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Thursday, July 16, 2015

(Mis)accounting for the Brain Drain

Brain drain is often measured by counting the number of educated individuals living outside their country of birth. Such is the basis of the widely used Docquier and Marfoulk database, which calculates the rate of brain drain for each country. The database casts international migration in a poor light. One might be alarmed, for example, to learn that brain drain in Ghana is 44.7% of the total number of tertiary educated individuals born in the country.

Migrant-sending countries view international migration often with significant unease because of brain drain. The argument is that they lose out too much on human capital that they had paid to train. But what if, contrary to current assumptions, many individuals acquire their education after they migrate. Then such widely cited brain drain numbers overestimate the brain drain.

I like this new paper by Ozden and Philipps which brings to light precisely this issue. They make use of administrative data on all doctors in the US which lists an African country as a place of birth. One nice feature of the dataset is that it allows to distinguish between where an individual was born and where they were trained.

We find that almost half of African-born doctors were trained outside their birth country. On the flip side, around 15 percent of all doctors trained in Africa were actually born outside the continent. There is significant variation across countries in terms of age of migration levels, implying that many African doctors migrate after years of service and that their human capital is not completely lost to their birth countries. In short, global labor and education markets for high-skilled professionals are integrated in more nuanced and thought-provoking ways than assumed in the literature.

If anything, it's probably time to rethink our standard measure of the brain drain, and even gather better data on it.

Or perhaps, even question the very concept and usage of the term. Here's Michael Clemens for instance on why we should probably start avoiding using the pejorative "brain drain" in favor of a more neutral term like "skill flow." My favorite quote: "picture reading a journal article on female labor force participation that calls it the “family abandonment rate.”


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