Let's talk about brain drain

Let’s talk about brain drain

By Jörg Kleis

Missing state structures, bad governance, political instability, lack of diversification, resource dependence, rent-seeking, energy poverty, corruption – the list goes on and on. If you ask a hundred analysts about the reasons for the underperformance of African countries, you will receive a hundred different answers. Some will go back two-hundred years in history while others will talk about recent examples of capital flight. Leaving the fact aside that each analyst’s perspective is different, is surprises to see that brain drain hardly ever ranks high in the list of answers.

Brain drain is not an exclusively African problem

Spokesmen for the Royal Society of London are said to have first coined the expression “brain drain” in order to describe the outflow of scientists and technologists to the United States and Canada in the early 1950s. Until today, it describes the process in which a country loses its most educated and talented people to other countries through migration. The stories behind this social phenomenon are as diverse as the people concerned, their motivation and goals. In any case, brain drain is a global issue and not an exclusively African one.

Brain drain is most toxic to open societies and less developed countries

Brain drain is not merely about the social repercussions and economic hardships of educated people leaving a country, but more precisely about them going away and not being followed by equally bright minds taking their place. This is why brain drain is highly toxic, especially to those societies commonly known as open societies and those considered less developed economies.

Any country can only stand a certain level of brain drain until it finds itself trapped in a vicious circle: the more people leave, the less positive impact there is on society, the less the respective country will develop, the more people will leave – and the weaker a country, the sooner.

Above all, and this is why brain drain keeps missing among analyst opinions, the same holds true for its gravity. If unaddressed, the vicious circle turns into a vicious maelstrom pulling any society to the ground and capturing it there.

Brain circulation should be our ultimate goal

It is therefore immanent to place brain drain on the same level as and in line with the other big challenges – especially more than two generations after the Year of Africa in 1960 and in a time when the future of societies is more than ever shaped by bright and open-minded people.

Yet, while reversing the brain drain may be a governmental objective, it is not the final solution. Migration, its continuing cycles and competition among countries are not the problem – the movement of persons is one of the oldest and most inherent traits defining the human race. That is why an uninterrupted brain circulation should be our ultimate goal. Having the option, being able to choose where to go is still the exception for many rather than the rule. And that is in fact already one of the great issues of the 21st centuries.

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