CENTRAL ASIA’S SKILLED MIGRANTS: BRAIN DRAIN OR BRAIN GAIN?
This spring, hundreds of young professionals, scholars and PhD students across Central Asia packed their books, research projects and CVs and headed for foreign countries to get professional training, education, or internships. This movement of highly skilled specialists has become a hotly debated issue among intellectuals in the region. One camp argues that it is a brain drain, as much needed specialists leave their home countries, contributing to shortages of highly skilled professionals. Others argue that it is a brain gain, because if even a few of them come back with world-class expertise, they will contribute to reforming national economies – and those who do not return will transfer remittances from developed countries to their nations.
BACKGROUND: During the last ten years, there was a significant shift in the public perception of a desirable profession in Kyrgyzstan as well as in other Central Asian Republics. Ask high school or college graduates about the desirable professions and the overwhelming majority will say – as in many other countries – that they would like to be doctors, engineers, scientists. However, if asked, where they want to work, the overwhelming majority will name any number of developed and developing countries around the world, anywhere but their own one. Every winter and spring dozens of specialized schools, centers and companies in Bishkek and other large cities help hundreds of the best local talents to prepare for comprehensive science tests like GRE and language tests like TOEFL, and their equivalents in other languages, in order to study at the best foreign universities and research centers. Many of them will go, but few will return.
Probably many of these students who receive their education, training or re-training at the best Research & Development (R&D) and education centers around the world would be willing to return especially during the time of global economic and financial crisis, but Kyrgyzstan does not offer a competitive and innovation friendly environment for its whiz kids. According to the Global Innovation Index, Kyrgyzstan was in the 81st place (out of 110 surveyed) in 2009, behind Ethiopia, Jamaica and El Salvador. For comparison, Estonia was in 23rd place and even neighboring Kazakhstan was 21 points higher – in the place. Another study, the Global Information Technology Report, places Kyrgyzstan in 115th place (out of 134 countries) in Information Technology readiness, behind Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar and Burkina Faso.
Several factors contribute to this trend. One is a sharp decline in funding of R&D during the last two decades at both the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of Kyrgyzstan, which traditionally represented the backbone of the national R&D base, and extremely low R&D funding at the 50 or so national universities. The second factor is the loss of cooperation and research collaboration ties with traditional partners in Central Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe. Third is the lack of clear policies in R&D and inability to establish new partnerships with western R&D centers and private corporations. Fourth is the failure to attract private foreign investments or venture capital into this sector.
A case in point is R&D in the pharmaceutical and medical sector in Kyrgyzstan. For many years, Kyrgyz scientists have experimented with the development of the highly promising homeopathic medicine mumie (or moomiyo), which is believed – among numerous other health benefits – to boost the human immune system, and is highly effective in treating various illnesses and injuries in extreme environments (high altitudes, for example). Kyrgyz experts, who pioneered this medicine, had difficulties in completing necessary bio-experiments, patenting the product and developing an industrial-scale production of mumie for local and international markets. Due to a shortage of specialists, funding and modern know-how in developing the product according to international standards, at present the production is scattered around several countries in the former Soviet Union.
IMPLICATIONS: In this environment, many highly skilled professionals and scientists have no choice but to leave the country, while many young professionals who have been receiving education in foreign countries have little incentive to return. This development has provoked heated debates about brain drain and brain gain. One camp argues that it is brain drain, as much-needed specialists leave their home country contributing to the rising shortages of highly skilled professionals and depriving the country of the chance to develop competitive skill-intensive industries, leaving Kyrgyzstan at risk of becoming a poor resource-exporting developing country. According to various estimates, as of 2009 several thousand Kyrgyz students were studying or conducting research outside their home countries at the graduate level (Masters and PhD).
The second camp argues that we should look at a different aspect of this development. The few young professionals who do return with much-desired world-class expertise unfortunately find no adequate job opportunities; and even if many highly skilled professionals do move to foreign countries, they compensate for their absence by sending home much-needed remittances. These remittances in the case of Kyrgyzstan amount to 30 percent of the country’s GDP. Some experts estimate that up to 60-70 percent of Kyrgyz students and researchers have returned to their home country, but very often they shift to low-skilled sectors of the economy, being unable to realize their skills and ambitions or gradually move to other countries.
Outmigration of young highly skilled professionals has many implications. First, it leads to the graying of existing R&D and education cadres at universities and various remaining research institutions, as the replacement rate with capable young scholars and researchers is extremely low. Some faculties and research departments at large universities and at NAS consist entirely of people in their 50s and 60s, whose retirement would lead to a huge hole in the entire education and research development system in the country.
Second, in the absence of highly skilled professionals and development of globally and regionally competitive industries, Kyrgyzstan increasingly relies on remittances and the export of natural resources, gradually losing its competitive advantage in literacy and higher education rates. The country has already lost some manufacturing sectors, including the manufacturing of some specialized agricultural equipment, which was in demand in local and regional markets.
Third, the state institutions and agencies have also begun to experience shortages of highly qualified professionals capable of running increasingly complex economic, social and public policy projects. If this trend continues, the country will be forced to rely increasingly on foreign experts and consultants when addressing domestic issues.
CONCLUSIONS: In order to develop a strategy for attracting investments and introduce comprehensive policies on economic development and international competitiveness to bring new FDI, technologies and industries, the Kyrgyz government established the Central Agency for Development, Investment and Innovation (CADII) in fall 2009. The government strategy was probably modeled after the successful example of Estonia, which introduced a comprehensive strategy in attracting foreign direct investment and making the country a regional high-tech hub by focusing on providing high-tech services. The establishment of the CADII is a step in the right direction, but the Kyrgyz government and the CADII should identify the priorities and most promising projects that Kyrgyzstan can implement using its limited resources. The Kyrgyz government should also develop a competitive and innovation-friendly environment through various policy initiatives in order to protect the intellectual rights of local innovators. Assisting young highly skilled talents to work on various innovation projects will help make the country attractive for international outsourcing, investments, know-how, services and production transfers. In addition, it should also speed up the reform of its education system, encouraging the development of R&D at its universities and research institutions at NAS using modern western models of integrating teaching and research, as seen at research universities in the U.S. and some other countries. Finally, for many years Kyrgyzstan has underutilized the power of private entrepreneurship and local venture capitalism in supporting local innovation and R&D. Evidence from other countries suggests that if proper conditions and an innovation-friendly environment are established, professionals’ perception of the non-economic gains (social, professional, career, etc.) to be had in staying at home will override the perception of possible economic gains from moving to the developed countries.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, teaches at SIPA, Columbia University (New York). He is author of Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan (2004), The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and the Palgrave Concise Historical Atlas of Central Asia (2008). In 2008 and 2009 he contributed to the UNDP and UNFEM reports on migration in Central Asia and the CIS.