Brain Drain Vs. Brain Development

Solar Eclipse Through Brain Scan

Solar eclipse seen through a brain scan.


I was reading an article by Thrishantha Nanayakkara which made an interesting point. “There is a mythical belief that “talent leaves Sri Lanka”. This is not true. Talent is there among most professionals already living in Sri Lanka. I can quote not only professionals but also many innovative village youth who would be National assets elsewhere, unseen and unrecognized in Sri Lanka. The issue is that their talent is not visible in the corrupt system till they leave Sri Lanka. Recognition of talent abroad gives the illusion that “talent leaves” Sri Lanka, when in fact those who are already in Sri Lanka are not any less talented.” (Colombo Telegraph).

It’s a different and I think sensible way of looking at things. His article is posited in direct if quite respectful opposition to a statement by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, saying “Unfortunately, one of the problems we face as a nation is that many of our talented professionals leave the country in pursuit of higher paying jobs abroad”.

The way this is framed is that professionals leave because they want more money. I agree with Nanayakkara that it’s important to also look at whether professionals leave so they can be professional.

You see so many Sri Lankans abroad doing well because the systems there are more geared towards rewarding and encouraging individual hard work. Here there’s more emphasis on the social unit which is good in many ways but stifling in others. I don’t ever advocate adopting western materialism/capitalism unimproved but the idea that you can work/study hard and get ahead is pretty basic. Right now, university graduates in Sri Lanka have higher unemployment than people that finish school at O/Level. Right now, the entry to high positions in government is determined more by connections than qualifications or ability. And it’s not much better in the business world.

I think that we broadly have a resistance to the sort of creative destruction necessary for real growth and opportunity. Vested interests are happy to get ‘enough’ from whatever market/position they occupy and the powers that be let them have it. If an upstart comes up with a system or a way of doing things better, those vested interests are quick to shut them down.

There is a social cost to economic and social growth, namely that the social structure changes. Educated people displace the children of the connected for jobs, unless those children get educated themselves. Talented politicians displace sons of politicians. Innovative companies displace established one. That social cost is, I think, more than offset by the social capital you generate, but it requires a culture that’s willing to deal with change. And I think we’re still getting there.

Right now it’s not easy to be a professional in Sri Lanka, and it’s not just the money. It’s all too easy to see your work romped on by ignorant or malicious people that happened to be connected. It’s all too easy to work hard and see your ideas not entertained by superiors that aren’t actually superior in terms of intellect. More tangibly, it’s difficult to near impossible to migrate here or bring your spouse/family because dual citizenship is suspended and because there is no real path for immigration. So, perhaps what we call a brain drain is really a result of not doing enough brain development at home.

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