A global tomorrow


The first time I heard the phrase brain drain was when I was still in high school. To those who may not know, brain drain is the catchy phrase used to describe the phenomenon where some of the most promising people of a country move somewhere else in search of better opportunities, usually to settle down there and never return. Of course, for the home country this means loss of the service that such talented people would have been able to offer, which is why most of what I read about it back then presented brain drain in a negative light. Based on my readings and my belief that one should always contribute to the homeland, I also decided that brain drain was undesirable.

In the decade that has passed since then, a lot has changed in both the public and private sphere. I have not become an unqualified advocate of brain drain, but like most opinions formed at an impressionable age, my beliefs on the matter have been moderated by my experiences since then. I am no longer able to think of brain drain in terms of black and white, and would like to explain why I had to move away from such a simplistic viewpoint.

From a staunch nationalist perspective, brain drain deprives the country of one of its most precious assets – human resource. Our best and brightest pursue careers elsewhere, and the general assumption is that they cannot do anything to contribute to their homeland. Presented thus, it really does seem like a complete loss. However, there are at least two problems with this argument.

First, we should consider the motivation of the individual who is leaving Bangladesh for good. Typically this person is not motivated by any ill-feeling towards their homeland. Their motivation is something that is obvious to any student of Economics – the drive to seek out better opportunities and greater room for growth. Ironically, this drive for self-improvement is what makes them assets to a nation in the first place. If they had access to the same opportunities here, there is a substantial possibility that a lot of them would not choose to dislocate from their home and move to a completely new country. Some probably still would, but most of my experience with expatriates gives me reason to believe that they are not representative of expatriates in general.

This brings me to my second point. In both my personal and professional lives, I have to deal with a lot of people who have spent a large portion of their lives abroad and have recently moved back to Bangladesh. Cynics will usually tell you that they are only back here to retire in luxury, powered by their foreign currency savings. On the contrary, most of these people are actually engaging in something or the other. Some are teaching in universities, setting up cutting edge research labs, starting their own business, or lending a global perspective to existing businesses. What matters is that everybody is using their skills and experience to do something productive right here in Bangladesh. Their time spent in some developed country is enabling them to introduce new ideas and methods and giving others an opportunity to learn from them, something that would be extremely difficult to arrange otherwise. Imagine working in Dhaka and being able to see a former Facebook/Twitter/Groupon employee at work, being able to learn from them. Or imagine being a young university teacher, working with people who have spent years doing research in some of the best institutes around the world. That we are enjoying these opportunities today is only because these people left Bangladesh years ago to scope out better grounds, and are now back home with everything they learnt in their travels.

One might argue that this is not true brain drain, since the individuals in question are eventually coming back here and doing something for the nation. While this is a valid comment, I have already pointed out that a large number of expatriates are now thinking of this as an option, enough that this is now a perspective that cannot be ignored.

Further, I would like to claim that true brain drain, in the extreme sense that the individual completely cuts off all ties with the homeland, hardly ever happens. I am not aware of whether any surveys have been done on this, but I severely doubt that a significant number of such people exist.

Nevertheless, it is true that a lot of people choose not return to their homeland at any point. However, in some way or another even this does not present a complete loss to the country. First of all, a lot of these people continue to send part of their income to their families back home. This helps the economy and the state of the currency. Another way they are contributing has become more prominent in recent times, particularly with the rise of the software industry. A lot of people working in the IT industry in North America, for instance, do not really consider returning to Bangladesh for good as an option. However, they are gradually becoming more receptive to the idea of investing in the local software industry. This source of capital and guidance might be just the catalyst that the Bangladesh IT scene needs right now and it would not be possible without these individuals leaving Bangladesh in search of better opportunities. So it seems safe to say that even those who never come back to settle here are contributing value in their own ways.

Still, let us assume that there are yet many other people who are moving abroad, settling down there with all their immediate family members and not showing any interest in their homeland, even in the form of financial investments. Even then all is not lost. We are now well and truly in a global era, and in many ways each nation has now basically become a brand. The products and services, and above all the human resource that a nation offers, is in many ways representative of that nation’s brand. As an academic, let me talk about the domain I understand best. Every year a large number of students from Bangladesh apply to graduate school abroad. With the advent of more colleges, this number is also rising steadily every year. However, except a few big universities, most other schools and industries in Bangladesh are not really known globally. This is where having Bangladeshi academics abroad can help. In addition to recruiting students themselves, these people can also help raise awareness about Bangladesh and the promise our young minds hold. Even if these people do not choose to do this actively, the quality of their own work is still bound to create some impression on peers and professors. I am sure similar influences can also play a role in other professional spheres. If Bangladesh is a brand, Bangladeshi immigrants all over the world are our brand ambassadors, whether by choice or not. All their actions are eventually reflections of Bangladesh in general, which is something our immigrants should keep in mind at all times.

All these points taken together seem to me as enough evidence that brain drain is hardly the unadulterated evil I was once led to think of it as. At least in today’s world, there are many ways in which immigrants can have the best of both worlds – pursuing the best opportunities for themselves and still contributing value to their homeland. Even if they do not do so consciously, their own career trajectories can help create an impression about their homeland, which can aid future immigrants and attract potential investors. This model of spreading one’s own talent all over the world to build an image for the nation has worked in the past for countries like India, Japan and Israel, to name a few. Instead of unwarranted bitterness about people who are just trying to pursue growth opportunities, we should instead focus on how we can still gain strategic advantage from their position, their influence, and the opportunities that they have access to. If nothing else, they could at least make Bangladesh a more familiar name to the world.

The time for bitterness and blaming has past. It is time we respected the career choices made by our fellow citizens, and focused on how they could still be of benefit to us instead of trying to make them feel guilty for having ambition. After all, the greatest asset we have is our people, and the best of these are those who set out to explore the world in search of their passion. We need to acknowledge that they are not outcasts, they are merely pioneers ushering us to a global tomorrow.

Source: Bd news24


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