Why is everyone leaving? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 02, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 02, 2010

Why is everyone leaving?

Taking off for a better life. Image: hsudarren.wordpress

RECENTLY, there appeared article on reversing brain drain in the point counter-point section of The Daily Star. Writing from Nepal, I want to expand the scope to the South Asian region, as it is a common problem we share, and suggest some solutions.
Most of us are now familiar with the image of oil gushing out of the Deepwater Horizon oil leak off the US coast. The environmental impacts are clear to see, with images of oil soaked birds and threatened coasts filling our screens.
South Asia has a leak of its own. And the impacts of this leak are arguably worse than that of the oil, only not as gut wrenchingly immediate. As human capital gushes out of our region its time we recognised the true nature of this silent emergency.
To write another op-ed blaming political instability, however, would be cliched and leave us no closer to a solution. Yes, our region is fraught with political instability, but while we move towards stability we need to re-frame the problem.
I contend that risk aversion brought on by the structure of the educational system, and societal pressure to conform to rigid academic tracks, has allowed developed nations to harvest South Asian talent for everything from diners to hospitals. The solution requires recognising, first, that we have only ourselves to rely on, and then changing our perception of business and education.
"Harvest" is an apt term. The end-product of billions spent by developing countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and India on education (often with "development aid") is reaped by the West, creating a situation of reverse aid. Human capital is flowing to developed nations. The hypocrisy is striking. What this means is that the West is using the low cost of living in developing nations to lower costs of labour and get cheaper doctors (1 in 4 in the US is trained abroad), engineers and bell boys.
Many have been pushing for an international agreement to help curb brain drain. They should ask themselves why these countries will hurt their own self-interest by doing so. Everyone works for his own benefit, and nation states, answerable to domestic tax payers, are no different. Regardless of the rhetoric we, as a region, are left alone to deal with the question: How do we stop this leak?
A University of Ireland study on "The Relationship between Unemployment and Risk- Aversion" found that risk aversion increased chances of unemployment. This makes sense at the micro level as risk averse individuals are less likely to switch sectors, even if theirs is a sunset industry, or switch to self-employment. At a macro level too this propensity to be employees leads to fewer small and medium size enterprises which create employment.
So why are some people more risk averse than others? Inter alia, their social standing and educational background determines affinity to risk. Most first generation entrepreneurs who have made it big come from low income and social levels, where they really had nothing to lose and everything to gain. In the middle class the opportunity costs of risking your fortunes in business are higher, but so are social pressures to conform and receive a professional degree.
The problem with professional degrees like medicine and law is that they presume a stable working environment (lawyers need court decisions honoured, MRI machines need power). When graduates from these fields fail to find the required stability in the region their degrees become redundant. Hence, the flight abroad.
Another problem with the middle class is the perception of business as a lowly activity that is the reserve of certain families. Parallels to this can be found in Chinese and Japanese history. The Meiji restoration in Japan, which led to it becoming the economic powerhouse it is today, saw a radical shift in perception of entrepreneurship, and a similar transformation occurred in Qing China before economic progress was made.
Respect for business will come from a recognition that it demands fine mental acumen and has immense potential for personal and social gratification. Its risky and fraught with problems, but with creativity problems become opportunities. So the question becomes: How do you foster creativity?
Our education systems are a great example of how not to do it. Most curricula here are geared to create academia with critical thinking, knowledge application and cross curricular links ignored. The end result is that most people want to get a degree to gain a sense of worth. Education is no longer a tool to apply to gain that worth, it is worth in itself. An end in itself. We need to stop seeing education as a means to add letters before or after our names. We also need to stop judging people blindly on these credentials.
In my limited knowledge of educational systems, one that I see does this well is the liberal arts system. It focuses on teaching basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, leaving the rest of the curriculum to develop something much more important -- thinking skills. Even some South Asian nations have woken up to this reality, with Indian law schools adding a Liberal Arts BA component to their LLBs. The rest of the region needs to play catch up.
We need to gear our social and educational frameworks to the risk around us. The situation in South Asia is bad, but it will not get better with time alone. We have seen above that developed nations will not help us plug this leak because its beneficial to them. Self interest is very hard to argue with. Only a creative capacity to harness risks within individual professions can make the mess that is our region today a place where talent can survive.

Abhishek R. Parajuli works at South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics & Environment (SAWTEE), Baluwatar, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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