Diaspora Innovators Redefine Brain Drain

Perhaps it is time we exchanged the notion of “brain drain” for the proposition of “brain gain” in light of current trends in diaspora engagement. Immigrants today are reconnecting with their countries of origin more easily and more frequently than they could in the past. This new paradigm warrants a fresh look at the true impact of migration on the social and economic development of emerging and developing nations. Could it be that diaspora movements have helped to mitigate many of the negative effects of “brain drain” experienced by individual countries and that the result is a net gain, rather than a net loss, to countries of origin?

The systematic strategies being utilized by immigrants in the diaspora in giving back to their homelands and the considerable amount of resources crossing over from adopted countries to countries of origin suggest that diaspora engagement is emerging as a phenomenon—perhaps even a movement. Globalization, advancements in communications technology and infrastructure, and heightened levels of immigration have spurred these changes.

The billions of dollars of remittance flows sent annually from diasporas in the U.S. are critical to the economies of recipient nations. For many developing and emerging countries, remittances account for the largest source of foreign currency, oftentimes out-performing their revenues from exports and tourism. In many other places as well, the total amount of remittances received exceeds these countries’ national budgets.

Yet resource flows by diasporans to their homelands are not limited to money.

Diasporans are trending towards becoming ‘partners in development’ of their countries of origin as they increasingly engage in philanthropy, entrepreneurship, academia, tourism, trade, health, and advocacy.  By drawing on their various financial resources, expertise, and social and professional networks that they built while living abroad, they are well positioned to support their homeland. Here are a few illustrative case studies:

Weiping Li came to the U.S. from China in 1982 to study engineering at Stanford University. Though he planned on returning to China after earning a PhD, he realized that the best opportunities for him were in the United States.  He got a position as a professor of electrical engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Weiping became a U.S. citizen and raised a family. He was eventually recruited by the Chinese government’s “Thousand Talents” program and made dean of the science division of the University of Science and Technology of China.  He continues to use the Chinese diaspora as a bridge between the United States and China.

Indian diasporans in the software industry in the United States were responsible for the growth and explosion of India as a software capital—attracting the largest companies in the world and employing hundreds of thousands of people in India. A large number of these pioneering entrepreneurs acquired their skills and knowledge in the diaspora and, in fact, leveraged connections abroad upon which they built successful companies back home. Tarun Khanna noted in his book, Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are Reshaping Their Future and Yours, that the Indian diaspora was an important source of entrepreneurship and knowledge for the development of India’s software industry.

Jamaican-trained nurses have developed a reputation for excellence across North America. They are actively recruited by organizations in the United States and Canada that provide ready job placement for these professionals who are among the most organized and active within the Jamaican diaspora. They host dozens of medical missions to Jamaica on an annual basis and send much needed medical equipment and supplies to communities that would otherwise not be served.  Making a similar contribution to civil society, are Jamaican alumni associations in North America and the United Kingdom.  These groups meet critical needs in education and compensate where government budgets fall short. These associations have built schools where non existed, installed wells in rural communities, put computers in classrooms, mentored youth, and funded hundreds of secondary school and tertiary scholarships.

The Ireland Funds is a premiere leader in diaspora philanthropy. Created in 1976 by Sir Anthony O’Reilly, former President, Chairman and CEO of the H.J. Heinz Company and a fellow diasporan, Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, the goal of the Fund was to improve the future of Ireland through supporting access to and excellence in education, promoting Irish culture and heritage, assisting disadvantage youth and the elderly, and promoting philanthropy. Drawing on its vast and active diaspora in the US and worldwide, the Fund has chapters across the United States and is established wherever Irish diasporans reside, including in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, and Singapore.  The Funds has raised $350 million and continues to be “a major focal point for the Irish diaspora to come together, reconnect with their heritage and support good work at home,” said John Ryan, a major donor to the Fund.

More than ever before, diasporans are proactively looking to find ways they can reconnect with and support their countries of origin, even as they become active citizens of their adopted home. The opportunities of engagement are diverse and limited only by the willingness of stakeholders in countries of origin to embrace their nationals abroad.

As globalization and communications technology transform the world into a village, diasporans are utilizing technology and all available resources to optimize their activities in support of their homeland.  It is time that we reevaluate diaspora and immigration from a socio-economic and political perspective. What I believe will be found, is that the notion of “brain drain” might very well be passé in this new transnational world.

About the Author: Geneive Brown Metzger is a leader in the Caribbean American community where, for more than three decades, she has promoted Caribbean-U.S. relations and economic development in the region. She served as the New York Consul General of Jamaica from February 2008 to March 2012. Up until her appointment, Mrs. Brown Metzger was a public relations and marketing consultant.

The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.