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#BrainDrain: Is Reverse Migration a good thing?

Amidst a growing chorus of high profile voices calling for the Indian Diaspora to “return home” and participate in India’s economic recovery, education expert Supriyo Chaudhuri explores the pros and cons of ‘Reverse Migration’.

I am involved in an organisation, which works to encourage African Diaspora professionals to go back and work in Africa for a period of time and the process is facilitated through Corporate Philanthropy.

The underlying assumption for this activity is that reverse migration is a good thing.

All the rhetoric around Brain Drain that we, as South Asians, accepted as common sense over half a century automatically validate the proposition that skilled people going back to their countries is a great thing.

Even those who don’t like immigrants (and by extension, the countries they come from) very much often couch their arguments with ‘humanitarian’ reasoning that rich countries are wrong in stealing skilled people from the poor ones.

The appeal to direct Corporate Social Responsibility to facilitate Diaspora Professionals’ return is one such appeal to collective guilt.

My involvement in this organisation is primarily on account of my being an educator.  But my very experience of working with a number of African and Asian students compels me to stop and question the underlying assumptions that reverse migration is a thing to be welcomed.

I indeed wholly accept that the problem may be quite acute in some cases: There are more Ethiopian Doctors in America than there are in Ethiopia, for example.  Considering that these doctors were trained at a great public cost, this represents a significant drain on the Ethiopian exchequer, and it may be obvious that they can ill afford to train doctors for American hospitals on a continuing basis.

However, my key argument is that this does not automatically mean that reverse migration, these skilled people going back, will make good of those losses, or create any compensating economic gains at all.

In fact, I tend to think that reverse migration should not be seen as ‘reverse’ at all, and should not be expected to have a squaring-off effect on brain drain.  Rather, my argument is that reverse migration should be seen as a phenomenon of its own, and the host society is bound to experience consequences, good and bad, from reverse migration.

But, before one gets to this, even the conventional idea that brain drain is unequivocally bad should also be examined.

The classic argument FOR brain drain is economic: Let’s say we have a very skilled mechanic who could earn $20 a day working in Nepal.  Now, if he leaves and goes to Saudi Arabia, and earns $50 a day (assuming that he has been offered humane living conditions, which is, admittedly, a big assumption), he is economically better off.  His skills, because he will be working with better equipment, will develop faster than it would have if he stayed in Nepal.  He may send home 40% or more of his earnings, setting off the impact of his departure on the economy.  His example may lead other people being inspired to become mechanics, creating more mechanics than Nepal would have otherwise had.  And, indeed, they may all leave, but this will set off further positive feedback cycles like the original one.

Admittedly, this narrative will be different if one has to replace the mechanic in our story with a Doctor or an Engineer, who may have other positive effects on society than mere economic ones.  Better doctors may mean better public health (and Engineers may mean better infrastructure and industry, with adequate supply of capital), and overall productivity gains outside the person’s own economic contribution.

But there is still an argument to be had of how deep that effect will be.  If America sends all Ethiopian doctors home (and simultaneously, all rich countries ban Ethiopian doctors from working abroad), wouldn’t that discourage a smart Ethiopian student from studying medicine, and in effect, make the country worse off in the long run?

And even if the calculations about the economic effects of the Brain Drain are entirely reasonable (particularly given the fact that some countries pour a disproportionate amount of public money educating the smartest students, who eventually leave), the mobility in itself may not be the problem.

Rather, one could argue, the root problem lies in the nature of the education system of these countries, which is based on a ‘tiny-at-the-top’ design, a few elite schools training a few elite students at a great cost.

However, the elite educational institutions are not matched by professionalisation of trades – many people leave because they do not have freedom to work or practice their trade without political or other kinds interference – and without such structures, these professionals will have less productive contributions in the economy than they are capable of (and, hence, like the mechanic, they do more being outside than inside the country).

Besides, Doctors who may stay back and operate without a professional environment (and make money without a sense of profession or contribution) may not still have an impact on their community, and end up setting bad examples than good.

In context, therefore, reverse migration is likely to have more nuanced effect than just return of the Diaspora.

Personally, I went through the process of celebrating the possibility of Reverse Migration in the aftermath of the recession in 2009 to a more circumspect position by 2011, when I started touring India extensively.

The reasons behind this change of mind were threefold. First, after I first began to write about this phenomenon in 2009, I got to hear stories from people who had actually made the journey. These tales were mostly dark and full of disappointments.  On the other hand, there were other angry emails too, from people who never left: They were resenting why they were expected to roll out the red carpet if someone chose to return to India for economic reasons. In a sense, that discussion was not very different from what we usually get to hear against migration in the West. The residents felt threatened, accused the returnees of disloyalty and opportunism and resented any special treatment, despite the evidently superior skills and experience of many of these returnees.

Second, after my deeper engagement with Indian employers during this period, it appeared to me that most of the Indian businesses were deeply focused in the ‘Inside Market’ and saw little additional value of hiring ‘global expertise’ if it came at an incremental cost (this may be different in sectors such as finance). The fact that India’s economic expansion, since those dark days of global recession, was being driven by expansion of domestic consumption rather than of the export orientated sectors, had an impact on how welcoming Indian employers felt about the returnees.  Their money was welcome, but their expertise was not, creating difficult situations for many of those who made the journey.

Third, the social conditions were also not greatly encouraging to the returnees.

As one memorably wrote to me: ‘We went back for our parents, and came back due to our respective mothers in law’. But such deep insights aside, I am told of the general disappointment that the returnees faced when they arrived in India.

They did expect sentiments ranging from gratefulness to welcome, but they were faced with indifference and discomfort, even from their families. Even if they were rich, they were treated as failures for the mere act of coming back. Their attachment to the land and family were often treated as hypocrisy because they had already committed the sin of leaving.

I shall admit that the Indian Diaspora is somewhat different from other comparable ones, like the Chinese or African Diaspora. Only 3 million Indians left in the great age of migration, the latter half of Nineteenth century, as opposed to 22 million Chinese: Indian migration is relatively recent, and of a different make-up.

India may have as many reasons to complain about brain drain as Africans (almost 40,000 IIT students, equivalent of 20 years output of the IIT system, live in America alone).  But India also has a completely different approach to its Diaspora than, for example, the Chinese.

When Deng sought to modernise China, his call was to learn from the Overseas Chinese: This call was enthusiastically heeded because it was consistent with the Chinese attitude.  This is indeed not the case in India: Kishor Mahbubani, of the National University of Singapore, says, China has a closed society with an open mind and India has an open society with a closed mind.

The Indian Prime Minister, whose recent visit to US has generated a lot of conversation about reverse migration. would rather invite the Diaspora Indians to put their money and businesses in India, but wouldn’t issue a call, like Deng, to learn from them.

My work with the African Diaspora tells me that reverse migration shouldn’t be seen just as the reversal of brain-drain and a sure way to develop an economy. 

Indeed, it can do as much harm if the host society is not ready and welcoming to the phenomenon.

While the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to US has set off a frenzied conversation about reverse migration (yet again), I remain circumspect. Indians (and their politicians) perhaps need to see Diaspora Indians as more than rich-but-retarded cousins if reverse migration is to have beneficial impact. I am yet to see the signs of any such change of heart.

Supriyo Chaudhuri works in global Higher Education, and is engaged in various educational projects in UK, Asia and Africa.  He is passionate about innovation and reform in Higher Education.  He organises events on Education Innovation in London and writes a popular blog on global education.  He is an alumni of University College London.



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