"Brain Drain" Literature

A major global issue that I am very interested in and would like to contribute, however insignificantly, to solving, is the "brain drain" - the cycle where talent from less developed countries/states leaves to go to the more developed ones, which then makes the developed states even better off and the developing states even worse. My goal here is to simply collect all the relevant scholarly literature on the subject, to make it freely available, and to provide summaries for each article and book that I post. Apart from being very helpful to my own reflections on the problem, I hope it to be useful to other scholars involved in researching the "brain drain" issue, whichever field they may be from.

I have highlighted in green those works that I, personally, found to be extremely useful and insightful.

Types of Literature:

Books (3)
Academic Articles (3)
Non-academic Articles (1)
Reports (1)


-------------- Books --------------


D. Kapur and J. McHale (2005). Give Us Your Best and Brightest: The Global Hunt for Talent and Its Impact on the Developing World, Center for Global Development (Washington, D.C.).

A very comprehensive and rigorous treatment of the "brain drain" problem that, though the authors admit is slightly biased towards pushing attention back to the brain drain as a serious issue, is nevertheless presented in a fairly objective matter. Identifying the brain drain as a complex and multifaceted development problem without a simple solution, Kapur and McHale proceed to dissect it from different angles.

Pointing out that migrant data is very limited - in large part because many developing countries do not (or cannot) keep accurate data on their emigrants - the authors attempt to identify the things that *are* known about the migration of talent from the information available. They then proceed to give an overview of how the competition for talent in the international market takes place, and the things that many developed nations do, on the policy level, to attract talent from less developed ones. They conclude the first part of the book with a chapter on why immigration is becoming more skill-focused, and look for the answer through the lens of three large global trends: (a) technological shifts that increase the demand for skilled workers, (b) an aging population, and (c) broader globalization (the increased international integration of product and capital markets).

The second part starts with a discussion of the effect that the prospect of emigration alone has on a country, which the authors identify as that of stimulating the country's residents to accumulate capital (human, social, or financial), without being able to say if this effect is possible or negative and, if so, for whom. They then examine the effects on the country's people when its residents actually do leave, generally concluding that, because of the positive selection of immigrants, a nation's losing of a good portion of its talent tends to weaken the development of local democratic institutions. There is, as well, a flip side, in that when it is the less-skilled who leave (often illegally), the salaries of those who remain go up. Additionally, remittances from abroad and the country's diaspora may both contribute in a positive manner. Which side outweighs the other is unclear, and depends largely on the particular context (e.g., emigration of athletes as opposed to the emigration of doctors). The last two chapters of the second part look at the effects of diaspora and remittances, both of which, naturally, have their pros and cons.

Finally, the last part of the book starts by addressing the role of returning emigrants, discussing the things that may motivate people to return to their country of origin, the kinds of emigrants that tend to return (often noticed to be negatively selected), and the effects that these returns can have on the country. The book's last chapter - perhaps the most interesting - considers a number of potential policies that could be implemented to help attack the problem. Specifically, the authors propose a four-tier approach (summarized in Table 10.1) of

All of these four are applied as needed to rich countries, poor countries, and international organizations. The authors also discuss a number of other policy options.


A. Sahay (2009). Indian Diaspora in the United States: Brain Drain or Gain?, Lexington Books.

This is an interesting book as it (a) focuses both on a particular case of the brain drain (India and U.S.) and (b) challenges the conventional stance by stating that the perceived “brain drain” may not be a brain drain at all, but rather a positive gain for both countries.

With respect to the second stance, Sahay argues by the three general points of remittances (emigrants sending money back), return migration (empowered emigrants choosing to move back to their country), and diaspora networks (emigrants acting as ambassadors to empower their home country). These, she argues, may offset or even surpass the “drain” effects, and provides the theory and empirical data to back up her points. Of particular interest is the supposed power of Indian diaspora in the United States, where they hold many wealthy and influential positions, thus having the capability to invest in India and to exert certain pressure on U.S. foreign policy so as to make it more India-friendly. Sahay discusses this “soft power” in detail. Additionally, the India case is an interesting one since very much of India’s comparative advantage is in IT, for which much can be done remotely, therefore making the physical presence of a given emigrant in India less crucial. Sahay also discusses how the government has worked and should continue working with Indians abroad to give them recognition and set up partnerships so as to gain from their emigration.

On a personal (and biased) note, however, I found that Sahay’s arguments are more suggestive than convincing. Very much of the empirical evidence seems to rest on absolute figures (how much the Indians abroad are worth, how much money is sent back to India, etc.), and not on how much of a positive effect this money has on Indian society. More importantly, the question of whether the Indians who chose to leave and not come back ultimately would have done more or less for India had they stayed (and whether their departure was actually a “drain” or a “gain”, as the title seems to question) does not get answered. It is merely suggested that there are significant positive consequences for India by having people emigrate and not return, but the opportunity cost of them not staying in India is not addressed at all (though, to be fair, this is a very difficult comparison to attempt).


G. Brock and M. Blake (2015). Debating Brain Drain: May Governments Restrict Emigration?, Oxford University Press.

This book is structured as a debate on the ethics of restrictive home-government policies in trying to reduce the detrimental effects of the brain drain on the home country, with Brock arguing for such intervention and Blake arguing against it. Brock lays her argument out first, after which Blake counters and lays his own arguments out, Brock responds, and Blake again responds and concludes. The arguments are not empirical, as both authors are philosophers and only offer this debate as a stepping stone for potential policy makers and those approaching the problem from other, perhaps more quantitative, fields.

In her arguments, Brock contends that states that are "poor but legitimate" (i.e., those that uphold human rights) have the right to delay the exit of talented individuals (generally, those with advanced education) via compulsory service programs or to tax such individuals after they have left the state. A large portion of Brock's argument consists in the notion that individuals trained at a society's expense have at least some moral duty to repay to that society and its citizens, and that by leaving that society they are, in fact, doing the very opposite. Brock does not believe that delayed exit - when it is clearly stated and agreed on in advance - or taxation programs are coercive to the point of being liberally unacceptable, and offers several smaller daily-life examples where both are exercised and accepted in liberal society.

Blake argues for the status quo, concedes that the brain drain is a major issue and that the current world is highly unjust, but ends by concluding that there may not be any acceptable means of adequately dealing with the drain without violating inviolable human rights. Viewing the individual's right to leave a country as categorically inalienable, he rejects Brock's proposal of compulsory service as too coercive, saying that even a short forced delay in an individual's exit from a state is unacceptable. Tax programs, he argues, are only acceptable as long as the individual continues to receive benefits from their home state, but should not be applied after the individual has left the state's jurisdiction. He does not believe that an individual's moral duty to their fellow citizens can be turned into actual coercive law, and states that while individuals who choose to abandon their societies may not be "good citizens", it would be immoral to coerce them into acting the role. More specifically, he suspects that Brock's "poor but legitimate" assumption is too restrictive, and notes that there are positive effects of the brain drain that cast doubt on whether trying to force-stop emigration would actually be beneficial enough to justify the apparent rights violations it would entail. Viewing the brain drain as a "moral tragedy" that may only be fixable by solving the larger problem of global injustice, the best techniques that Blake can propose are only those that offer incremental benefits (such as the state limiting its education to fields that are more useful at home than abroad, thus naturally conditioning its citizens to be less qualified and likely to go abroad, and to be more useful in their home societies).


-------------- Academic Articles --------------


R. H. Adams, Jr. (2006). Remittances, poverty, and investment in Guatemala. Chapter 2 of International Migration, Remittances, and the Brain Drain (eds. Ç. Özden, M. Schiff), 53-80.

The effects of remittances on poverty and investment in Guatemala are examined. The author starts by looking at the fundamental question of whether or not it is possible to separate out the effects of remittances from the available data for households, and proposes that it can be done if the families that receive remittances are drawn randomly from the population (and do not have major systematic differences with those families that do not receive remittances). Using a Heckman-type selection correction procedure, the author concludes that the selection bias of remittance families is small, and that these families do not differ fundamentally from the non-remittance ones. While this result is surprising, it is justified by the fact that both legal and illegal migrants are included in the data, with the illegal migrants likely to contribute to removing the selection bias that would be present for the legal (often better educated, financially advantaged) migrants.

Having justified the assumption of low selection bias, the author then proceeds to build models that predict expenditure, and uses them to estimate what the expenditures of the remittance families would look like if they had not received remittances. The difference with the observed data then allows one to see the estimated effects of remittances. The three major trends, as estimated by these models, are:


J. Mora and J.E. Taylor (2006). Determinants of migration, destination, and sector choice: Disentangling individual, household, and community effects. Chapter 1 of International Migration, Remittances, and the Brain Drain (eds. Ç. Özden, M. Schiff), 21-51.

This paper focuses on both internal and international (to the United States) migration in Mexico, with the authors exploiting Mexico's ENHRUM database to build an empirical model that predicts the probability of migration of a particular individual based a number of individual, household, and community variables. The model used is a multinomial logit including discrete, Boolean, and continuous variables, and predicts migration probabilities for five regimes - the base regime of nonmigration and the four regimes generated by the two choices of farm vs. non-farm and internal vs. international. Two major issues bring the model into question: (a) the effects of unmodeled variables and (b) the effects of not including past migration decisions. The model shows the following trends:


D. Zweig (2006). Competing for talent: China's strategies to reverse the brain drain. International Labour Review, 145 (1-2), 65-89.

Gives an overview of the strategies that China has been adopting to reverse its brain drain over the past 2-3 decades, which has included giving better paying jobs and conditions to returnees, allowing them to start private businesses, creating organizations to support returnees at home and overseas, and allowing them to come back for short periods to get a feel for what their return might be like. There is also a discussion of the apparent successes and failures of these measures, as well as of the difficulties involved.

Positive Takeaways:

Negative Takeaways:


-------------- Non-academic Articles --------------


J. N. Bhagwati (2003). The world needs a new body to monitor migration. Financial Times.

Bhagwati makes a short and simple argument for the formation of an internationally recognized body to monitor international migration. He starts by noting how immigrants in developed countries, both legal and illegal, are playing much more vital roles in their host nations these days - a simple argument for why "immigrants are important". He then proceeds to highlight that in addition to the legal skilled migration and illegal unskilled migration, there is also the international trafficking of women and children, and that all of these are migration problems that need to be addressed and regulated, but that there currently exists no international body for the job (something that Bhagwati sees as a "gaping hole" in today's international institutional architecture). His proposed "World Migration Organisation" (WMO) would start out with simple consolidation and consultation roles, before slowly turning into a more authoritative body with more significant effects on policy.


-------------- Reports --------------


J. Batalova, M. Fix, and J. D. Bachmeier (2016). Untapped Talent: The Costs of Brain Waste Among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States. Migration Policy Institute, New American Economy, and World Education Services.

A report on how the skills of many immigrants in the U.S. are being underutilized in jobs that they are overqualified for. The main argument laid out by the authors is that this underutilization leads to major “brain waste”, and results in significant losses to the immigrants, to the U.S. economy, and to the immigrants’ home countries. Many statistical results are presented as the authors examine how the brain waste varies among immigrants and compares to that of their U.S.-born counterparts. In general, none of the conclusions are surprising, nor do they really escape popular perception. Namely, those most likely to be underutilized are

The authors also do a rough calculation of how much money is lost in potential. Finally, they offer a short discussion on how brain waste may be reduced by better integrating the immigrants into U.S. society.