Navroz Surani at session

Converting brain drain into brain gain through diaspora engagement

Published on 07 December 2018
Navroz Surani

Navroz Surani is Director Human Resources & Talent Development at Aga Khan University, and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, where he is researching Brain Drain/Brain Gain. If you are interested in finding out more, you can contact him on the following email addresses: /

The ACU held its 8th HR in HE Community Conference in Canada at the University of Waterloo in September 2018. The conference brought together HR practictioners working in higher education from across the Commonwealth and beyond, to examine the theme 'Universities of the Future: Global Perspectives for HR?'. Here, Navroz Surani is Director Human Resources & Talent Development at Aga Khan University – who spoke at the conference on brain drain and brain gain – shares his experience.

Diaspora engagement is a growing trend and many governments, international organisations and policy makers are focusing on engaging with diaspora communities to take advantage of their new knowledge and their professional networks.

Leaders in developing nations are increasingly concerned about the economic impact of losing their highly qualified citizens to the various lucrative opportunities available in more developed countries, particularly countries in the West. This phenomenon is popularly known as brain drain and refers to the high rate of exit of those whose skills, capabilities, and characteristics may be an asset to the countries that they leave.

For a variety of reasons, including political instability, inferior educational and professional opportunities, and the selective immigration policies of developed countries, educated people and professionals from many developing countries have left their homes and settled in the industrialised world. A study has found that currently approximately 240 million people are living in countries other than those they were born in. This figure mostly includes engineers, scientists, physicians, nurses, academics and other highly skilled professionals.

On the one hand, governments of more developed countries continue to implement policies to attract the most talented and trained professionals in an increasingly competitive market for skills, while, on the other hand, many developing countries, especially those marked by comparatively low levels of human capital, are deeply concerned about retaining their most skilled workers. Governments of developing countries complain about the decline in health care systems, shortages of professionals in teaching and engineering, and the poaching of talent that their national education systems had paid to train.

Scholars studying this trend even recommended additional Tax on Brain Drain. Some even asked developed countries to stop encouraging immigration. One leader of the developing country even termed Brain Drain as a 'phenomenon of transmitted diseases amongst the youth' as majority wanted to emigrate. According to one source, there are more African scientists and engineers working in the U.S. than there are in the entire continent of Africa

For many years, the developing world could do little but watch as its most talented citizens either went abroad to study or, having been trained at home, migrated to the West. However, In the mid-1990s a new strand of research on skilled migration and brain drain emerged. This led to the emergence of a transnational mode of thinking, which emphasises the importance of global links to the human capital that is present in the country. The countries that, historically, suffered from emigration were now able to benefit most if they utilised the potential of their overseas people. Such ideas have created, among institutions in developing countries, a growing interest in reaching out to the diaspora and making use of what they have to offer.

Scholars began to argue that brain drain should be viewed not as detrimental to the home country but as an opportunity for economic development. Recently, scholars began to consider how knowledge transfer through a diaspora community may in fact benefit the country of origin. This shift in perspective is known as "brain gain" and is promoted as a concept through which developing countries can find ways to use the skills and experience of diaspora to fill knowledge and skills gaps

Brain gain can be pursued in at least two ways: either the expatriates can return to their homeland or they can contribute to the development of their country through remote mobilisation (this second aspect is known as 'diaspora option'). Regarding the latter i.e. the diaspora option, several developing countries have begun forming diaspora institutions to effectively manage diaspora relationships and engagement. These institutions take the form of formal state offices dedicated to emigrants and their descendants and include either full ministries, shared ministries, departments, or inter-departmental committees within the executive branch of government.

Countries like India, Mexico, China, Brazil, Afghanistan Bangladesh, Kenya South Africa and Uganda have taken many steps to engage with their diaspora and have achieved varying degrees of success in this endeavour. Keeping in view the significance of Indian diaspora contributions, India even celebrates a diaspora day every alternate year known as "Pravasi Bharatiya Divas" on January 09. The day commemorates the return of Mahatma Gandhi who was a diaspora from South Africa to India in 1915.

In a nutshell, the presence of highly skilled diaspora abroad should not be viewed as a loss to the country but as an asset that can be mobilised. The diaspora abroad may be interested in giving back to home countries, so the need is for organisations, policy makers in the home country to create avenues for engaging with its diaspora.

What does it mean for HR professionals?

For many years HR professionals particularly in the developing countries have struggled to recruit and retain key staff and faculty members. The pressure has always been on HR departments to find new ways to bring knowledge, intellectual know-how and capital into the organisation. If handled in a creative and innovative ways, diaspora engagement may be one unique opportunity to alleviate the human resource gaps. Although, such intervention and engagement may not solve all HR recruitment and retention challenges, but it certainly can be considered as one additional talent management strategy which require attention as it offers a huge opportunity of knowledge transfer and mobilisation through engagement with country's diasporas. This is truly a low hanging fruit ready to be grabbed!



Image: Navroz Surani speaking at the ACU HR in HE Conference 2018 at the University of Waterloo, Canada