Human capital flight 

Citizenship ceremonies in Canada and the United States are bittersweet occasions. Mixed with the joy of securing a foothold in the developed world, many newcomers are still struggling with unfamiliar languages and customs, minimum wage jobs, and inadequate accommodation within introspective ethnic enclaves. Even when these obstacles have been overcome there is still the longer task of establishing a hybrid identity within societies that often view outsiders with suspicion or hostility, and the mixed blessing of watching children assimilate to the new country with little sense of their parents’ ancestral homes. Many newcomers also have extended families waiting in the wings, hoping to be summoned to the imagined luxuries of life in North America. With all of this hanging over them, many immigrants become citizens with an equal measure of pride and anxiety.

Five years ago a World Bank study found that seven of the ten countries with the highest emigration rates for college students were in the Caribbean. Guyana held the unenviable top spot with a jaw-dropping 89 per cent. Those rates and the flight of human capital they indicate, the so-called ‘brain-drain,’ have undoubtedly worsened since, even though immigration to Europe, North America and elsewhere has become far more difficult. Two years ago another World Bank report found that nearly three-quarters of the nurses trained in the anglophone Caribbean end up working in the Britain, Canada or the United States.

The main reason for the brain-drain is obvious enough: highly skilled workers in the developing world earn a fraction of the salaries available elsewhere. Furthermore, the demand for their skills is always growing since countries that actively recruit skilled foreigners get talent, essentially, for free. From an economic perspective, targeted immigration is a form of outsourcing the education of hundreds of thousands of professionals. In fact, many developmental economists believe the savings developed countries accumulate through ‘human capital flight’ far exceed their aid budgets. This relationship will continue as long as the American dream remains intact. Last November, in a Munk Debate on “high unemployment and slow growth in North America,“ the risk analyst and political consultant Ian Bremmer pointedly asked: “Does it matter that millionaires in China, over 50% of them, want to live in the United States – not just send their kids over there, but actually live there? Yes, it does. Does that attraction of entrepreneurship and talent make a difference to the United States? Of course it does.”

Immigrants replenish aging societies with workers that contribute billions of tax dollars for parts of the welfare state that would otherwise falter, or collapse. (Just a week ago, census data in Canada indicated that two-thirds of population growth is driven by immigration. This figure is expected to rise to 80 per cent within 20 years.) Immigrants also bring diversity and cultural complexity to many mature democracies. Wherever ethnic identities jostle each other peacefully, they inevitably create new ways of doing business, new forms of culture, and even ways of practising  politics and social justice. This benefits everyone. Perhaps a simpler way of measuring the benefits of assimilation is food: 20 years ago it was possible to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at a different ethnic restaurant in Manhattan without returning to the same location for 11 years. Today that diversity is probably even greater. Who wouldn’t wish to live in such a cosmopolitan environment?

Given the odds stacked against us, what can countries like Guyana do? The online journal Inside Higher Ed recently profiled the efforts of two Guyanese – Paloma Mohamed and Vibert Cambridge – to tackle this question. To date, a key part of their success in reinvigorating tertiary education at the University of Guyana has been the use of contracts that oblige faculty members who earn foreign graduate degrees to repatriate their skills for a minimum of five years. This eminently sensible measure ought to be considered for all forms of skilled labour. Not only does it cleverly tweak the model of outsourcing education on behalf of wealthier countries, but it provides an opportunity for smaller countries chance to catch up on intellectual capital and best practices relatively quickly and inexpensively. This exchange is far more rewarding than the billions wasted annually on well-intentioned but impractical developmental aid. Human capital will always remain highly mobile in a globalized world, but throughout the Caribbean we can and should do much more to make use of our highly skilled workers before they seek a better life elsewhere.

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