Conventional wisdom in Algeria would tell you that there is a serious brain drain problem in the country, as it is elsewhere in the world. Several people however, are challenging this view. AidWatch posted research by William Easterly arguing  four reasons why the Brain Drain is actually a good thing (His book on the pitfalls of the Aid industry is heartily recommended). This was preceded by an FP article a few months ago arguing about many misconceptions of the brain drain. However, speaking of Algeria where the brain drain is such a large phenomenon (15% of the population lives abroad), the question is complex and not as black and white as the debate would condition one to think.

Easterly argues that the greatest benefit is to the migrants themselves, who are often forgotten in the debate. This is true for the cream of Algerian skilled labour but the picture is very different for a large section of migrants. Most skilled Algerians with degrees fail to find skilled jobs in western countries [PDF UN Report]. Perceived racism and classism keeps a lot of Algerians in ghettos in France, inevitably many get forced to reside illegally in their target countries. This poses serious problems as it restricts their movement and often forces them underground.

A powerful argument for brain drain skeptics is remittances. Skilled labour sends large amounts of money back to their families. This, however, falls largely flat in the Algerian context because it is harmful in many more ways that it is beneficial.

First, oil rich Algeria is literally awash with foreign currency reserves. In fact, the country can’t spend the money fast enough to spur development precisely because there is not enough skilled labour and managerial acumen to conduct development. Multi billion projects are given to foreign consortiums such that hardly any transfer of skill or know-how occurs and labour is quickly imported to implement the projects.

Second, Algeria can be considered as a middle way country that is not on par with the poorest countries in the developing world. Remittances are spent either on properties or on imported products (The Algerian dream being the car and the house). In properties, remittances are spent on buying land, apartments, villas and commercial enterprises creating an inflation bubble that effectively forces the whole property market beyond the reach of the local population and places it at the hands of migrants and wealthy businessmen. The foreign currency monies get recycled in the black market for ever-increasing property prices or back abroad to get consumer goods. In the end, remittances push prices up and are spent on imported (often luxurious) products with little benefit to the local economy.

Easterly also argues that the brain drain phenomenon inevitably leads to “brain circulation”, where skilled labour and intellectuals often return to their host countries or act as role models for their compatriots back home. The second point is substantial as many Algerians look up to high achievers in western countries, but the result is the belief that it is by leaving the country that anyone attains any success. The first point is a noble long term goal, but it has never materialised in countries like Algeria. The immigration flow of skilled labour has never been reversed at any point in the last century. After the first few years in immigration, very few first generation migrants return and the return of second generation and above migrants is simply unheard of.

The simple reason that gets ignored is that conditions in the source country are not appealing enough for skilled labour, a chicken and egg cyclic problem that is extremely intractable. More brain drain leads to worse conditions at home leading to more drain brain and so on. In the end, very few skilled people are left to have a good development vision for the country.  Labour movement (not unlike goods, a tasteless comparison I know) strictly follows a free market system despite the occasional lip service to nationalism. Emigrants naturally look for their own well-being and their career prospects.

Simplistic measures such as blocking immigration are simply inhumane and border on the criminal. The problem should be tackled right at the source country to create an atmosphere that is encouraging. This, indeed, is seemingly impossibly difficult despite its apparent simplicity. Source and target countries should work together to encourage knowledge transfer. A possible solution is temporary assignments. Skilled labour in private and public bodies can be encouraged to take temporary multi month or multi year assignments in the source country. Immigration rules should be changed to make this possible because working Visa rules make the choice of the country of work a life long commitment for a lot of migrants.

In the end, the problem of brain drain is real and harmful in Algeria. Less work should be made to vilify emigrants and coerce them into feelings of guilt but more, internationally, should be done to encourage true brain circulation.