Poverty reduction and social development

Migration and the Brain Drain Phenomenon




Share of a country's nationals with a university degree
living in an(other) OECD country

   Less than 2 %    Less than 5 %    Less than 10 %
   Less than 20 %    Over 20 %    Not included

* The depiction and use of boundaries shown on maps do not imply
official endorsement or acceptance by the OECD.


Conventional wisdom suggests that international migration of the highly skilled from poor to rich countries — the so-called brain drain phenomenon — threatens development. Comparing emigration rates of the highly educated — the share of a country's nationals with a university education who live in the OECD — reveals that low-income countries suffer disproportionately from the brain drain. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, sometimes more than half of all university graduates migrate to OECD countries, with potentially serious consequences for critical sectors such as education, health and engineering.

Should OECD countries be taken to task for luring away crucial human resources from developing countries? Are OECD countries' policies incoherent, given that their development assistance is often targeted to train teachers, doctors and engineers in developing countries? Maybe; but the story is more complicated than it first appears. In fact, the effect of emigration of the highly skilled is not always negative, as insufficient infrastructure often discourages people from working in the sectors for which they have been trained: nurses that leave a poor country, for example, are often not working in the health sector when they emigrate.

Developing countries could even benefit from high-skill migration if partnerships between sending and receiving countries encourage a repatriation of skills and knowledge (brain circulation). Diaspora networks play a crucial role, as the example of start-up companies of returned Indian migrants demonstrates. Furthermore, aid targeted at critical occupational sectors may help to retain potential migrants.


To learn more about the potential benefits of migration, see our report on Gaining from Migration: Towards a New Mobility System.



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