Thoughts on the brain drain

The specter of brain drain has haunted me since high school. As students at Philippine Science High School—one of the best schools in the country, and publicly-funded at that—we were regularly reminded of our responsibilities as scholars of the nation. Our names were on hold lists at airports, and we needed to post bonds assuring our return before we travelled. Throughout university, too, I heard from frustrated teachers who’d seen their students settle down in far-off countries.

I decided that I could just as easily create opportunities in the Philippines as I could in North America. Although my alma mater and the competing schools I asked gently encouraged me to take my masters overseas so that I could learn, I resolved to come back and make things happen. I was really uncomfortable when some of the Filipino immigrants I met in Canada dismissed the Philippines and said it didn’t matter to them. I didn’t want to be like them.

Towards the end of my master’s degree, I fell in love with someone who could not move to the Philippines with me. So I chose love, even though it meant being away from family and old friends and becoming part of the brain drain I’d felt so strongly about. Besides, after having gone through the trouble of uprooting myself and making myself at home in an new environment, I wasn’t about to insist that someone else go through the same ordeal.

Still, there’s the occasional twinge of guilt, of uncertainty, of negotiating my identity between worlds. Not many people are caught in between like this—most people seem to have just embraced their new lives—so there aren’t that many people I can talk to. But the tension can be creative, too; it helps power my passion to make it easier for people to learn, collaborate, and lead from anywhere. That way, people don’t have to go through being between worlds like this unless they want to, and they can build roots more quickly if they do.

So it was good to read this analysis of brain drain from a magazine about foreign policy that concluded it wasn’t all that bad, and that it could even strengthen source countries.

I am not lost. I am not mis-placed. I am here, and I’m making things happen.

  • Thanks for writing this – I feel the same way sometimes, I’m from Europe but came to Canada for my masters. I’m really glad I did, but I think of myself as European (I’m British, but feel more European – I know this is kinda weird), I miss the diversity of culture (although Canada is hardly homogeneous – it’s a very different diversity) and I miss being able to fly for an hour and be in another country completely. Already my accent has faded and people can’t always tell but to me it screams to be that I’m somewhere else in the attitudes, the food, the healthcare system… and mostly I love it, but I’m not sure I want to stay here forever. My boyfriend is Canadian, so that’s another factor. It all gets much more complicated when other people are involved.

    I wonder – if working remotely and communicating remotely becomes easier, will more people uproot or fewer? I’m inclined to think more, but I’m really biased!

  • Cate, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    One of the reasons why I’m so passionate about helping people connect and collaborate–and building those capabilities into organizations so that people can work together and lead from anywhere–is that I want people to be able to develop their full potential wherever they are, so that they don’t have to move to, say, North America in order to have more work and learning opportunities.

    I think people will still move, but I want to make that more of a choice.

    Moving half-way around the world has been challenging for me, but now that I reflect on it, I can see that it’s helped me develop my self-knowledge and identity in a way that might have been more difficult back home. I still miss the ease of talking to old friends, but I have learned so much more about life and myself.

    Home is where we make it.

  • I think that’s a great goal, you’ll also be helping those who don’t get much of a choice – those countries with restrictive regimes or where the cost of leaving relative to the average salary is just too high.

    The unexpected bonus of social media for me has been that it helps you connect in a less scary way with people locally. The tech and social media scene in Ottawa is really vibrant, and I’ve been getting involved in it by connecting people on Twitter and then when I meet them is person it’s much less scary!

    In fact, I read a paper the other day that said that social media was increasing the amount of conversation locally more than over longer distances. I’m not entirely buying into their methodology (they used the spread of baby names), but definitely my experience is that it helps me to connect with people locally as much or more so as keeping in touch with those people I’m away from.

  • As an introvert, I definitely appreciate less scary ways to interact! =) Conferences are a lot easier for me now. When people come up to me and tell me that they’ve read my blog or that they follow my Twitter feed, I’m glad that’s one less conversation I have to start, and one more conversation about shared interests that I’ve stumbled across. =)

    I’ve been taking advantage of my company’s free e-counseling benefits. My conversation with the counselor has turned up a couple of useful concepts. I’m definitely in my individuation phase, and individuation and immigration interact in interesting ways. I’m establishing an identity that’s separate from my family of origin’s, renegotiating my cultural identities, and figuring out who I am. Tough work, but I’m starting to figure out the words that will help me think about it!

  • ramon

    Nice thoughts, Sacha. And I can tell they’re heartfelt.

    It’s always a gut reaction to judge the “score” of a decision (like choosing to be part of the brain-drain) from the mid-point in a process. I’m reminded by what one of the characters of the TV show, LOST, said: “There’s only one ending. Before that, it’s just progress.”

    What is the worth of the inspiration you provide to the folks back home? How would it have been different if you were there? And.. who’s to say you aren’t even affecting those around you who’ve forgotten the magic? They too are part of your ministry.

    Plagerism Alert: You are a fragment of a mirror whose design you cannot know. You aren’t the light, or the source of light. But with what you know you can reflect the light, (truth, inspiration, overall geekiness) into the dark places in the minds of those who follow you (on twitter even) where the light wouldn’t have otherwise shown.

    I was one of those disillusioned ones. You know what jogged me out my stupor? A trip to Bali, Indonesia of all places. One image comes to mind… I remember washing my feet in one of the stone canals in the mountains of Bali because the water was so crystal clear. And images like those paint a picture of what the Philippines could be… once the people realize the treasure that they have.