Brain Drain

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Author: Gregory Weeks
Editor: Thomas M. Leonard
Date: 2012
Encyclopedia of U.S.- Latin American Relations
Publisher: CQ Press, A Division of Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Brain Drain

Brain drain is a term used to describe the movement of highly skilled and educated migrants from one country to another, typically from a less developed to a more developed country that offers greater employment opportunities, higher wages, and/or greater political stability.

The phenomenon represents a net loss for the country of origin, which expends resources to educate and train the individual, who then does not contribute to the economy and to the country’s overall development. Conversely the host country enjoys “brain gain” for the opposite reasons. With regard to Latin America the vast majority of this drain goes to the United States. Indeed the issue began to draw attention after World War II when the U.S. economy grew at a rapid rate. However many migrants are also attracted to Europe, Canada, or, less commonly, to other Latin American countries.

Brain drain from Latin America has at times been caused by political turmoil, generally when professionals feel threatened by authoritarian governments or civil war. Examples include the early years of the Cuban Revolution, the 1966 coup in Argentina (which prompted mass resignation of scientific faculty) as well as the 1976 Argentine coup, or the worst years of the insurgencies and drug wars in Colombia.

Once the Cold War ended and the number of democracies in Latin America grew, it became associated primarily with economic underdevelopment, which is accompanied by unemployment and relatively little investment in research and development. Persistent underdevelopment therefore fosters a vicious cycle, since a country loses the very citizens that it requires to spur growth. It is therefore even more challenging for the least developed countries to retain those workers. Individuals with university degrees are far more likely to emigrate from the poorest countries (particularly Central America and the Caribbean) than from the wealthier countries.

Nonetheless it can also be associated with economic shocks in relatively more developed countries. For example hyperinflation and macroeconomic instability in Brazil from 1986 to 1993 sparked skilled outmigration. There was also an exodus from Argentina in the wake of the economic crisis that exploded in 2001.

The intergovernmental International Organization for Migration has worked with Latin American governments to create highly targeted programs intended to accelerate “voluntary return.” There are also nongovernmental “network diasporas” that link skilled emigrants back with their country of origin through hometown organizations and professional associations. Their goal is to encourage “brain circulation,” whereby skilled workers may live abroad for long stretches but also invest their time and abilities back home.

Although Latin American policymakers have been aware of the problem for decades, they were slow to develop a coherent policy response. Brazil and Ecuador have led the way in promoting initiatives aimed at higher skilled (and wealthier) migrant communities or even convincing them not to leave in the first place.

The Brazilian government has increased spending on higher education and research, which has greatly reduced the number of Brazilians leaving the country to obtain college degrees. One unintended consequence, however, is that Brazil has also experienced “brain gain” at the expense of other Latin American countries.

Ecuador has focused more on making return of both people and money an attractive option through its “Plan Retorno” (“Return Plan”), which provides reductions or elimination of taxes on capital goods coming back into the country. Further it offers low interest loans to start up new businesses as a way to encourage productive investment. Unlike Brazil, however, Ecuador has a weaker economic base that makes the overall project more difficult.

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Any such effort also faces constant competition from the H-1B immigration program in the United States, which covers skilled foreign workers. It allows for a three-year stay, with the possibility of a three-year extension and eventual application for permanent residency. After September 11, 2001, the United States has accepted fewer petitions, but demand remains high. Although immigration is always a highly charged issue in the United States, accepting well-educated and skilled migrants is generally viewed in a positive light.

Thus, brain drain is a product both of strong “push” (the lack of opportunity at home) and “pull” (available visas for skilled workers) factors that are longstanding and change only slowly. The most effective long-term solution is for governments to provide material incentives for workers to remain in the country or at least to invest their resources back into the economy. Ultimately, however, that must occur in the context of economic growth and expansion.

Gregory Weeks

References and Further Reading

“International Organization for Migration: Americas,” Jahia/pid/250.

Özden, Çağlar, “Brain Drain in Latin America,” Expert Group Meeting on International Migration and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, November 30–December 2, 2005, .

Pellegrino, Adela. “Trends in Latin American Skilled Migration: ‘Brain Drain’ or ‘Brain Exchange’?” International Migration 39, no. 5 (2001): 111– 132.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1966400098