In Praise of Brain Drain

Want to help the developing world? Hire away its best minds.

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.

Remittances are not only more stable than other forms of financing; they are also countercyclical. That is, they tend to rise when other flows fall, creating a useful cushion. When financial crises hit Mexico in 1995 and Indonesia in 1998, the inflow of remittances actually increased, as worried Mexican- and Indonesian-Americans sent cash home to their struggling relatives.

Additionally, migrants often invest in their homelands. A study of 6,000 small businesses in Mexico, for instance, found that 20 percent of their capital came from remittances, mostly from Mexicans working in the United States. Diaspora investors are braver and more patient than others because they have a long-term attachment to their homeland. Short-term shocks don't worry them as much. A typical foreign investor in Nigeria would be very frightened if he thought the local currency might collapse, since he wants to convert his profits into dollars and take them home. For a Nigerian-American investor, however, the same currency crash offers a chance to buy up land cheaply and build a mansion for his eventual retirement.

Remittances also ease poverty. In Bangladesh, a country that sends tens of thousands of construction workers to toil in oil sheikhdoms, families that receive remittances typically rely on them for half their income. In nearby Nepal, household surveys suggest that remittances account for perhaps half of the country's poverty reduction in recent years.

Emigrants take their skills with them when they leave home, but the money they send back helps others learn. It does so directly, when it is spent on school fees. It also does so indirectly, when it puts food on a poor family's table. Hungry children cannot concentrate in class. Amply fed families are less likely to pull their daughters out of school and put them to work in the fields.

The third way brain drain helps poor countries is that as migrants move back and forth, they open channels for commerce. Countries trade more with countries from which they have received immigrants. This is partly because diaspora networks speed the flow of information: A Chinese trader in Malaysia who spots a demand for plastic mobile-phone pouches will quickly urge his cousin, who owns a factory in Zhejiang, to start cranking them out. Because these two Chinese businessmen know each other, they trust each other. This is hugely important -- it means they can seal a big deal with a single phone call and get their product to market before anyone else.

Diaspora networks have been around for centuries, but they have grown much more powerful of late, for three reasons. First, they are bigger than ever before. Seventy million Chinese live outside mainland China, and 22 million Indians live outside India. There are also hundreds of smaller networks, from the Lebanese in West Africa to the South Koreans in the United States. All told, there are 215 million first-generation migrants in the world, an increase of 40 percent since 1990.

Second, diaspora networks have been massively empowered by modern communications. In the old days, a transatlantic phone call might cost several months' wages. Now it is free via Skype. So migrants stay constantly and intimately in touch with the countries they came from, and with each other.

Third, the places from which migrants come, such as India, China, and Africa, are much more open to trade than they were a generation ago. When China was a closed society, overseas Chinese traders had to make do with linking one foreign port with another. Now they link the world to China and China to the world.

These merchants speak the language, understand the culture, and know whom to trust. In countries where the rule of law is unreliable -- which includes most fast-growing emerging markets -- this matters. Some 70 percent of foreign direct investment into mainland China passes through the Chinese diaspora, broadly defined. American firms that hire Chinese-Americans find it easier to do business in China without the aid of a joint venture.

Diasporas also accelerate the spread of technology to poor countries. Most Asian scientists in Silicon Valley share ideas with their friends back home. The world's cheapest refrigerator, which costs only $70, was developed through the collaboration of brainy Indians in India and brainy Indians in America. So was the software behind India's drive to give all 1.2 billion of its citizens a biometric identity, thus enabling the hundreds of millions who cannot prove who they are to open bank accounts and borrow money.

The final, and most important, argument in favor of brain drain is that migration is good for the migrants themselves. If they did not think so, they would not move. Four out of five Haitians who have pulled themselves out of poverty (if one uses a global poverty line of $10 a day) have done so by moving to America. Nearly half of the Mexicans who have achieved this modest standard of living have done so by crossing the Rio Grande. And tens of thousands of infants are prevented from dying each year by the simple fact that their parents emigrated.

In the battle against global poverty, the most powerful weapon is a welcome mat.



The Rise of Boko Haram

Why the Christmas Day bombings in Nigeria could be the harbinger of much worse to come.

On Christmas day, a bomb was detonated at St. Theresa's Catholic Church on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing at least 35. Two other bombs exploded at Christmas ceremonies across Nigeria, killing five more. Soon after the bombings, a spokesman for Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group based in northern Nigeria, claimed responsibility.

"By the grace of God, we are responsible for all the attacks," a man known as Abul-Qaqa, who claims to be a spokesman for the group, told a Nigerian newspaper. "There will never be peace until our demands are met. We want all our brothers who have been incarcerated to be released; we want full implementation of the sharia system and we want democracy and the constitution to be suspended."

The Christmas attacks by the group, whose name translates to "Western education is a sin," are the latest in a yearlong campaign of violence against Nigerian Christians and the Nigerian government. Just days before the holiday, more than 80 people were killed in clashes between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces. In November, in a city called Damaturu, members of the group exploded a car bomb outside of military barracks, burned down five churches, and mounted attacks against police stations. At the same time, in a city to the east called Maiduguri, Boko Haram members detonated a suicide bomb outside of the headquarters of the military unit tasked with fighting the group. Three other bombs exploded soon after. In August, the group detonated a bomb at the United Nations compound in Abuja that killed 24 people. And last Christmas, Boko Haram bombed five churches, claiming 32 lives.

In 2011, the group is responsible for 504 deaths, according to the Associated Press.

Even as the bloodshed has escalated, President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly downplayed the Boko Haram threat. "We have challenges as a nation; even this morning, a very ugly incident happened in a Catholic Church," Jonathan said after the Christmas attack. "The issue of bombing is one of the burdens we must live with. It will not last forever; I believe that it will surely be over."

Despite Jonathan's assurances, Nigeria's growing turmoil has drawn the attention of the international community. Pope Benedict immediately condemned the Christmas attacks, as did U.S. President Barack Obama. The United States has reportedly begun training Nigerian troops in counterterrorism techniques and providing Nigerian defense forces with weapons and other equipment. French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppe has also offered military support and intelligence sharing in the fight against Boko Haram.

Of course, these measures aren't just to protect Nigeria's internal stability. Western governments' interest has been piqued by links between Boko Haram and larger, international terrorist networks. Abul-Qaqa has asserted the group has ties to al Qaeda, but did not offer proof. His claims was bolstered by Algeria's Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel,who announced in November that Algeria had discovered links between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an offshoot of the global terror network that operates throughout North Africa. "We have no doubts that coordination exists between Boko Haram and al Qaeda," he said. "The way both groups operate and intelligence reports show that there is cooperation."

But other than the group's own proclamations, which connect their ideology to broader radical Islam, and the assertion of the Algerian government in which no hard proof was offered, there is little evidence to support the claim that the Boko Haram movement is connected to a larger terrorist networks. And a close examination of radical Islam in Nigeria shows that the group's resentment toward the government has simmered for three decades and has little to do with a broader Islamic agenda.

Boko Haram's story began in the 1970s, when a young Cameroonian preacher known as Marwa arrived in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria. He quickly gained a sizable following among the city's poor by preaching against Nigeria's secular government, institutional political corruption, and the moderate religious establishment. His movement was known as Maitatsine.

Relations between Nigerian authorities and the Maitatsine movement deteriorated though the 1970s and the group turned violent. Marwa was killed in 1980 during a confrontation with police and the group disbanded. After his death, isolated pockets of extremism retreated to remote areas in the north. Two decades later, in 2000, these factions coalesced into a national movement known as the Nigerian Taliban. This group advocated for the imposition of sharia law across the north and rallied against what it considered to be the malign influence of Western culture on domestic society. The group was active until 2004, when it clashed with police in the northeastern state of Borno, resulting in dozens of deaths. The Nigerian Taliban disbanded soon after.

Soon after, a preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, who taught unemployed and disaffected youth in Borno, then took up the radical Islamic cause. He founded a fundamentalist Islamic school in 2002, attracting students from across northern Nigeria. Among these students were the original members of Boko Haram. Like the Nigerian Taliban, their goal was to impose sharia across northern Nigeria.

Members of the group are known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law, as well as their propensity for violence. In the early years, they operated freely across the north, launching attacks against police and military installations. In 2009, Nigerian security forces, which had ignored or dismissed Boko Haram previously, began to investigate the group, leading to Yusuf's arrest. He died while in police custody. The police claim he was shot while trying to escape, but human rights groups alleged that he was executed. News of his death caused riots in four northeastern Nigerian cities that left 700 dead.

Following Yusuf's death, Boko Haram leaders left Nigeria and settled in neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. It was during this period that some believe they established connections with foreign militant groups, including AQIM and Somalia's al Shabab. The group returned to Nigeria in 2010 with a broader mission to impose Islamic law, not just in the north but across the country. It began a campaign of violence, attacking federal and state security installations, assassinating politicians, and massacring Christians. This campaign garnered international attention with the August 2011 attack on the U.N. building in Abuja.

Following the U.N. attack, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo reached out to members of Yusuf's family, who were associated with Boko Haram's more moderate faction and wanted the violence to end. Yusuf's father-in-law, Babakura Fugu, offered a list of demands, leading to optimism that peace could soon be achieved. But a radical Boko Haram member killed him two days later and talks fell apart.

According to Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria and who helped to facilitate early talks between the government and Boko Haram, the group is now split into three factions. One is willing to negotiate peace with the government. The second wants an amnesty payment, similar to the one offered in 2009 to militants in the Niger Delta. The third faction, responsible for the continued violence, wants to continue to wage war against the government and impose Islamic law across the entirety of Nigeria. "They have foreclosed any attempts at mediation," Sani said of this latter group. "They are ready to fight the government to the end."

The leader of the hard-line faction is a man named Abubakar Shekau, formerly Yusuf's second-in-command. Nigerian authorities thought he was killed in 2009, but a series of recently discovered audio recordings made by Shekau proves he is alive. He leads the group from outside Nigeria, moving between Chad, Cameroon, and Niger (though Boko Haram is only tactically operational in Nigeria).

The group uses guerrilla warfare tactics similar to those used by al Qaeda. Unlike militants in the Niger Delta, who are well-trained in traditional military tactics, Boko Haram favors suicide bombings against law enforcement targets, assassinations, random violence against Christians, and destruction of Christian houses of worship.

But evidence of actual ties between the groups is circumstantial at best, according to Comfort Ero, the Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group, who has done extensive research on Nigerian militancy. "Supposed links to al Qaeda doesn't cover up the fact that Boko Haram is very much a Nigerian problem," Ero said. "It should be understood within Nigeria's own endemic problems."

These problems are especially acute in northern Nigeria, which has historically been ignored at the expense of the country's south. Ninety-five percent of Nigeria's foreign revenue is generated in the country's oil-rich Niger Delta, located in the country's south. The government has concentrated development efforts there in an effort to appease Niger Delta militants and to keep oil flowing out of the country.

The northern half of Nigeria is desert, making farming nearly impossible. Polio has yet to be eradicated there. Most citizens in the north don't have clean drinking water. Electricity is unreliable. Power fails multiple times each day. Economic growth there is non-existent. According to the World Bank, half of all Nigerians are unemployed. Seventy-one percent of young people don't have jobs. Boko Haram generally doesn't speak specifically about these issues, but these conditions make northern Nigeria ripe for extremism.

So far, Jonathan's government has appeared flat-footed in its response to Boko Haram. A federal panel suggested an amnesty after talks between former president Obasanjo and Yusuf's family collapsed. Jonathan rejected the suggestion, electing instead to send the Nigerian military to confront the group. He continues to insist that the Boko Haram threat is overstated and will be quickly eradicated.

Evidence of the government's military campaign effectiveness is difficult to find. Few Western reporters operate in northern Nigeria. Nigerian news services have also scaled back reporting after the group claimed responsibility for the October murders of a Nigeria Television Authority cameraman and reporter.

"The government's response has been reactive," Ero said. "There has to be a review within the government on how to deal with the wider issues that compel Boko Haram."

As fighting continues, human rights groups are raising concerns about the possibility of abuses by the Nigerian military. In the past, Nigerian security forces have been heavy-handed in their pursuit of the group, indiscriminately shelling Boko Haram strongholds and killing innocent bystanders.  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Nigerian police and security services have also carried out extrajudicial executions in its pursuit of the group -- including Yusuf's 2009 murder.

In addition, according to Sani, Muslim elements within the Nigerian government and military tacitly support Boko Haram and want the violence to continue. Politicians from Nigeria's Muslim north remain upset with the reelection of Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta, last spring. Traditionally, the presidency rotates between the north and Christian south. Jonathan's reelection disrupted that cycle.

Nigerian security services have already linked people within the government to the group. In November, Nigerian Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume, who hails from Borno, was arrested for acting as a spokesman. And Boko Haram has also claimed it has the support of other within the Nigerian government.

Boko Haram has repeatedly threatened to attack southern Nigeria. And in addition to anti-government attacks, Nigeria may soon be facing violence between militant groups. In recent interviews, the leaders of Niger Delta Christian militant groups said that although they were sympathetic with Boko Haram's grievances and supported its struggle against government injustice, any incursion into the Delta would lead to war.

"They should not do something against the southern part of Nigeria," a man who calls himself Eybele, a general in the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta, told me recently. "In our struggle we don't target individuals. We don't have anything against them unless they touch any of our citizens."

"If Boko Haram don't stop their illegal and unconstitutional acts, we will face them very soon," added a man called JB, a general in the Icelanders, a militant group that controls large areas of waterfront slums in Port Harcourt, the Niger Delta's largest city.

Ero said she believed Boko Haram violence could be contained to the north, and that civil war could be averted if Jonathan becomes more proactive in dealing with the militant group. But she warned, "Any incursion by Boko Haram into the south would lead to a situation of serious violence and security concerns for Nigeria."

This incursion now seems increasingly inevitable as radical Islamic elements of Boko Haram cement control over the group. With each successful attack, the group gains more confidence. The worst of all possible outcomes may not be long in coming: attacks against civilians in the south, a heavy-handed Army response up north, with Delta militants declaring war and moving north in an offensive against Boko Haram.

Civil war is not foreign to Nigeria: a three-year war that began in 1967 between the Nigerian military and Biafra, a separatist state in the south, lead to the deaths of an estimated three million people. A similar conflict between Boko Haram and Delta militants -- a fight that Nigeria's weak central government and military would be powerless to stop -- could have equally disastrous consequences. It would be a holy war for the future of Nigeria.

Sunday Aghaeze/AFP/Getty Images