The UK Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s US election campaign have ignited a global discourse around labor mobility. The UK’s removal from the European Union and Trump’s proposed platform requiring that companies hire Americans first and implementing a mandatory tax for outsourced jobs will slam the door on skilled overseas workers. Many of these professionals leave their home countries for work opportunities abroad in industries such as medicine, IT, and engineering. This, in turn, contributes to a talent deficit in their native economies.
India, for example, currently experiences an annual foreign exchange outflow of $10 billion; 123,000 Indian students go abroad for higher education. Similarly, we estimate that 36,000 Pakistani professionals have migrated to other countries over the last 30 years, and at least 10,000 Pakistani doctors practice medicine in the United States and the Commonwealth.
“Brain drain” is a term commonly used to describe this movement of highly skilled individuals from poor countries to rich countries. The main causes for this emigration include gaining better employment opportunities, fleeing political instability, and seeking a higher quality of life. While mainstream conversations center around whether or not developed countries should take in more immigrants, there is another, overlooked topic of discussion: creating avenues for the same educated, talented, promising graduates, entrepreneurs, and professionals to contribute to prosperity in their countries of origin. A contrasting phenomenon is “reverse brain drain,” which involves the movement of educated, skilled migrants back to their homelands. Reasons for returning include visa expiration or, in some cases, a person’s desire to make a difference in their home country.
We estimate that around 5,000 graduates return to Pakistan from universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada every year. Thirty years ago, Pakistan’s best and brightest who wanted to make a difference might have opted to join the Civil Services of Pakistan—a prestigious organization that had the power to influence policy. Today, interest in the Civil Services is waning. A 2014 Federal Service Public Commission report noted that one-quarter of the organization’s advertised posts went unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates. In another survey, participants cited the Civil Service’s lack of merit and limited freedom of action and initiative as reasons why they would not consider joining.
Meanwhile, launching social ventures—businesses that also address important social problems—provides entrepreneurs with an alternative and often sustainable method to serve their home country. It also allows them autonomy and creative freedom to experiment—benefits they likely would not have if they worked for the government.
But taking this route has many challenges, including the fact that it takes an average of three years to establish on-the-ground mentor and business relationships. Many who return to Pakistan, for example, report having little awareness of essential on-the-ground startup resources, such as quality accelerators and incubators, and graduates from MIT and Stanford find it harder to raise money for tech startups in Pakistan. Others have conflicting cultural expectations to deal with. Parents often have different career ambitions for their highly educated children, and urge them to work in socially admired multinationals or family businesses. Expat social entrepreneurs also lack community—an established network of people they can associate with and learn from.
Our research at Pakathon, which offers funding and mentoring to entrepreneurs who return to Pakistan to launch social ventures, shows that for expats to succeed at moving “back home” to do impactful work, they require effective engagement and continuous support. Our organization starts working with entrepreneurs before they move back. We host workshops in cities such as Boston and Toronto, organized by volunteer chapters that engage Pakistani students and professionals in their city. Many workshops are modeled after “hackathons” and teach business planning, presenting, and rapid prototyping. Over the past three years, we have engaged 700 participants in this way. We then work with some of our best candidates, providing them with mentorship, as well as grants and investment (or connections to other sources of funding where appropriate).
The journey of one of our entrepreneurs demonstrates the power of “reverse brain drain” support. Before attending our workshop, Hira Rizvi, a Georgia Tech graduate and Fullbright Scholar, did not consider herself an entrepreneur. But during a brainstorming session, she remembered her childhood experience of carpooling to school in Pakistan. Her parents had to coordinate rides with her friends instead of letting her use public transport, which they (and many others) considered unsafe for women. Seeing a business and social impact opportunity, she developed her initial business plan for She’Kab—a subscription-based carpooling service that connects professional women to background-checked drivers who are part of Islamabad’s existing taxi infrastructure—at Pakathon’s 2014 workshop in Georgia Tech. After graduation, she moved into an accelerator program in Pakistan and successfully launched her service. Pakathon continues to offer mentorship and support for her growing company, which now employs three people and has provided more than 800 rides.
Other initiatives that support returning expats focus on awareness and networking. India’s present government, for example, invites global corporate investment through marketing and awareness campaigns like Make in India, an online and offline initiative that encourages multinational companies to manufacture products in India. The government hopes that a skills-based, manufacturing economy can reach an annual economic growth rate between 12 to 14 percent—and that this economic opportunity convinces Indian professionals to stay instead of seeking opportunities abroad. A recent Make in India event in Mumbai attracted 11,000 companies and 65,000 participants. Another initiative is the Israeli Tech Challenge, which runs programs that takes talented Jewish engineers around the world on short trips to Israel, where they can network with startups and large tech companies, and hopefully secure job offers so that they can relocate to Israel.
Successful efforts to reverse brain drain can influence progress in many other areas of social change, especially those that require specialized expertise. A UN report notes that the emigration of public health professionals can impede the delivery of health care services, especially in focus areas of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. The best universities in Pakistan fill shortages of teachers in humanities and higher-level STEM courses by inviting Pakistani professors from abroad to teach for part of the year. And when investors and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley move back to their country of origin, entrepreneurship ecosystems bloom. By increasing funding resources and attention, we can help countries attract talent that can put them on the path to progress.