Brain Drain, Brain Gain or Brain Circulation: Which Way?


By Theodore T. Hodge


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 28, 2006


Africans have come to the New World (the Americas) since the 1500’s. Since the era of the Middle Passage, when Africans were exported from their homelands to sustain plantation agriculture and to work in the mines of South America, much has changed, while much has remained the same. The biggest change is from involuntary to voluntary movement; while the first waves of Africans were involuntarily exported to these shores as indentured servants and slaves, the tides have changed. Africans now do come voluntarily in search of economic and social betterment.

The era of mass immigration is not limited to Africans. Immigration across national borders has become a modern phenomenon, especially where the concept of “globalization” has added to its attractiveness and ease. People are moving from their original countries mostly for economic and social betterment. In the case of Africa, an added element, war, has become a major factor; many people who leave their native continent to seek opportunities elsewhere come as refugees, especially within the last two decades.

Whether they come as students seeking educational opportunities, migrants seeking economic opportunities, or as refugees escaping war and instability, one thing is clear: This cross-border immigration results in a net loss of labor, skills and knowledge to the continent. It also mostly benefits the developed countries. The phenomenon is generally referred to as “brain drain”.

Should the movement of human capital across borders always result in a zero-sum game or can countries, both rich and poor, mutually benefit from the exchange? Are there instances where brain drain is a mutually beneficial affair? There is abundant literature which points to this conclusion; that what precipitates brain drain could also produce brain gain. One author, Anna Lee Saxenian, interestingly refers to the net result as “brain circulation” But the outcomes do not emerge haphazardly; countries will gain or lose depending on how well they plan or fail to plan.

How to be successful in the “brain drain/gain” game

Again, depending on how well they plan, some countries gain considerably in other ways while losing human capital, thereby offsetting the losses or even turning them into gains. For example, in an article titled, “Brains Abroad”, by Janamitra Devan and Parth S. Tewari, several key approaches were recommended and reproduced below:

International remittances and other contributions

Here is an example from the article: “In 1999, 70 percent of China’s $50 billion in foreign direct investment came from Chinese people living abroad”, and “Indians abroad deposited $5.5 billion at the state bank of India”. Yes, citizens abroad do remit monies to their respective home countries. But that is not enough. Some of the monies sent home must be earmarked for strategic purposes such as facilitating foreign direct investment, venture funding, financial investments, and commercial and educational exchanges.

To achieve these strategic goals, governments and the emigrants must work and plan together. Individuals sending money home to family members who use the money to purchase consumer goods, for example, create an important source for foreign exchange but add little to an economy’s productive capacity.

In addition to these financial remittances, emigrants should share their business knowledge and intellectual capital. They can advise governments on issues ranging from crafting appropriate venture capital laws to deregulating a country’s telecommunication sector. Emigrants can also provide financing for elite schools (such as engineering) and set up internships and education exchanges, for example.


Developing countries need to develop methodical plans to harness the knowledge and capital in the Diaspora by (a) creating networks of emigrants, (b) creating information exchange with people in home country, and (c) targeting incentives that generate productive business investment.

· Networks will create significant contributions or investments. These networks must go beyond social and cultural exchanges; they are more productive when they are organized on the basis of professional association. Having a lot in common, members of professional associations tend to make more and better joint investments. Dr. Sakui Malakpa outlines such a cause in a paper titled, “Countering the Effects of Brain Drain Through Education: Suggestions for Liberia”.

· Information exchange is a crucial element in today’s world. Infrastructure must be built to facilitate the exchange because it is necessary to share information instantly and cheaply. The Internet is a useful tool. Websites could contain useful information to list resources and provide detailed information about emigrants and the projects at home; linking resources and opportunities.

· Incentives by government to capture the potential economic contributions of emigrants must be thoughtful and innovative. For example, emigrants could be allowed to maintain foreign-currency deposits in the home country; laws are streamlined to protect these deposits and to allow for their withdrawal in the same currency. These savings can be funneled directly into productive business investments through bank loans.

It must be reiterated that a lot to be accomplished depends on proper planning. South Korea has become Asia’s new “High-Tech Tiger”. Within the last decade, its “universities have been the driving force behind the country’s ambitious plan to become a high-technology powerhouse in the next 20 years”, writes Alan Brender.

We’ve also noted India’s and China’s efforts to become giants in other areas of technology and research by methodically building the learning institutions and exporting brains abroad who return to boost the home country economy. Planning is key.

Africa must join the revolution of benefiting from the era of globalization. Government, academia, business industries and those living and training abroad must work together to end the phenomenon of brain drain. We must now consider the alternative phenomena of brain gain and brain circulation through appropriate planning. The future depends on it.