official statistics show that in 2003, the United States was the home to nearly 7.4 million non-citizens or naturalized citizens with at least a bachelor’s degree (well over a third have graduate degrees). The brain drain phenomenon has caused many people to anguish over the countries that lose their smartest and best-trained citizens.

But are these worries accurate? Not necessarily. In the first place, if you took a skilled Ghanan medical researcher living in the United States, and then sent him home to Ghana, there is no guarantee that he would still be a skilled medical researcher. Many developing countries simply don’t yet have the resources to provide places where aspiring researchers or professors can work. And had he not come to the United States, he might never have become a researcher in the first place. As my wife’s uncle says, it is well-nigh impossible to direct your energies toward advanced education if your main worry is finding clean water and food.

Indeed, some governments are so oppressive that they might threaten the very lives or careers of skilled professionals. Think of the many Jewish scholars (Albert Einstein, for example) who came to the United States in the 1930s. Or think of the Taliban, who would have forced my wife’s obstetrician-aunt to quit working altogether. Allowing – nay, encouraging – such people to relocate could not possibly harm the repressive regimes from which they flee.

Second, economists such as Oded Stark, Hillel Rapoport, Michel Beine, and others have begun to demonstrate – both theoretically and empirically -- that in many cases countries may actually benefit from allowing a certain number of smart people to leave! This seems counterintuitive, but it makes some sense once you realize that if a few people are highly motivated to pursue education because of the prospect of greater rewards elsewhere, this can help create a culture that values education more broadly, particularly as to the people who remain behind. What’s more, emigrants who achieve success abroad often directly help their home countries – whether by returning at a later date, sending money home, participating in business or trade networks, or participating in conferences or other means of educating people back home.

What of the very poorest countries with the fewest educated people to spare? It is hard even for the most optimistic economist to believe that it is beneficial for a Third World village to lose its only doctor. But the solution most likely to work – outright banning the migration of skilled professionals – is also the most discomfiting. A ban means forcing someone to live somewhere that he doesn’t like and to work at a job that he wishes to leave. It means telling an obstetrician like my wife’s aunt to stay in Afghanistan, even at the cost of trading her career for life in a burka.

The most promising solution, then, might lie in the generosity of wealthier countries. As the New York Times recently said, Western countries should “reimburse Africa's health and educational systems for the cost of poaching their professionals, and to greatly increase the financing and technical help for Africa's health systems . . . .” Indeed, if the talented immigrants from a Third World country are vocal enough, they may be able to create political pressure for the United States (or other Western countries) to increase foreign aid.

Finally, when you consider people who move from one western country to another, a brain drain may have a singularly important benefit: Countries may start to compete for skilled workers, creating a “race to the top” by encouraging research and innovation.

After all, educated professionals do not take a step as drastic as emigration on a whim. They emigrate because they expect to find greater opportunities elsewhere. Some wish to have a salary that matches their education and training: As quoted in Time Europe, “I pay more for my cleaning lady than a researcher gets,” said Pascal Degiovanni, a theoretical-physics researcher in France. Others wish to find a culture that encourages innovative thinking. Or, in some cases, they might wish to escape prejudice: Angelika Amon, for example, hales from Austria but now heads a lab at MIT. She desires to return, but – as she told The Scientist– “People complain about the role of women in science here and I tell them you don't know what it's like in Europe. It's very hard to find a female in a position of power in European science.”

If countries find that many of their best talents are emigrating elsewhere, they will start competing to offer a better climate for success. Indeed, this has already begun to happen. As Time Europe recently reported, Europe is starting to offer researchers “better funding, better facilities, better support for entrepreneurship and competition, and an overall better environment for world-class science.” The EU has announced its “Sixth Framework Programme,” which is designed to help with taxes, visas, or other needs of European emigrants who wish to return home. Science Foundation Ireland has been awarded massive budget increases, while Germany’s “Max Planck Institutes” provide university-based opportunities for German post-docs to return to Germany and continue their work at research centers.

* * *
A brain drain can benefit everyone involved – the professionals themselves; the countries who admit them; and in many cases, even the countries who lose professionals. Besides, it is what brought my wife’s Afghan father and American mother together. I can’t argue with that.

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