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How can brain gain in some country be brain drain in another?

By: Denise Abrahamsen

Migration today is a complex matter. We usually talk about voluntary migration and forced migration. Migration raises multiple kinds of questions on, opportunities, challenges, and brain gain, drain and circulation.

“Until recently we’ve had a flow coming from developing countries going to developed countries,” Maria Elo says, explaining it is usually seen between Global South and Global North.

When we look at these movements, the countries losing educated and skilled individuals to another country are suffering from brain drain. On the other hand, the countries that are receiving those peo-ple receives brain gain because they gain the talent. 

How does brain gain, brain drain, and brain circulation emerge?

When a person moves from one country to another for work or venture, they usually have a positive impact on the country they move to. In short, the receiving country has bran gain. But there is also another discussion – because what if the person who migrate is not fully employed to their potential?

We have a lot of people in Europe with diplomas from non-EU countries that are not recognized, Maria Elo explains.

“You could have a medical doctor from a non-EU country working in Denmark as a cap driver, and that is brain waste.” 

When under employing the talent that has migrated, not only the country, but also the person, is suffering from brain waste. This is a societal challenge, because the talent migrating from their own country and leaving a gap, a brain drain effect, at home. If that talent is unemployed or under-employed then the receiving country is wasting resources generating brain waste. A migrant then suf-fers from brain waste and deskilling, when when they don’t have the environment to either maintain or develop their skills. 

The most beneficial form of migration is when both countries benefit from what Maria Elo calls brain circulation. This means that there is a fair distribution of benefits from migration both ways.

In a collaboration between Tanzanian and Swedish doctors, Swedish doctors went to Tanzania for a period. It had a very positive effect in the sense that the Swedish doctors learned new concepts from the Tanzanian doctor. At the same time the Tanzanian doctors learned new ideas and methods. Knowledge about medicine was also shared, and the Tanzanian doctors were not concerned about not developing their skills,” she tells. This circulation helped Tanzania to retain urgently needed medical doctors locally and Sweden to expand learning.

In short, brain circulation is not only sending remittances. It allows both countries to benefit from each other’s knowledge, develop capacity and advance their skills.

One country’s gain is another country’s drain

It is common for persons from developing countries to move to developed countries for various rea-sons. Those reasons are typically work, studies or marriage, but business venturing. Education to de-velop their skills and abilities is highly important for capacity building.

In the example above, some Tanzanian doctors stayed in Tanzania, but that is not always the case. It often happens that doctors from developing countries move to for example the US to gain more knowledge, better professional development and typically a higher income. Unfortunately, they very rarely return migrate.

“So, what happens is that they are sending remittance and money back to Tanzania to support their family,” Maria Elo points out, saying that this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the money sent from the US to Tanzania benefits the dependent family. On the other side, one can’t by health if there is lack of medical doctors in Tanzania.

“When there is asymmetry between the two countries, and if no one is addressing the concern that we are sucking out the talent from developing places and gives nothing in exchange, we are leaving a gap behind us, which just makes the inequality larger, and not smaller,” she argues. 

When asking Maria Elo, if it’s then a bad thing for Danish hospitals to employ a Tanzanian doctor, she says:

“If you employ a Tanzanian doctor – that per se is not a bad thing. It might be a very great thing for that individual person’s career progression and skill development. However, I would discuss with this person, as the employer, what the situation in their home country is, and maybe arrange a scholarship program and bring in another student. I would ask: What can I do to reduce the inequality this might create? Can I perhaps do a collaboration on a local level and help to elevate the local context and not leave behind a gap? That way I would be able to create a multidirectional flow of knowledge and skills that benefit both of us.”

In short, Maria Elo argues that brain circulation is the most beneficial situation for all parts. When you circulate your knowledge, you also advance your understanding of “the other.” This is not only so on an academic, but also on a societal level. Learning from each other benefits in multiple ways.

“When you have people who know both sides and can compare, they have this advantage of being ‘in between,’ because they are not only for example Danes or Tanzanians. They are both. So, they can elevate and reduce the inequality by bringing in those advantages they perceive,” Maria Elo argues.
Mutual learning and understanding are needed to create capacity and equality. In that way we can take into consideration both the social, the climate, and the economic differences, and so on. There is no template for reducing inequality that one could expect to work universally for organizations or for countries.

“Typically, Western developed countries tend to have a ‘superiority syndrome’ thinking that they have the most advanced model – which they might have. But that doesn’t mean the model works everywhere else,” she explains, continuing: 
“Instead, you need to create collaborations where you have the ‘in between’-advantages and under-standings. That way you can help reduce inequality,” she concludes, as that needs to be locally legitimate on both sides.

Differences in male and female migration

Previously, it was mostly men who migrated. Today, international migration is also becoming more female. As society develop and women advance professionally, more women migrate and participate in global labor markets and business. This also shows statistically as migration is very balanced between the genders. But this doesn’t go without consequences.

“Something I find very disturbing is when we look at this so called ‘highly skilled migration.’ It seems that women and men don’t get the same impact personally or the same benefits from being a mi-grant,” Maria Elo explains.

In practice this means that men and women don’t have the same progress and career development, which means that migrating benefits men more than women.

“Typically, it’s because corporates assume that women will get pregnant, have children and then take care of those duties,” she continues, and further explains that female migrants usually experience not only double but sometimes triple vulnerabilities compared to men.

This shows in ways such as receiving less money, but also in having less career progress, even when having the same qualifications.  
“We don’t only have a pay gap. We also have a migration gap in the sense that women don’t get the same out of it,” she argues, based on their research.

Migration – a complex matter

The discussions about migration are multiple. Governments around the world can’t find a common understanding on neither voluntarily nor forced migration, but one thing is for sure. It affects all of us, and not only the person who migrates, but also the country they migrate from and the country they migrate to. 

What we can learn from Maria Elo is the fact, that we should rather learn from each other, analyze the inequality, and mutually build capacity, than to increase asymmetry between countries generating further reasons for migration. 

“When collaborating, our knowledge gets higher and our networks bigger,” she explains, and this benefit all of us. 

The attitude about migration is partly a structural matter as well as a societal one. When asking Maria Elo about ways to change this, she says:

“One, is the organizational layer. This includes both the process regarding migration, the policy mak-ing and paperwork. Second, is the individual and kind of societal layer. How do we speak, think, and act as a family, as individuals, or as a neighborhood about migrations and (in)equality? Do we follow the SDG’s? Or are we just continuing what our parents and grandparents have always done? We often use the word ‘bias’, but I would argue that people are not necessarily actively biased, they just haven’t thought about it.”


Human stickiness as a counterforce to brain drain: Purpose-driven behaviour among Tanzanian medical doctors and implications for policy

Meet the researcher: Maria Elo

Maria Elo is located at the Depart-ment of Business and Management at the Faculty of Business and So-cial Sciences at SDU. She has a background in Interna-tional Business and International Marketing. She first worked in indus-try and entrepreneurship before turning to academia. In her work she tends to look at economy and society from a people perspective. She works on gloal migration and diasporas. Coming from Finland and having worked in different countries, she has experi-ential knowledge and multiple per-spectives to migration and its ef-fects. In short, she researches the combination of people, places, re-sources and activities.

Meet Maria Elo

Last Updated 13.03.2023