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23 July, 2007 - Published 09:10 GMT

By Sir Ronald Sanders
The writer is a business consultant and former Caribbean diplomat

Brain drain or export earnings?

The United States has become the principal beneficiary of the migration from Caribbean countries of its best educated people.

But the US is not the only developed country that has benefited from the Caribbean’s investment in the education of its people: Canada, Holland and the United Kingdom are also beneficiaries.

The figures for migration of secondary and tertiary educated people are high for every Caribbean country.

The most recent study shows that Suriname led the field for migration of tertiary educated people at 89.9% followed by Guyana at 85.9%, Jamaica at 82.5%, Haiti at 81.6%, St Kitts-Nevis at 71.6% and Antigua and Barbuda at 70%.

Of the Commonwealth Caribbean countries, only the Bahamas and St Lucia were below 40%.

Remittances

By the same token, many Caribbean countries profit from large remittances sent back to the region by its people who live abroad.

In fact, in relation to its Gross National Product (GNP), the Caribbean area is the largest recipient in the world of remittances. The largest single source of such remittances is the United States.

Of the Commonwealth Caribbean countries, Jamaica gains most from remittances.

In 2003, remittances to Jamaica represented a wapping 18% of its GNP, higher than aid and higher than foreign investment.

Guyana, Grenada and Barbados followed with contributions to their GNP of 8.1%, 5.3% and 4.5% respectively.

These remittances are vitally important to every Caribbean country.

They help to keep the country stable by ensuring the survival of unemployed or low-paid workers, paying for housing of persons who might otherwise be homeless, circulating capital in the economy and in some cases buying food and medicines.

Key funds

No country could afford not to receive these remittances which may be even higher than official calculations since remittances are often not sent through the banking system or even through the money transfer companies; some are hand delivered by friends and relatives travelling between countries.

If remittances were not being received the level of poverty, crime and social instability in many Caribbean countries would be worse than it is.

Therefore, governments, undoubtedly, welcome the remittances.

Nonetheless, Caribbean countries are facing a dilemma over the migration of their best trained and educated people.

Simply put, it is this: while countries welcome the significant and irreplaceable contribution that remittances make to their social welfare and political stability, they devote large sums of money on the education of their people only to see a large number of them migrate to developed countries, and they lose people who are needed to help make businesses more productive and profitable.

Even governments suffer from the loss of skilled and qualified people whose technical skills are needed in a range of areas including in formulating and implementing fiscal and trade policy.

And a solution does not boil down to restricting the migration of qualified and skilled people. Any such decision by a government would be an infringement of basic human rights. It would fuel social discontent within countries, and probably lead to a host of illegal activities for migration.

Brain drain or skills export?

The Caribbean could take the view that the ‘brain drain’ is simply another export industry.

Just as rice, sugar, bananas are exported in return for foreign exchange earnings and economic growth, a reality would be that people are trained for export to the work force of industrialised nations and their remittances would constitute the earnings that Caribbean countries receive.

Indeed, Caribbean countries are accustomed to exporting people to jobs.

When the Panama Canal was being painstakingly dug, much of the back-breaking and often fatal labour was performed by Caribbean people who migrated to the job opportunity.

There were other significant movements of people to the United States Virgin Islands when a refinery was built there, and, of course, after the Second World War, large numbers of Caribbean people went to Britain to fill the breach for able-bodied people to carry out a range of tasks in transportation, construction and health services.

In all cases, the migrant workers sent money back home.

Migrant profile

The difference with the present problem is whereas in the past the labour that was being exported was largely unskilled, the current migrants are highly trained at great cost to their Caribbean countries of origin, and the loss of their knowledge reduces the capacity of the Caribbean to compete in the global economy.

So, the economists would question whether the cost of production – the amount of money spent educating people for work in the developed nations – is justified by the amount of money received in remittances.

Whatever the economists conclude, the fact of life is that people move away from economic, social and political conditions that trouble them. In part, these conditions across Caribbean countries are pushing skilled people away from their homelands.

It is also a reality that people are pulled to industrialised nations by better circumstances such as well-paid jobs, employment that matches their skills and training, and good social conditions such as health care.

Keeping skills at home

Clearly Caribbean countries have to come to terms with two realities.

First, every country in the region has to improve conditions to keep more of its skilled people at home.

This means health and modern education facilities have to be improved and the environment for investment and business has to be strengthened.

And, second, it has to be accepted that some skilled people will continue to migrate however much conditions in their home countries get better. Of course, many more will migrate if the domestic conditions do not improve or if they worsen.

If the brain drain is regarded as a reality, then there may be merit in seeing it as an export industry, and a case should be made to the industrialised countries who gain to contribute meaningfully to education and training in the Caribbean.

This would take the full burden of education off the shoulders of Caribbean countries and share it with the countries who are also its beneficiaries.