Why It’s Time to Drop the ‘Brain Drain’ Refrain

June 30, 2015

Skilled people from developing countries are increasingly migrating to other countries. How should policy respond?

I often hear smart people worry that allowing more skilled immigration from poor countries will harm those countries. Based on that concern many have recommended efforts to block skilled workers from leaving their countries and entering other ones. These include Oxford’s Paul Collier, who advocates strict quotas on immigration from some poor countries on these grounds (I respond here). Edward Mills of the University of British Columbia has even shockingly called for people who hire some skilled migrants to be tried for crimes against humanity.

These suggestions rest on unexamined moralism and not a bit on evidence. Suppose someone tells you that allowing skilled migration harms development. That’s precisely the same as claiming that not allowing skilled migration helps development. But there is no evidence at all that this works. I know this literature well, and there is no serious research in social science to demonstrate that a policy of blocking talented or educated people from leaving any poor neighborhood, poor rural area, or poor nation has ever caused any of those places to develop — not in any sense, not to any degree. Recommending migration-blockage to foster development is like recommending baking soda to cure cancer.

I explain more in this seven-minute interview at Oxford University, just released, with Rachel Cassidy:

Footage courtesy of the Oxford Centre for the Study of African Economies

I explain why the whole idea that skilled migration must be bad for development — embodied by the unfortunate rhyme ‘brain drain’ — is unworthy of people who think seriously about migration. The complexities of skilled migration simply don’t fit inside a pejorative taunt.

The interview came right before my plenary speech on this subject at Oxford, to an audience of academic economists working on development. The full video of that talk is here (starting at the two-minute mark). It’s based in part on my peer-reviewed research here (ungated version here).


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.