The International Mobility of Talent

Determinants and Development Impact

by Andrés Solimano

There is a growing recognition of the importance for economic growth and development of ‘intangibles’ such as technology, ideas, creativity and innovation. Behind these intangibles there is ‘human talent’, say an inner capacity of individuals to develop ideas and objects, some of them with a high economic value. Clearly, the ‘human factor’ (paraphrasing the title of the famous Graham Greene’s novel) is critical for adding value to goods, services and other activities. The topic of the international mobility of talent is reviving now after being largely dormant for a few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s there was an interesting polemics among economists between the ‘nationalists’ (represented by Don Patinkin) and the ‘internationalists’ (represented by Harry Johnson) that also affected the views of policy makers at the time. The internationalist view stressed that the mobility of talent was the result of better economic and professional opportunities found abroad than in the home country and that this mobility leads to clear gains for those who move and also for the world economy as human resources went from places with lower productivity to places with higher productivity, thereby rising world income and global welfare. The nationalist school, in turn, questioned the practical meaning of the concept of ‘world welfare’ and pointed out the asymmetric distribution of gains and costs of that mobility between receiving (core) and sending (periphery) countries. At the start of the 21st century, the problem of brain drain certainly exists although we now tend to also underscore the process of ‘brain circulation’. The story now is of bright Indian and Chinese nationals that after graduating in the US became successful entrepreneurs in both the host country and in the home country. These are people who are uniquely positioned to serve as bridges between Asian and American markets given their contacts, access to technology, capital and knowledge on how to operate successfully in both societies. In the Latin American context, Chilean, Mexican, Bolivian entrepreneurs and others are making successful inroads in biotechnology and cellular phones companies in North America; they are also starting to bring ‘return investment’ to their home nations. This phenomenon is not only restricted to the business sector. International celebrities in the world of literature and painting such as Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Fernando Botero and others are succeeding in America and Europe, likewise famous soccer players from Africa. However, not all talent mobility is as glamorous as these examples could suggest. A dramatic case is the massive and persistent emigration of medical doctors, nurses and other workers in the health sector from poor nations in sub-Saharan African countries to the UK, US, Canada or Australia. The exodus of health professionals is weakening of the health sector in the source countries. This is particularly serious in the case Africa already suffering AIDS epidemics, malaria and other diseases that impair their development potential and causes many losses of human lives. Moreover, the Caribbean is also a region with a high proportion of health professionals abroad.

Types of Talent and Motives to Move

The WIDER-ECLAC project on international mobility of talent identified three broad types of talent mobility with similarities and differences in their motivation and development impact:

(i) The mobility of entrepreneurs, technical talent, technology innovators and business creators.

(ii) The mobility of scientific and academic talent and international students.

(iii) The mobility of health professionals and cultural workers.

The literature on the economic determinants of talent mobility stresses the importance of international differences in wage levels and earning opportunities in driving people from one country/ region to another. This is particularly relevant for entrepreneurs, for liberal professions and others. Still our research shows that pay differentials may not be the only prime motivation to move internationally for all types of talent. A scientist may have also an over-riding interest in the quality of the research centers and universities at home and abroad, their research facilities and budgets and the quality of peer interaction. Engineers and innovators living in technologically advanced economies derive high personal satisfaction from contributing to the technological development of their home country and, in passing, internalizing the corresponding monetary rewards associated with that transfer. In the political realm, the case of former Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meier is telling. As described in one of the chapters of this project, when interviewed long ago on her motivations to move, stated that she could not miss what was going on in Israel, even at the cost of leaving behind the comfort and security of their home to engage in a tumultuous process of nation-building abroad. An apparently opposite case, in terms of motivation to emigrate is the case of health professionals leaving their home countries at the time of serious shortages of medical personnel or downright health crises in their home nations. 

Main Findings 

The main findings of our project can be briefly summarized as follows:

(i) Large differences in per capita income and living standards across countries besides economic globalization, lower transport and communication costs, have lead, in recent years, to an increase in the mobility of qualified human resources across countries. 

(ii) There is a considerable concentration of the world stock of qualifi ed human resources measured as people with tertiary education, in a few high per capita income countries, chiefl y the US followed by the UK, Australia, Canada and other OECD nations. Many of this talent come from developing and former socialist countries such as IT experts, health professionals, scientists, students and others.

(iii) An interesting phenomenon is the emergence of north-south (reverse) mobility of ‘technology entrepreneurs’ in which successful expatriate entrepreneurs in the north (the typical case being entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley but there are more) expand their business reach to their home countries (typically China and India and also Latin America) bringing along with them capital, technology and market knowledge. 

(iv) Increasingly, informal organizations such as search networks, open migration chains and professional, scientifi c and entrepreneurial Diasporas serve as useful mechanisms for transmitting information about opportunities in the home countries. Source country governments are starting dialogues to connect with their Diaspora communities to mobilize talent abroad for economic development at home. 

(v) The export of health professionals such as medical doctors and nurses from poor and low- middle income countries often have the effect of weakening the human resource base in the health sector of the source countries. Public policies in source countries are faced with a serious problem in which the private interests of health professionals collide with the social interests of the health sector. 

(vi) The USA and Canada are the larger recipients of international students, scientists and other professionals. However, the evidence shows large cross country variation in the return rates to their home countries for PhDs graduated in the USA, high for countries such as Indonesia, Korea, Brazil and Chile and low for Chinese and Indian PhDs who tend to stay in the USA after graduation.

(vii) Cultural workers are a segment of significant international mobility. This is a heterogeneous group that ranges from high-pay, winners-takes-all artists from developing countries to artisans, hand-crafters and other lower earnings cultural workers.

Policy Issues

Currently, the benefits of mobility of qualified human resources are often biased in favor of destination countries given the high concentration of world talent in developed countries, a trend that can aggravate global inequalities. Policies that promote return mobility of ‘technology entrepreneurs’ and other innovators can have a high pay off for national development. Talent, to be economically and developmentally effective, comes in packages; usually along with technology, capital, contacts and market connections. Countries interested in attracting and retaining entrepreneurial talent should ensure good physical infrastructure and appropriate institutions that cut bureaucracy and promote wealth creation to channel productively that type of talent. Nations that seek to attract and retain scientific talent and outstanding students should revise the salary structures in university and research centers and the career possibilities for scientists at home. This must be a political priority. Moreover, the creation of financially sustainable ‘Centers of Excellence’ for the advancement of science and technology in the source countries can be a worthy initiative in this direction. Some experiences of this nature exist in Latin America (e.g in Chile) in which top-class scientists have been attracted and retained after these centers were created; other examples exist in other developing countries as well. Similar initiatives could be developed also for cultural talent. 

angle2005-2_Page_09_Image_0001.jpgNowhere policies are most urgent than in tackling the exodus of health professionals from poor countries with de-capitalized health sectors. Ethical standards for recruitment in receiving countries and compensation schemes are possible tools to deal with this phenomenon. Also wage structures, and career possibilities in the health sector in the home countries must be reviewed and adjusted. Interestingly, some developing countries with a high proportion of medical doctors to the home population (i.e. Cuba) send medical doctors to other developing countries to counteract this deficit. A main challenge of this era of globalization is how to align the greater mobility of qualified human resources seeking better incomes and more opportunities in rich countries with the needs of equitable international and national development at home. 

Andrés Solimano is Regional Advisor, UN ECLAC, former Country Director at the World Bank and Executive Director on the Board of the IADB. He is the Director of ECLAC-WIDER project on the International Mobility of Talent.