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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: The Benefits of Migration 

January 10, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

One of the most enduring beliefs in development is the notion that poor countries are harmed by the out-migration of highly skilled professionals; one of the most off-repeated policy prescriptions is to create barriers to reduce "brain drain."  Take, for instance, the recent New York Times op-ed, Migration Hurts the Homeland, by Paul Collier, one of the world’s most influential development economists.  In it he writes:

But many poor countries have too much emigration. I do not mean that they would be better with none, but they would be better with less.  

. . . [S]mall developing countries have high emigration rates, even if their economies are doing well: Ghana, for instance, has a rate of skilled emigration 12 times that of China. If, in addition, their economies are in trouble, they suffer an educational hemorrhage. The top rankings for skilled emigration are a roll call of the bottom billion. Haiti loses around 85 percent of its educated youth, a rate that is debilitating.  

This view has intuitive appeal.  When skilled people leave their home countries, how could that not be a loss?  In some static way, perhaps it is.  But migration is dynamic and complex process, in which causation, people and money move in more than one direction. As my former colleague at the Center for Global Development, Michael Clemens, has articulately argued many times:

  • Opportunities for overseas employment creates incentives for people to invest in higher education and acquiring skills.  If young people knew they were restricted only to jobs at home, far fewer would seek to better themselves through education.  (Michael has demonstrated this with creative and pathbreaking research on African doctors and nurses.)
  • No serious research has ever demonstrated that economic and social development was accelerated when borders were closed.
  • Remittances are a major source of financial flows from wealthy to poor countries – estimated at $410 billion in 2014 – that simply would not exist in the absence of migration.
  • Out-migration and return migration are crucial pathways through which ideas and knowledge spread around the world.
  • Increasing opportunities for migration from poor countries is one of the fastest and most powerful tools to raise living standards, both of migrants and of those they left at home.  (See this article for more.)
  • While restrictions on immigration may be motivated by good intentions – stopping the so-called “brain drain” – they are fundamentally at odds with the notion that people should be able to choose where to live and how they use their skills and talents.   

In the end, I have no doubt that for poor people and poor countries migration is a good thing.  And I also have no doubt that many leading thinkers in the research and policy community hold precisely the opposite view.