Revisiting the Doctrine of Human

Revisiting the Doctrine of Human Capital Mobility in the Information Age


by Damtew Teferra*




"And what for I, with my brains and talent, was born in Russia?"

(Alexander Pushkin 19th Century Russian Poet)


"Coming back to my native Pakistan in 1951 after taking my Ph D in theoretical physics at Cambridge and after a research period at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, I began to teach at the Lahore Government College. In this position, I found myself desperately isolated. As the only theoretical physicist in the country, I had no one in my vicinity to talk to, to discuss or share ideas with. The academic climate was not stimulating at all. After three years, I realized that staying anylonger would not make sense; my work would deteriorate, the harvest of my achievements in physics would go to waste and Iwould be of no use to my country ÷. I reluctantly decided to return to Cambridge."Abdus Salam . Founder of the TriesteCenter for Theoretical Physics, Italy


"I feel frustrated when I want to do a piece of work but fail because of lack of basic facilities to do the job. Sometimes I look for a sabbatical leave to go and do research in a more sophisticated laboratory so that I can publish a standard paper."A Chemist, Tanzania (1999)


"I feel somehow isolated because of lack of appropriate research facilities."†† A chemist, University of Dar es Salaam

(1999) "Salaries of Third World continuously remain low, thus some people are tempted to look for better salaries elsewhere, thus Africa will become a brain-drained continent."†† A Geologist, University of Botswana (1999) "I try to attend conferences, get materials which inform me of current research activities in research centers abroad [to tackle isolation]."A Physicist, Addis Ababa University (2000)




The movement of scholars from one country to another is known by numerous synonyms: Brain drain, brain hemorrhage, and euphemistically as brain circulation. The controversy over the concept has been such that some refute concerns over the issue as emotional nationalistic nonsense (Das, 1974) while others urge for a serious commitment by some developing countries, particularly Africa, to staunch the serious outflow of their trained personnel (Sattaur, 1989). While one school of thought treats such movements as an extreme form of institutional nomadism (Hountondjii, 1990) another views it as a circulation of skilled labor in the emerging interdependent global economy (North, 1992).


As much as the terms to describe the phenomenon of skilled labor mobility are used interchangeably, their particular use often connotes the magnitude of the net flow and the perceived impact the movement has caused on losing countries. It is appropriate to state as well that the terms coined to express the events in a particular country at a particular point in time evolve as the overall state of that country shifts. While this article favors the term žbrain mobilityÓ owing to the current technological, economic, demographic, and social developments in the world and the complexity of the phenomenon, it, however, uses existing terms flexibly and interchangeably largely based on the premise they were initially conceived.


The international migration of scholars is a phenomenon as old as universities themselves ůand therefore not peculiar to developing countries. Generally perceived to be a constructive dynamic, the movement of teachers and researchers from one national setting to another ranging from permanent relocation to short-term visits or exchange programs ůfacilitates the dissemination of knowledge and the broadening of cultural horizons. However, when one nation becomes a substantial net exporter of academic (or other intellectual) talent, a brain drain condition is said to occur. The presence of this condition suggests that the sender nation is at risk of depleting its natural supply of intellectual talent (Schuster, 1994).


Brain drain emerged as a concept in the 1960s during massive migration of mainly British scholars to the US. After the culmination of the Second World War, žbetween 1949 and 1965 about 97,000 high-skill scholars emigrated to the USA, mainly from Great Britain, Germany and Canada.Ó Since the mid-1960s and in particular during the 1970s the geographicstructure of the brain drain process noticeably changed, the developing countries becoming its žnutrient mediumÓ(Simanovsky, et al 1996). With worsening economic hardships, social unrest, political turmoil, and declining work and living conditions at home, the volume of this nutrient medium has expanded, consequently intensifying the outflow.


Some statistics to indicate the current wave is in order. In 1998 nearly 120 doctors were estimated to have emigrated from Ghana and between 600 to 700 Ghanaian physicians are practicing in the USA alone. This represents roughly 50 percent of the total population of doctors in the country. It is estimated that about 10,000 Nigerian academics are now employed in USA alone and more than 1,000 professionals left Zimbabwe only in 1997.


What is the picture like Ethiopia? The estimates for Ethiopia indicate that about 50 percent of the Ethiopians who went abroad for training have not returned home for the past 10 to 15 years after completing their studies. Between 1980-91, a total of 5,777 students have returned from studies abroad out of the 22,700 students who went abroadůwhich is a mere 39

percent (Sethi, 2000).

Some specific figures may probably tell the story even better. In Addis Ababa University, Ethiopiaůwhere the author worked for over 10 years ů, of about 20 faculty members of the physics department who left for Ph. D. studiesůalmost all to the United states none returned (Teferra, 1997). The same holds true for Mathematics department at the same university where the extent of non-returnees continues to force the department to employ fresh graduates regularly.


Corpuses of literature on skilled labor mobility list a variety of pros and cons of the phenomenon. The major perceived negative impact of brain mobility that are often stated includes the erosion of the national scientific and technological potential of the losing country, cost of education of emigrants in the home country, and lost investment and benefits due to departure of specialists needed for the country. On the other hand the following are considered as major positive developments: better opportunity and personal development for the immigrant, financial benefits (by way of remittances) to home country, and serving as žsafety netÓ for excess expertise produced. It is important however to stress that the pros and cons of the migration of skilled labor is far more complex and complicated than outlined here that necessitated a brief discussion later in the chapter.


*The author is a co-director and lead researcher of the African Higher Education Project, based at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA. He may be contacted at or