Media Briefings

Brain Drain has Little Negative Impact on Home Economies - and Huge Benefits for Emigrants

  • Published Date: May 2012

The emigration of highly skilled workers to other countries – the ‘brain drain’ – has a negligible negative impact on the countries left behind. And the rewards for the emigrants themselves can be very substantial. These are the main findings of research by Professor John Gibson and Dr David McKenzie, published in the May 2012 issue of the Economic Journal.

The two researchers studied the effects of highly skilled emigration on Ghana, Micronesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. For each country, the researchers traced the migration histories of top academic achievers in high school each year from 1976 and 2004. This involved tracking down and surveying over 1,200 people now living in 45 different countries.

The researchers find that the gains to the migrants themselves far outweighed any other effects. The brightest emigrants stood to earn up to $70,000 more each year by working abroad. The likely value of the negative effects on the economy are estimated to be at most $1,000 per person per year – only 2% of the private gains.

Other benefits from highly skilled migration include remittances, trade and investment. The study finds that remittances amounted to around $5,000 per year for each individual, while the net effect of trade and investment was much smaller – around $500-1,000 per migrant in Ghana, and even smaller in Micronesia and Tonga.

The overall fiscal cost of highly skilled migration depends strongly on the country’s tax system. Countries like Ghana and Papua New Guinea with highly progressive tax rates and low spending on public services suffer larger fiscal losses from the highly skilled emigrating than do countries like Tonga and Micronesia with flatter tax rates.

The researchers say that while highly skilled migration from smaller and island countries may not bring the trade and investment flows experienced by larger countries like Taiwan, China and India, there is no evidence that it hinders development.

They conclude:

‘Our study indicates that governments should be less concerned about high rates of skilled emigration, and focus instead on the basics of providing the policy environment needed to foster growth and innovation at home’.


Notes for editors: ‘‘The Economic Consequences of ‘Brain Drain’ of the Best and Brightest: Microeconomic Evidence from Five Countries’ by John Gibson and David McKenzie is published in the May 2012 issue of the Economic Journal.

John Gibson is at the University of Waikato. David McKenzie is at the World Bank.

For further information: contact John Gibson on +64 7 838 4289 (email:; David McKenzie on +1 703 847 1714 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: