This won't surprise most of us, but a recent study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) confirms that brain drain is intimately linked with chronic underdevelopment.
When a society's best and brightest move away in pursuit of better opportunities, the prospects of progress in their home countries diminish. Nepal's experience is similar to that of any other Least Developed Countries (LDCs) dealing with a crippling outflow of competent individuals. And no amount of remittances compensates. An adequate pool of skilled professionals is as important as aid and investment for LDCs to get out of poverty.
The UNCTAD study notes that 65 percent of all newly graduated doctors in Bangladesh seek jobs abroad. Talk to interns at Bir Hospital and you realise the situation is even worse in Nepal.
But contrary to what many of these bright young things, often from comfortable backgrounds believe, brains aren't only about natural endowment, but also about the investment that makes intelligence marketable. Parents contribute only part of the resources that produce a skilled professional. The rest of it comes from social investments that fund schools, colleges, training institutes or scholarships abroad.
Economic loss aside, the outflow of skilled personnel seriously damages national priorities. Educational institutions tailor their syllabi for overseas markets. Students prepare for a career abroad from the moment they finish school. The best go west, and the brightest go east. Leaders, planners, and administrators have less and less emotional stake in national development as their entire families too start lining up at embassies.
Normally, brain drain occurs when a country lacks skills due to the emigration of specialists. But in Nepal there is a contradiction: both unemployment of trained manpower and a shortage of skilled professionals. Health professionals don't want to serve in rural areas. Engineers freelance. Scientists are more interested in not-always-practical state of the art tools rather than more mundane matters-helping people plough their fields more efficiently, raise better quality cattle, or better harness natural resources. The clincher is the supposed higher standard of living overseas.
The pull factors are also compelling. Industrialised countries need the hardy individuals required to do poorly paid, dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs that their own nationals scorn. But, being countries with an ageing population, a selective workforce, and shorter working weeks, they also need highly qualified specialised professionals in engineering, technology, medicine, and the sciences to keep the system humming 24x7x365.
Brain drain is unlikely to slow down anytime soon. The challenge lies in devising coping mechanism in developing countries. Dual citizenship is no solution. Luring expatriates back with higher incentives ends up demoralising competent locals and in any case, their loyalties divided between their host and home countries, returnee professionals are the most frustrated lot in any capital city in the developing world.
One of our best bets is to delay the outflow of trained professionals. Universities could award diplomas to health professionals only after they have served for a certain period in field hospitals. Internships can be made compulsory for the final bestowing of engineering or technology degrees.
But nothing matches the benefits of affirmative action and positive discrimination: when more women, dalits, janajatis, and madhesis become doctors, engineers, technologists, and scientists, it will matter a lot less that the Bahun-Chhetri-Newar elite is trooping out of the country. As it is, we could do with fewer of them in almost every discipline.
Arrangements can be made to ensure some returns on the investment made in the production and export of professionals who leave. There are a number of options, from one-time exit taxes to bilateral tax arrangements with host countries. That's one way to turn a challenge into an opportunity.