In a recent interview, the Brazilian writer Diogo Mainardi spoke for many when he said, “Leaving the country was an important part of my generation’s formation. It’s always good to leave.” Far from being only part of his personal story or a phenomena of the lost generation of the 1980s, the dream of many of Latin America’s best and brightest is still to leave their birthplace.
According to the World Bank, more than 30 million Latin Americans live abroad, having emigrated for several causes, ranging from natural and socioeconomic disasters, political repression, to the hope for a better future. However, within this large group of emigrants, there are a few whose absence especially affects their home countries’ growth and development: highly skilled, educated workers.
A 2007 study from two Mexican sociologists showed that Latin America and the Caribbean had 4.9 million skilled nationals living in OECD countries that year, an increase from the only 1.9 million in 1990. The effects of this brain drain are not clear, and for decades now economists have debated the pros and cons of migration, both on the sending and the receiving sides.
On one hand, just in 2013, Latin American immigrants sent home roughly $32 billion dollars, helping their families and local economies. And the brain drain itself, some argue, spurs people in poor countries to acquire skills they would otherwise not develop, raising populations’ skill levels—even those who stay behind and learn from relatives and friends. And as recent experience in Brazil, Mexico and other countries demonstrate, some do return home later with skills and savings that they could have earned had they stayed.
On the other hand, the consensus is that the availability of human capital is one of the main determinants of growth, especially for countries that seek high-value-added foreign investment. For example, in the first 10 years of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s administration nearly 1 million of his countrymen left. Among them were former PDVSA (Venezuela’s state oil company) top oil experts and scientists. As a result, by 2009 there were 9,000 Venezuelan scientists working in the U.S., compared to 6,000 employed back in their home country.
Although it is not clear whether the brain drain’s economic effects are more negative than positive, there is one side effect that is rarely taken into account. Beyond the economics of losing tax revenue and human capital for economic growth, countries are also losing potential political, economic and civic leaders.
Tackling local problems and conducting major reforms demands leaders who understand and can introduce modern, complex policy reforms, often in very difficult political systems. For example, the Brazilian Plano Real that brought inflation down from over 40 percent a month to under 7 percent a year was led by a Sorbonne professor—then finance minister and later president Fernando Henrique Cardoso —and a team of Harvard and MIT economics PhDs. Moreover, by assuming important positions in the media, unions, universities, and think-tanks, these highly trained patriots have improved their countries’ public debate and institutions. (Although some unfortunately, such as Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize recipient or Mainardi, prefer to participate from abroad.)
In the end, it would be wrong to prevent people from fulfilling their aspirations, even if it means looking for those opportunities beyond their home countries, with all the potential losses that may entail. The best option is to create a more friendly environment at home that encourages them to stay and invest their talent, ambition and resources in their native country. But if they do leave, the hope is that they will return to bring their talents and leadership with them, rather than just send money to relatives. The economies and political systems of Latin America will benefit from their leadership far more than from the monetary rewards of their remittances.