My first child was delivered by a Nigerian midwife at a hospital in London. It was an arduous labor. My wife, Emma, did not want to take a pain-soothing epidural injection until it was absolutely necessary. After several hours, when the contractions were excruciating, she asked for a jab. "Sorry, too late," she was told -- the baby was almost out.
So Emma winced and gasped and gave birth without anesthetic. The midwife was impressed. "You did OK for a Caucasian," she said.
Like many rich countries, Britain imports planeloads of medical personnel like my wife's midwife from poor countries like Nigeria; without them, Britain's hospitals could barely function. But this transfer of intellectual capital raises a troubling question: Is it fair for rich countries to poach talent from poor ones? After all, it seems intuitive that "brain drain" hurts the poor. Frank Dobson, when serving as Britain's health secretary, called it an "international disgrace." If all the best doctors and engineers move to the West, who will staff hospitals or build railways in Nigeria or Bangladesh? Simple justice, it would seem, requires that rich countries should stop recruiting doctors and engineers from poor ones.
Or does it? One of the most surprising findings in modern economics is that the brain drain reduces global poverty. On balance, the outflow of talent from poor countries to rich ones is actually good for poor countries -- and even more so for poor people, since many escape poverty by emigrating.
Migration makes poor countries better off in several ways. First, the prospect of earning big bucks working abroad spurs more people to acquire marketable skills. They scrape together college fees and stay late in the library. Having qualified as doctors or engineers, many will promptly emigrate. But many will not. Some will fail to obtain a visa; others will stay behind to look after their aging parents.
The Philippines, for instance, is the world's largest exporter of nurses. Because so many eager students pack its private nursing schools, however, it still ends up with more nurses per head than Austria. The same holds true for other brain drainees as well. A 2009 study of 127 developing countries found that overall, the loss of skills to migration is outweighed by the extra skills acquired by people contemplating it. That study's authors, however, found in an earlier study that you can have too much of a good thing: Once countries start to lose more than 20 percent of their college graduates, they reckon, brain drain starts to act as a drag on economic growth. In other words, China and India, which export only a small share of their skilled citizens, would benefit from exporting a lot more. By contrast, war-scorched disaster zones such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose most talented people have fled in droves, probably wouldn't.
The second way in which brain drain benefits poor countries is that migrants often send money home. Consider the story of Haddish Welday. As a young man in Ethiopia in the 1980s, when the country was a Marxist dictatorship, Welday watched as 20 soldiers strolled into his biology class one day and dragged off his teacher. The next day, the teacher's body was found lying in the street, shot to death.
Welday lived in fear. Many days, he'd see bodies lying in the streets with paper warnings pinned to them; "Let Red Terror Rain on Me" was one slogan that stuck in his memory.
So Welday decided to emigrate. After a detour through the Soviet Union, he found his way to the United States, where he sought and received asylum. When I met him in 2010, he was working as an accountant in Arlington, Virginia. He has become American, yet he maintains close contact with his homeland. He keeps a house in the Ethiopian city of Axum and sends money to his mother every month. Sometimes he wires it to Ethiopia via Western Union; sometimes he gives envelopes of cash to visiting Ethiopian friends, who deliver it for him.
The money that migrants send home is a huge source of income for poor countries. Recorded remittances to developing countries surged tenfold between 1990 and 2009, from $31 billion to $316 billion. Unrecorded ones -- those envelopes stuffed with cash -- nudge the total even higher. All told, remittances are more than double the amount of foreign aid sent to the developing world, and unlike aid, they are seldom stolen by grasping officials.
Remittances are also less volatile than other financial flows. Bad news can make ordinary investors drop a country like a wriggling porcupine. Families are not like that; Welday will not stop sending money to his mother just because Ethiopia has suffered a corruption scandal or a coup.