Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Border Crossings and Brain Drain

By Regien Stomphorst

In order to develop a country, it needs, among other things, highly educated people. But in case the highly educated people live in a poor country, they often want to leave the country for greener pastures abroad. In some countries the highly educated flee in large numbers, while in other countries the government prevents these flights.
In this paper I will illustrate the dilemma between the freedom to move freely, which causes brain drain and the prevention of brain drain by limiting freedom of travel. Both strategies cause problems. The personal interests of the people do not coincide with the communal interests of the country. Ethiopia allows people to leave the country. While teaching in the country I experienced the results of the brain drain directly. In Eritrea visas to travel abroad are hard to get and hence stories about people feeling imprisoned in the country are abundant.


In 2004, when I was teaching at Addis Ababa University, I was confronted with the exodus of highly educated people. This exodus is called the brain drain. When I first heard the expression brain drain it sounded a bit mysterious, with a slight medical connotation. But during my stay in Ethiopia I became familiar with the word.
During my stay in Addis Ababa I taught undergraduates quantum mechanics. I taught 60 male students. I used the same teaching material as at home in The Netherlands. The mathematical knowledge of these students was quite good and eventually these students performed at the same level as their Dutch fellow-students. Twelve out of the 60 would be qualified as top-students in The Netherlands.
I also taught a postgraduate course. This course gave me a lot of headaches. At the beginning of the course 6 elderly men turned up. The first thing they told me was that this was an optional course for them and that their only aim was to get a high mark without putting effort. They were after a certificate because it would provide them a salary increment at their working place. They had reading glasses and their notebooks were stowed in expensive attaché-cases but the knowledge below their bald skin was very limited. Eventually 5 of them dropped the course because they could not cope at all. The one who continued, failed the exam.
I asked my colleagues: how is it possible that 12 of my undergraduates are top-students and that my graduate students fail the easiest tests? The answer was easy and shocking: bright students get a scholarship to go abroad and only the ones who fail to leave the country continue their education in Addis Ababa. This is how brain drain works!


Eritrea tries to prevent a brain drain by refusing highly educated people exit visa, which means that Eritrean people cannot leave their country. I heard the story of an Eritrean man, who was at the time I heard the story already 6 years married to a British lady. The couple had two kids. Every year the couple tried to visit Granny in Britain but every year the Eritrean man had to remain in Eritrea. He never managed to obtain an exit visa to leave the country for a visit to his in-laws. The government is not willing to take the risk that this highly educated man would decide to settle in Britain.

Open borders or not

Ethiopia and Eritrea have different strategies. Both strategies cause problems. Open borders provides individual freedom to move but deprives the country from its high potential staff. Closed borders serve the common interest of the country to benefit from the highly educated elite but the highly educated population feels imprisoned in the country.