Brain Drain

“Brain drain” is the flow of skilled professionals—physicians, engineers, scientists, educators—from less developed countries to the more developed countries. In many cases, large-scale immigration to the United States does serious damage to the communities left behind.

Developing countries are losing the people they can least afford to: those who are skilled and educated, who perform crucial services contributing to the health and economy of the country, and who create new jobs for others.

For example, more African scientists and engineers work in the United States than in all of Africa—leaving the entire African continent of 600 million people with just 20,000 engineers and scientists.1 The United Nations calls brain drain one of the greatest threats to economic development in sub-Saharan Africa.2

How Brain Drain Harms the People Left Behind

Brain drain tends to pull the best and the brightest from their home countries, the very people most equipped to help improve living conditions at home.

Health Care

The United Nations has found that many developing countries are sending health care workers abroad at the same time that they are suffering serious shortages of health care professionals:

A few years ago, Zambia had 1,600 doctors; now only 400 practice there. More than 21,000 doctors from Nigeria are working in the United States while Nigeria suffers a shortage of health care workers.  Sixty percent of Ghana’s doctors left during the 1980s, leaving the health care system in critical condition.3, 4

The exodus of health professionals from Sierra Leone is expected to soon lead to the closure of several of the country’s health facilities. Seventy precent of graduates from the country’s College of Medicine and Allied Science have left the country.5 There reportedly are more Sierra Leonean doctors living in the Chicago area than in all of Sierra Leone.6

Serious doctor and nurse shortages in Zimbabwe have left clinics staffed by inexperienced nurse-aides who cannot administer certain drugs to patients.7 18,000 nurses from Zimbabwe work abroad.8

More than half of all Ghanaian medical doctors have emigrated.9 One third of Ethiopa’s general practitioners left the country between 1988 and 2001. Ethiopa’s Gondar Medical Science College was forced to close five departments because of the exodus of medical personnel abroad.10 One-third to one-half of South African medical graduates emigrate.11

The number of unfilled positions in Czech hospitals has tripled over the last three years, with more than 500 posts now vacant.12

Scientists, Engineers, and Other Skilled Professions

While twelve percent of Mexico’s labor force lives in the United States, 30 percent of Mexicans with PhDs live in the United States. Mexico reports that 79 percent of the science students it funds to study abroad never return to work in Mexico.13

75 percent of Jamaicans with a higher education live in the U.S.14

An estimated 20 percent of skilled South Africans have already left the country, and 70 percent are considering leaving.15 There are more African-born scientists and engineers working in the United States than there are in Africa.16

Zimbabwe’s once revered mining industry is facing imminent collapse as a result of lost manpower. Its workforce has shrunk by one third.17

India produces an estimated 178,000 qualified software engineers every year. If they practiced their trade at home, India’s programmer shortage—estimated at 145,000 and growing—would be wiped out in a few months. Four of out every ten Indian software developers are now working in the U.S. Several of India’s small software companies have been forced to shut down—not for lack of business but because they couldn’t find enough employees.18 In 1998, the renowned Indian Institute of Technology sent 30 percent of all of its graduates to the United States, including 80 percent of its computer science graduates.19

The International Labour Organisation warns that so many intellectuals are leaving Colombia the country is losing competitiveness and facing economic collapse.20

To replace this lost labor, developing countries must hire professionals from more developed countries at a high cost. The United Nations reports that India loses two billion dollars a year due to the exodus of skilled labor to the United States alone.21,22 Africa spends an estimated four billion dollars annually to replace lost talent.23  This expatriate labor force is considerably more expensive than the Africans they have replaced, although many of their salaries and benefits are paid by foreign governments as part of grant aid programs.24

Countries also incur a net financial loss as their professional workers leave because they no longer contribute to their home country’s income tax base. A study of professional migration from India to the United States found an annual tax revenue loss to India of $700 million—twelve percent of the country’s total income base for the year.25 With each migrating professional, Africa loses $184,000.26

The departure of professionals can even decrease the need for unskilled labor, through decreasing demands for the goods and services those professionals would have required. In South Africa, for each professional who leaves, as many as ten unskilled jobs are destroyed.27

Additonally, the negative effect of the loss of professional workers is compounded because they are no longer able to pass on their skills to future generations.28,29

The United States’ Role

The United States has more foreign-born professionals than any other country and has been increasing its supply of H-1B visas, temporary work visas for skilled professionals.30 Between 1996 and 1999, the share of H-1 visas issued to workers from developing countries increased 40 percent, from 53 to 74 percent of total H-1 admissions. Indian-born H-1B visa holders in the U.S. account for a full 30 percent of India’s total software labor force—a loss especially damaging for a country where more than 40 percent of adults are illiterate.31,32

Also playing a role is the U.S.’s foreign student program, which is supposed to give students from foreign countries the opportunity to study in the U.S. in the hope that they will better contribute to the development of their home countries when they return. Indeed, student visas can only be obtained after convincing a consular official that the recipient intends to return to home after graduation. But in reality, many foreign students hope to—and do—remain in the U.S. after they graduate.

Only half of foreign doctoral and postdoctoral students who study in the U.S. return to their home countries within two years after finishing their studies.33 Almost a quarter of all H-1B visa holders in 2000 had previously possessed American student visas.34,35




[1] James Lamont, “Africa Brain Drain ‘Hitting Growth’” Financial Times, August 2, 2001.

[2] Wachira Kigotho, “Brain Drain Stunts Africa,” The East African Standard, October 5, 2002.

[3] Virginia Gidley-Kitchin, “UN Tackles African Brain Drain,” BBC, February 22, 2000.

[4] James Lamont, op.cit.

[5] “Sierra Leone: For Better Pay - Doctors Flee to Other Countries,” Africa News, April 2, 2003.

[6] David H. Shinn, “Reversing the Brain Drain in Ethiopia,” Addis Tribune, Dec. 6, 2002.

[7] “Zimbabwe: Shortage of Nurses Cripples Health Services,” The Herald (Zimbabwe), June 9, 2003.

[8] Akhilesh Upadhyay, “Health: Lure of U.S. Nursing Jobs Hurts Third World Medical Care,” Inter Press Service, Oct. 23, 2002.

[9] Sam Vaknin, “Analysis: Migration and Brain Drain I,” United Press International, March 18, 2002.

[10] David H. Shinn, op. cit.

[11] Akhilesh Upadhyay, op. cit.

[12] Vladimir Kuchar, “Brain Drain Affecting Health Care, Ministries,” Prague Business Journal, June 2, 2003.

[13] Natalia Vitela, “Brain Drain,” Groupo Reforma, February 15, 2002.

[14] “Outward Bound,” The Economist, September 26, 2002.

[15] Ibid.

[16] David H. Shinn, op. cit.

[17] “Zimbabwe: Skills Flight Threatens Mining Industry,” Zimbabwe Standard, Africa News, June 15, 2003.

[18] Sanjay Kapoor, “Subcontinental Drift,” Asiaweek, Dec. 15, 2000.

[19] Janamitra Devan and Parth S. Tewari, “Brains Abroad,” McKinsey Quarterly, No. 4, 2001.

[20] Christina Lamb and Philip Jacobson, “Crisis as Middle Classes Flee the Crime of South America,” Sunday Telegraph, Jan. 7, 2001.

[21] Virginia Gidley-Kitchin, op. cit.

[22] The Economist, op. cit.

[23] “Brain Drain Costs Africa Billions,” BBC, October 17, 2001.

[24] David H. Shinn, op. cit.

[25] Mihir A. Desai, Devesh Kapur, and John McHale, “Sharing The Spoils: Taxing International Human Capital Flows,” presented at the NBER-NCAER conference on India's Economic Reforms, December 2000.

[26] Akhilesh Upadhyay, op. cit.

[27] Stefan Wagstyl, “S African Leaders do little to Stem Exodus of Skills,” Financial Times, July 24, 2002.

[28] Virginia Gidley-Kitchin, op. cit.

[29] The Economist, op. cit.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Simone Commander, Mari Kangasniemi, and L. Alan Winters, “The Brain Drain: Curse or Boon? A Survey of Literature,” paper prepared for CEPR/NBER/SNS International Seminar on International Trade, Stockholm, May 24-25, 2002.

[32] K.C. Krishnadas, “Brain Drain Hurts Developing Nations, U.N. Reports,” EE Times, July 19, 2001.

[33] Luke Harding, “Exodus of Elite Professionals Taxes India,” Plain Dealer, November 23, 2000.

[34] Mario Cervantes and Dominique Geullec, “The Brain Drain: Old Myths, New Realities,” OECD Observer, May 7, 2002.

[35] The Economist, op. cit.

Updated 10/02