Stemming the brain drain
Our Readers' Opinions
February 24, 2006

Stemming the brain drain


At first glance, the findings of “Emigration and Brain Drain: Evidence From the Caribbean” – a recent International Monetary Fund publication – are as unremarkable as the title of the document. Yes, Caribbean nationals migrate abroad, especially to the United States. And yes, many of those nationals are well-educated, resulting in a regional “brain drain.” No real surprises there.

But the shocking devils are in the details of the IMF Working Paper, and they highlight special issues of concern for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as the government begins to consolidate and expand upon the stunning successes of its Education Revolution. {{more}}

According to the Working Paper, St. Vincent and the Grenadines had the fourth-highest emigration rate in the world between 1970 and 2000, if you measure emigration as a percentage of the educated labour force that has migrated to industrialized “first-world” countries. In fact, 13 of the top 20 emigration rates belong to CARICOM member states.

No less shocking is that, between 1965 and 2000, a full 71% of St. Vincent’s tertiary-educated labour force has migrated to the United States. That’s well more than two-thirds of the nation’s best-educated citizens living abroad. A large part of vital nation-building endeavours is being left to an ever-dwindling minority of our educated citizens.

But ahh, you may say, those foreign-based Vincys are sending millions of dollars in remittances back home, and many of us wouldn’t be able to get by without them. Indeed, as a percentage of GDP, St. Vincent and the Grenadines ranks 30th worldwide in total remittances. So migration of our best-educated work-force might be a good thing, right?

Not so fast. According to the Working Paper’s calculations, “the total losses due to skilled migration . . . outweigh remittances.” These losses, which include the governmental expenditure on education plus the social welfare costs and effects on the labour demand supply framework, are negating the national benefits of remittances. St. Vincent – and most of our Caribbean neighbours – is not only experiencing a brain drain, but a quantifiable economic drain because of the flight of skilled workers to the United States.

As the Government continues to help more and more Vincentians soar to the upper echelons of educational achievement and success, the practical costs of brain drain will come into sharper focus. If the government succeeds on its pledge to have a university graduate in every household within the next two decades, the sad statistical fact is that more than half of them may bolt for greener pastures in the United States.

But the Education Revolution cannot solely be for the individual gain of its beneficiaries. St. Vincent must retain more of the fruit of its extraordinary investment in education. So, as part and parcel of the Revolution, all Vincentians must devote themselves to reinventing their nation into one that will remain attractive and viable to the brightest and most talented of our restless youth. In the immediate term, the Government should have no qualms about requiring scholarship recipients to return and remain home for extended periods after they complete their tertiary schooling. More importantly, it is vitally important for the Education Revolution to focus on providing skills that are in high demand here at home and in the broader CARICOM region. As we transition to a service economy of hotels, technology centres and offshore banks, our educational system must reflect that thrust. Young people are more likely to stay at home if quality jobs are waiting for them when they graduate.

The role of the Education Revolution in reducing the net losses due to emigration also hinges on our ability – to paraphrase the ULP Manifesto – to inculcate core Caribbean values in our school-age children. It is this Caribbeanness and Caribbean patriotism that will not only encourage more of us to stay home and dedicate ourselves to nation-building, but it will also compel those in the Diaspora to stay more attuned to local events, to feel involved in the nation’s progress, to invest more at home, to offer their skills and talents, and yes, to increase remittances.

At the beginning of this consolidation of the Education Revolution, we should all bombard our elected representatives with ideas about how to reshape St. Vincent’s educational and social development in such a way that the country becomes a more attractive option for young professionals. Without a continued retooling of the way St. Vincent educates its youth and markets itself to its own citizens, one of the unfortunate byproducts of our increased educational opportunities will be an increase in emigration. And while this may benefit the individual migrants, it does little for our collective national development.