Turning brain drain into brain gain | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 04.05.2012

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Turning brain drain into brain gain

Clever minds can usually find a job, and if jobs are poorly paid, many try their luck abroad. To prevent poor countries from losing out, some experts support the idea of circular migration.

For developing countries, the exodus of highly qualified and skilled young people represents a major problem. The World Bank estimates that Africa loses around 23,000 well-educated individuals annually to brain drain. Canadian researchers calculated that countries in Sub-Saharan Africa lose around 2 billion dollars annually in money invested in the education of doctors who leave for greener pastures.

This calculation does not account for everything, though. A part of the income that immigrants earn abroad often comes back as support for their families and friends at home. Considering these remittances are estimated at double what all of the industrial world pays out in development aid, they represent a significant sum.

Circulator migration - how?

A reader compares two texts in different languages

Language and other barriers can pose challenges for circular migration

Some professionals who sought work abroad move home after a few years, in many cases investing the money they earned while abroad. This is known as circular migration, and it is here that modern anti-brain drain strategies enter the stage.

Stefan Angenendt of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs develops circular migration strategies. For several years, he has been noticing a trend that fewer immigrants leave home forever. More and more young people move home eventually or work out ways in which they can commute between home and their work abroad.

"That's possible due to better transportation opportunities," said Angenendt. "There are affordable ways to travel. And networks have formed that make it easier for people to live abroad for a years because they already know people there."

However, regulations on immigration for highly qualified individuals are often rigid - in Germany and in many other countries. Angenendt argues the requirements for the timeframe on staying and leaving should be made more flexible to support the idea of temporary immigration, and he supports creating better programs that provide help and advice to those who are willing to return home and build a new life there.

"Three-fold win"

Dr. Gunilla Finke

Gunilla Finke: Circular migration should result in a three-fold win

The goal of circular migration is "a three-fold win," said Gunilla Finke, who heads the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. Ideally, the process would work as follows: the immigrant profits from earning more money abroad than he would have at home and by enhancing his credentials. The country to which he moves profits from the qualifications he brings with him. And his home country later profits because he returns after a certain amount of time with more experience and better credentials.

But there is one weak point in this trifecta: Countries lack a formula for how they can target and support this type of migration.

Competing interests

Instead of a clear strategy, countries currently employ a confusing mish-mash of programs that pursue different goals when it comes to immigration. That starts with support for students who want to study abroad. Some countries offer low-interest or even interest-free loans to students who want to study in the US or Europe, provided they return home after they complete their degrees.

Foreign students in a German lecture hall

From education to visas, countries rely on a mish-mash of immigration goals

The EU often takes a different approach, offering numerous funding possibilities to students or researchers who want to undertake exchanges in other countries that are limited to the equivalent of a semester or two.

What complicates circular migration is that it brings very different, often competing interests into play. Many German politicians, for example, are afraid of lowering the hurdles for immigration because they fear the wrath of voters. They know that many people are wary of losing their own jobs.

Industry, however, often supports lowering the requirements because they are in need of highly qualified professionals and cannot always find them at home. But companies generally want their employees for long-term commitments, not as part of a temporary migration program.

Author: Klaus Dahmann / gsw
Editor: Simon Bone