Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity


Views from the Center


The UN’s most important meeting on migration and development in seven years begins on October 3. It’s a perfect time for fresh thinking, particularly about the role of high-skill migration in development.

As part of the lead-up to the UN meeting, I wrote a new brief for the Migration Policy Institute challenging some traditional ideas about skilled migration. I discuss some of the research on the development benefits of skill mobility, and some of the indirect consequences of efforts to suppress mobility. From that brief: What fraction of Africa’s shortfall of physicians would be remedied if, through some draconian policy, half of all African physicians living in the richest countries were suddenly obliged to return home? The answer: just 6%.

The answer to global shortages in human capital does not lie in limiting movement, but in creating structures for skill formation in a mobile world. This vision breaks with conventional wisdom, and we need new ideas. 

Manjula Luthria has a great post on this over at the World Bank’s blog on the Middle East/North Africa. Her great title is “Three Funerals and a Wedding”—three ideas on skilled migration that we need to move past, and a new vision. Here are the three older ideas that Luthria says it’s time to bury, in her words:

The first idea that has fossilized these discussions is that development must only be about places. Hence the questions being asked in the research and policy making world essentially come down to one question: what has the migration of people done for the development of the places they come from? Whereas if development were already phrased in human development terms then all that matters is that migration offers an expansion of employment opportunities, an expansion of choice and agency, an increase in income, and often diversification of household risk. If this isn’t development, then what is?

The second unfortunate idea that has crept into our vocabulary and enjoys a unique brand name that even Coca Cola would envy is that of “brain drain”—which conjures images of loss of human capital from poor towards rich countries. The counter factual as many labor origin countries will readily testify to—is “brain down the drain!” When human capital cannot find a suitable use, it moves to another location where it does, providing an economist’s dream come true of good resource allocation. […]

These lead to the third idea that has done us more harm than good – the innocent looking AND that is found between migration AND development. This implicit assumption behind the use of this conjunction is that the words on either side are not to be treated as synonyms and hence must be linked to each other through some other channel.

Luthria’s ‘wedding’ is a new vision for policy governing skilled migration for development:

The foremost priority is expanding mobility options for the poor and relatively unskilled and this will require that confidence is restored in bilateral labor arrangements…

For the mid-skilled, we need to create systems that allow their skills to travel with them and prevent the devaluation of skills with mobility…

For the high-skilled for whom mobility is easier but who are at the root of concerns about the impact of migration on the provision of vital services—such as in health care—we need to offer innovative co-financing mechanisms where future beneficiaries invest in the education and training systems in poor countries in a way that augments the global supply of scarce skills.

Watch this space for more details of the research and policy initiatives emerging from the new framework.  This wedding is one to celebrate.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.