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Monday, August 24

The reverse side of immigration: brain drain

Since the migrant/refugee crisis heated up in Europe this summer there have been wails from the European press, governments, politicians and ngos: Something must be done about the bad governance in these failed and failing states which cause all these people to flee to our borders.  

How, pray tell, can governance be improved when generous immigration policies in Europe guarantee brain drains from countries that can least afford them? 

How does one expect governance to improve in a country when people in the best position to push for reforms -- the best educated, the most articulate and politically savvy -- have migrated to other countries in search of better jobs?

I add that the brain drain in MENA in this era is not all toward the West, not by any means. For decades the Gulf kingdoms have depended on cheap skilled labor from countries such as Egypt.

Further, how can anyone calling for better governance ignore the fact that remittances guarantee bad governments will be able to maintain their status quo? 

But then I've already heard the answer: the chirping of crickets.   

And never, ever, will they talk about the vicious cycle created in this era by the nexus between brain drains, government-sponsored higher education, and the government promoted remittance system. This, despite the fact that the cycle makes it virtually impossible to clean up corrupt and inept governments in the less developed countries.

Now why you may pooch, to steal a line from my favorite Pakistani blogger, are these richer governments and the press in those countries completely silent on the real issues?

Because the corruption and ineptness are a two-way street in this case. Cheap skilled labor from poor countries means that richer countries don't have to grapple with huge issues in their own countries that relate to jobs, salaries, etc., for their native citizens. 

Another way to describe this is to say that socialized medicine would've been impossible in the United Kingdom without doctors from former British colonies who were willing to work for very low salaries. This kind of situation has not been limited to the U.K., by the way. Medical professionals from former British colonies and notably India saved New York City from falling into the Hudson River in the 1970s. As to how this came about:

The city government was broke after years of mismanagement, and at the same time was facing an unprecedented crime wave fueled by illicit drugs and the gangs that traded in them. The emergency and operating rooms in all the city-run hospitals were packed 24/7 with gunshot and stabbing victims.  But the city couldn't afford to pay decent salaries to hospital staffs. So they paid peanuts to expat professionals who were fluent in English.  

But that allowed New York's politicians to keep staving off dealing with the roots of the financial crisis -- and the contraband drug crisis and related gang wars. Eventually the city had to be bailed out by the federal government.
Now is there anyone in addition to Pundita who's made an issue of the brain drain situation?  Yes and no. UNESCO and some international organizations have addressed the brain drains and in considerable detail.  But I don't think UNESCO has quite confronted the underlying problem because it challenges their most cherished belief:  that better education is the key to a better society. 

The argument is defensible but only within reason. The catch is that the concept of "within reason" is the first thing to go out the window, once government money is poured into projects to uplift the masses. This would include higher education, which became heavily industrialized due to governments' largess and loans from international organizations such as the World Bank.  

An industry, once established, is concerned with its own interests, not with how they might impact the larger society. So at the bottom of it all is the push by the World Bank/IDA and other development agencies to 'modernize' underdeveloped countries by promoting higher education for the masses in those countries.    

In this, however, they made the same mistake that the Germanic kingdoms did all the way back in the early 1800s and which more recently the Shah of Iran made. They went gung-ho on higher education for the masses but without assuring that there would be jobs waiting for the college graduates. Violent revolutions were the result in both cases.     

The ad-hoc solution in this era was to stave off revolution by encouraging emigration.  But this set in motion an exodus of the very kind of people a country needs most to pull itself up by the bootstraps and hold the worst policies of a government in check.

Then these modernization geniuses topped it off by industrializing the ad-hoc money transfers from expat workers to hardscrabble relatives in the old country. This allows governments in the poorer countries to snatch up large amounts of hard currency, little of which go toward improving the lot of the hardscrabble citizens. 

And the remittances help the families of expats just enough financially to take the edge off their complaints about bad government in their countries.
In short the remittances, once industrialized, allow governments in the recipient countries to continue with bad policies -- provided they make their IMF loan payments on time, and produce annual reports for the World Bank about their progress in fighting corruption and improving their governance policies.

No, UNESCO and its donor governments aren't quite ready to confront all that. Neither are the press and politicians.   

Of course there are aspects of the current migrant/refugee situation that aren't connected with brain drains; for instance many of the people trying to get into the U.K. and European countries are only qualified for unskilled labor. And not all of them are from countries where the government is a failure, as an August 20 BBC report pointed out. (Risking death at sea to escape boredom).

But the long shadow cast over the entire immigration situation, worldwide, is the accelerating brain drains, which leave behind increasingly weak societies. 

The slick ones argue that FDI -- foreign direct investment -- is the cure for brain drains:  use foreign money to set up enough industries in a country to lure back the expat workers.  

The catch is that these foreign investors don't pull up stakes and go to live in the country they invest in. Many of the globalized investors of today invest and speculate through funds, and have no special interest in the country itself.  And it is impossible to hold these millions of virtually anonymous people to account for anything that happens in the country they invest in.   

So as these types invest in weak societies that are overseen by corrupt governments, we're seeing the emergence of something far worse than the European colonizers. We're seeing entire countries being put up for sale by unscrupulous governments to large numbers of foreigners who often operate from little more than a post office box, and who only want a good return on their investment.

The result has been horrors inflicted on entire populations by their governments, horrors that rarely make it into newspaper accounts and almost never onto TV news. 

It is sophistry to argue that a FDI-led reverse brain drain can halt the horrors; by the time the expats return, a corrupt government is so flush with money from FDI that it can quash protests.
Welcome to the dark side of the 21st Century.  


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