Brain drain is a big global problem and circular migration could be a solution

It is generally known that there is a large wealth gap between prosperous countries and the so-called Third World countries. In these developing countries, there is much poverty and little security and safety for the population. The prosperous countries have been taking advantage of less prosperous countries for hundreds of years, such as getting cheap raw materials from the latter countries, but  also people. This isn’t to mean slaves necessarily, but the circumstances through which prosperous  countries attract highly educated people from Third World countries. This phenomenon results in the  so-called ‘brain drain’. What can we do about this? 

Brain Drain 

First, we need to understand the concept. The concept of brain drain has several definitions. The  definition that will be used, however, is the one that refers to the migration of highly educated/skilled  people from one country to another, leading to them not returning and the value of their skills and/or  knowledge being lost. This, as previously mentioned, refers to leaving a developing country and going to a wealthy country. 

This is because the opportunities in the country these highly educated people go to are greater. But this creates an effect of brain drain; the countries that are not very prosperous at the time actually lose even more value. This only widens the social and economic disparities. Clearly, this is a significant problem, leading to greater inequality in the world. What action should be taken? Close down all borders? Or something else? 

Human Capital 

Another name for this phenomenon is the loss of human capital: The term means‘’ the stock of productive skills, talents, health and expertise of the labor force, just as physical capital is the stock of plant, equipment, machines ,and tools´´(Goldin, 2016). This entire human capital of a person is then lost in one country and gained in another. 

By understanding this term, we can talk more precisely about the problem. This is because you can then indicate in one term how literal value is lost when people who have gained knowledge in their country of origin leave for another country. It is like a country investing a lot of money into  vegetables, going through the trouble of growing them, and then shipping them to another country  all for free. 

Significant Problem 

It is not only a few highly educated people who make the choice to move to better countries and work. There is a massive amount of individuals making these choices. This is shown in the following statistics from, on how many highly educated people from all over the world go to OECD countries. The OECD are 36 countries that are generally quite prosperous, for example, most European countries and the United States. Their data shows that in 2015/2016, some 40 million highly skilled immigrants were living in OECD countries. The data also showed a number of countries supplying the  most highly skilled immigrants. For example, almost 30 percent of highly skilled people in Somalia and Congo immigrate. Clearly, these are huge numbers, shifting huge amounts of human capital from poor countries, to mostly richer OECD countries (d’Aiglepierre et al., 2020).

Push & Pull 

Before we can start looking at possible solutions for brain drain, we need to start looking at what causes brain drain in the first place. A major cause is the balance between push and pull factors. An article by Sumit S. Oberoi and Vivian Lin (2006) explains this well. They look at a situation of brain drain between Australia and South Africa. In the figure from the article on the right, you can see that several factors play a role in attracting and pushing people away from their countries of origin. In the study, they also asked people in South Africa what weighed most heavily for them, the push or pull factors. They indicated that the push factors weighed most heavily. Examples include poor remuneration and lack of job satisfaction, but also, for example, real immediate danger: high levels of crime, civil conflict, and political instability (Oberoi & Lin, 2006). Knowing that people make choices by mostly considering the push factors, it makes the most sense to address the push factors in a developing country. This is to make people feel less like they have to leave.  

But this is not as easy as it might sound, for reasons that may seem obvious, such as corrupt  governments making it difficult to invest money in these countries from the outside. You can’t just simply improve an entire country on all socioeconomic levels in a few years, while the problem of brain drain needs to be addressed quickly. 

Circular migration 

A good solution to brain drain could be circular migration. Circular migration is about ensuring that people do not disappear from their countries of origin for compensation, but that they come back. They then do not have everything from their life in one country, but they divide this between two countries. This could be, for example, dividing work and family between two countries and thus remaining active in both (Hugo, 2013). 

A Migration Policy Institute article by Graeme Hugo explains that this could be a good way to combat brain drain. They then bring money and also ideas and skills back to their country of origin (Hugo, 2013). 

‘’Circular migration also reduces the risk of losing human capital to brain drain. The difference between circular migration and permanent migration with respect to brain drain is that the human resources embodied in the migrant are only partially lost during the migrant’s absence from the sending community.’’
(Hugo, 2013) 

The article also states that it is not only good for the country of origin but also for the migrant himself. The migrant can get a better income, and gain skills and experience. He can also create opportunities for family members. It also says that there is a lot of potential in circular migration, but it also says that it needs to be carefully managed to achieve a good result. 

The European Commission also talks about the benefits of circular migration in a report. They tell in this report that the risk of brain drain is limited if circular migration is well managed (Commission of the European communities,2007) 

“Circular migration is increasingly being recognised as a key form of migration that, if well managed, can help to match the international supply of and demand for labour, thereby contributing to a more efficient allocation of available resources and to economic growth.” (Commission of the European Communities, 2007) 

If it’s properly managed then, circular migration may be a tool for good. This is still a challenge, however, especially because it requires good cooperation and everything has to be well organized. It is  not a golden solution, but it is certainly a good option worth trying. It is not needed anymore then to  only focus on the push factors, which are very complicated. This is because highly skilled people can  now benefit from the best things from both countries. Also, human capital is then no longer lost, but  only shared by two countries.


Commission of the European communities. (2007) Communication from the commission to the European parliament, the council, the European economic and social committee and the committee of the regions on circular migration and mobility partnerships between the European Union and the countries. Retrieved on 21 December 2022,

d’Aiglepierre, R., David, A., Levionnois, C., Spielvogel, G., Tuccio, M. & Vickstrom, E. (2020). A global profile of emigrants to OECD countries. OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers.

Goldin, C. (2016) Human capital. Handbook of Cliometrics,55-86. 3:HUL.InstRepos:34309590

Hugo, G. H. (2013). What We Know About Circular Migration and Enhanced Mobility. In Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Retrived on 20 December 2022, van

Oberoi, S. S. & Lin, V. (2006). Brain drain of doctors from southern Africa: brain gain for Australia. Australian Health Review, 30(1), 25.

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