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Skill Flow: A Fundamental Reconsideration of Skilled-Worker Mobility and Development

  • Michael A. Clemens


    (Center for Global Development)

Large numbers of doctors, engineers, and other skilled workers from developing counties choose to move to other countries. Do their choices threaten development? The answer appears so obvious that their movement is most commonly known by the pejorative term “brain drain”. This paper reconsiders the question starting from the most mainstream, explicit definitions of “development”. Under these definitions, it is only possible to advance development by regulating skilled workers’ choices if that regulation greatly expands the substantive freedoms of others to meet their basic needs and live the lives they wish. Much existing evidence and some new evidence suggests that regulating skilled-worker mobility itself does nothing to address the underlying causes of skilled migrants’ choices, generally brings few benefits to others, and instead brings diverse unintended harm. The paper concludes with examples of effective ways that developing countries can build a skill base for development without regulating human movement. The mental shift required to take these policies seriously would be aided by dropping the sententious term “brain drain” in favor of the neutral, accurate, and concise term “skill flow”.

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Paper provided by Human Development Report Office (HDRO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its series Human Development Research Papers (2009 to present) with number HDRP-2009-08.

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Length: 69 pages
Date of creation: Apr 2009
Date of revision: Apr 2009
Publication status: Published as background research for the 2009 Human Development Report.
Handle: RePEc:hdr:papers:hdrp-2009-08
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