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The Brain Drain

published 01.12.20 - read our introductory piece here

Featuring a series of essays, written by students from across the world. Each essay tackles the phenomenon known as 'brain drain' from a unique perspective, the author analysing and reflecting on it from within their own geographic context.

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‘Third Worldism’ & Dictatorship: the Case of Argentina

UK raised Argentinian citizen, Lucia Neirotti, speaks of the factors behind her parents' emigration and hence her own involvement in the brain drain.

There are countless examples of scientists around the world who establish new lives abroad after having been driven out of their home countries by political and economic instability. I am the product of one such example. I was born in the United States and raised in the United Kingdom because my parents, both Argentinian citizens with degrees obtained in their native country, were seeking better opportunities elsewhere. The decision to relocate to another continent is life-changing; the reasons to do so have to be urgent enough to outweigh the loss of direct contact with your family, friends, and first language. For my parents, this decision, although impossible to reduce to any two factors, was at least partly informed by the political and economic climate of Argentina in the late-twentieth century.[1]

The second half of the twentieth century in Argentina was dominated by a series of brutal dictatorships. The manifestations and effects of totalitarianism are diverse and, with regards to the place of intellectuals, particularly complex.

... from the Peronist period until the return of permanent democracy in 1983, the price of education was conformity; state investment was conditional on support for the state.

In alignment with their totalitarian agenda, these governments launched developmentalist projects; the drive to modernise was rooted in the desire to cultivate home-grown talent. Under the leadership of Juan Domingo Peron between 1946 and 1955 (and his infamous wife Evita), alongside the populist rhetoric, there was investment in education and public healthcare in a country which, before the 1950s, had extremely limited access to either.[1] The establishment of free higher education and new avenues for research had the desired effect of increasing scientific and medical development, with four Argentines winning three Nobel prizes in medicine and in chemistry.


On the other hand, for doctors and intellectuals, from the Peronist period until the return of permanent democracy in 1983, the price of education was conformity; state investment was conditional on support for the state. During the Peronist dictatorship, highly trained workers had to join the Peronist Party or lose their jobs. The increasingly violent repression of dissidence in subsequent military regimes only served to further intensify the alienation of intellectuals and the Left. Increasing numbers fled the country in the wake of the 1969 Cordobazo, a national outbreak of civil unrest sparked by student militant action, and the state-sanctioned ‘disappearances’ from the mid-1970s. An estimated 200,000 people left the country between 1970 and 1980,but even this was exceeded within three years following the biggest recession in the country’s history in 2001.[2] In response to an extremely untenable economic situation, in which 55% of the national population fell below the poverty line, over 255,000 Argentinian nationals emigrated.[3] This figure has been estimated to be as high as 800,000.[4] The cycle was repeated a decade later in the mid-2010s; rapid inflation and government debt leads to austerity measures, the cutting of public sector funding, and the mass exodus of the young and the highly-trained. My parents’ story, in this context, is relatively typical. They both left the country for the first time in the 1990s to pursue education and employment abroad: ‘pull’ factors that weren’t strong enough to keep them out permanently. It was only when the difficulties of living in Argentina outweighed the benefits of raising their children in their home country that they left for good in 2001.

Inhospitable conditions led to the relocation of the most trained members of the workforce to those parts of the world that helped create the conditions they fled.

The decision to migrate and the radical displacement it involves cannot be satisfactorily explained as either a ‘push’ or a ‘pull’. Refugees and political exiles may be pushed out of their home countries in the same way that economic migrants are discouraged by the availability of opportunity. But once they are out, where do they go? What motivates the end result of the relocation? The various languages of enticement – employment, education, stability, ephemeral ancestral (colonial) ties, and the prestige of the ‘centre’ and the ‘First World’ – historically led to many migrants leaving for the North West of the world with hope. The majority of those from Argentina relocated to Spain and the United States, the countries with whom Argentinians were most familiar, as a result of colonialism and neo-colonialism.[5] But, in light of Euro-American intervention in Latin America, starting from its conquest and colonisation and perpetuated in the post-independence and Cold War period[5], the brain drain can be conceptualised as a negative feedback loop. Inhospitable conditions led to the relocation of the most trained members of the workforce to those parts of the world that helped create the conditions they fled.


However, the brain drain shouldn’t be read as negative from all angles. Host countries benefit from an influx of highly trained professionals that plug any gaps in the workforce. These are human resources the host country did not have to pay to train. In starkly utilitarian terms, the positive economic value of immigrant labour (as workers and consumers) is greater than the non-existent financial drain of education and, in many cases, the extension of social welfare to non-naturalised immigrants. Thus only doctors, nurses, intellectuals, engineers and entrepreneurs are welcomed with open arms. An example is Australia’s points-based immigration policy which the British government has recently chosen to imitate.


Of course, these 'abundant positives' are reversed in ‘source’ countries. In Argentina, higher education is free; the state invests in students in the hope that they will become productive members of the workforce and, in a sense, reimburse the cost of their education with labour and contribution to the economy. Given the extent of emigration, this necessary social provision instead works against the state. The negative effects of the brain drain are thus disproportionately felt in source countries who ultimately pay for doctors to treat citizens of other countries.

Any positive contribution my parents and, by extension, my brother and I have made, and could make, have effectively been transplanted from Argentina to the UK.

By no means should completing your education in a country force you to stay there, but the historical trend of migration of both skilled and unskilled labour from the Global South to the North perpetuates Western hegemony. The draw of stability, prosperity and status (both real and mythological) is both the cause and effect of the brain drain.


My parents relocated to Europe both to escape the conditions in Argentina and because of the perceived abundance of opportunities in the UK. While I can’t deny that their decision has allowed me to pursue avenues which would not have been otherwise open to me - such as studying Art History at Cambridge – I am also conscious of the paradoxical repercussions of such a migration. Any positive contribution my parents and, by extension, my brother and I have made, and could make, have effectively been transplanted from Argentina to the UK. The brain drain is a global issue that occurs, by definition, on regional scales; it is discussed in terms of statistics which are only relevant if they are extreme. But, at the same time, migration involves deeply personal stories of upheaval and struggle to overcome adversity. Individual success stories are, ironically, intimately bound up in the failures of the state and a loss for its population.

[1] Jill Hedges, Argentina: A Modern History (London: I.B. Taurus, 2015)

[2] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/argentina-new-era-migration-and-migration-policy

[3] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/argentinas-economic-woes-spur-emigration

[4] https://apnews.com/article/9ffe822efd5a45ffbb369d1829cba310

[5] https://www.batimes.com.ar/news/latin-america/latin-america-caribbean-no-longer-leading-sources-of-emigration.phtml#:~:text=Argentina%27s%20emigration%20has%20been%20on,living%20in%20the%20United%20States