Youth perspective on brain drain

Shovon Das | Published at 12:00am on September 09, 2018

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A recent study result of World Economic Forum says that 82 per cent of young people aged 15 to 29 prefer migration and they have no wish to live in Bangladesh. The study result stirred a lot of public debate, but the debate largely revolves around the concept of brain drain and tends to burden the urban educated youth with the guilt of leaving their country. Shovon Das unpacks the question of brain drain asking some hard-hitting questions. He writes, the west is marketed as a preferred destination and the urban middleclass youth is their targeted customer.

CONVENTIONALLY, when we refer to the word brain drain, it means, the emigration of highly trained or qualified people from a particular country. In more academic terms, such movement of people is regarded as human capital flight – the emigration of individuals who have received advanced training at home. A recent study result of World Economic Forum says that 82 per cent of young people in Bangladesh aged 15 to 29 prefer migration and they have no wish to live in the country. This statistic created a lot of stir in Bangladesh. Some are arguing that such migration of educated youth would impact the national economy and its progress. Others focus on the uncongenial political and cultural environment of the country that has very little to offer to the aspiring youths.

At the end of the day, the concept of brain drain or human capital flight derives from the calculation of economic gain and loss of a nation. The net benefits of human capital flight for the receiving country are sometimes referred to as a ‘brain gain’ whereas the net costs for the sending country are sometimes referred to as a ‘brain drain’. There isn’t much to argue against this economic calculation. It is true that for Bangladesh, the flight of human capital is costlier than other countries. For example, if we look at the very origin of the term, it was first used to refer emigration of physicians, engineers and scientists from post-war Europe to United States. At this historical juncture, the human capital flight or in layman’s term, the growing disinterest among the Bangladeshi youth to invest emotional, intellectual energy in building their own nation is worrying.

Drawing from the experience of Bangladeshi students who are studying abroad and considering the decision to seek residency in respective western countries, in this piece, my attempt is to present some of the rather untalked-of aspects of brain drain.

As a student, I had my school and college education in a mofussil town. Our college in greater Chandpur struggled to provide us proper desks and benches for the classrooms. The librarian in the college was happier when no student disturbed him with requests. This is the basic educational infrastructure that the majority of students has access to and I don’t list it to mark the inadequacies and failure of the system, but to underscore the struggle for education in Bangladesh. It is important to note this struggle for education when we talk about the phenomenon that is brain drain. In my view, when you acknowledge the struggle, you can engage in this very important crisis without inflicting guilt on the youth.

The concept of brain-drain is not only economistic, it is also a very classed idea. Our civil society expresses deep concern looking at the statistics that a majority of today’s youth wishes to leave the country at any cost.  Yet, we are unconcerned about the movement of our youth as cheap labour to the Middle Eastern countries as their migration promises remittance. They run our national economy. Their departure is not considered as ‘drain.’ Instead, it is economic gain. The fact that we have failed to create economic opportunity for working class youth, and that they leave the country, work in extremely exploitative condition, often return in white body bags are not our concern. It is perhaps an eschewed parallel, but it exposes that movement of cheap labour, untapped unskilled labour does not concern the nation as much as it does about the educated middle-class youth.

The way media rationalise and present immigration to foreign nation as a natural decision, in reality the process is more complex both in tangible and intangible terms. For those who leave the country for a better future and so called secure and comfortable life, they struggle to rationalise their migration decision. In a recent public dialogue organised by the Centre for Bangladesh Studies, young scholar and human rights activists Uchacha-A Chak when commenting on the question of brain drain said, ‘Fear, uncertainty is our reality. Today, fear and absence of fear are the markers that decide the state of our wellbeing. This fear stems from uncertainty. Forced disappearance, police brutality, rape, road accident, communal violence and of course the reality of unemployment, violence of development contribute to the making of this uncertainty’ (New Age Youth, July 29, 2018). But, in a moment, when there is a growing hostility and racism towards Muslims, the west is not that imagined welcoming land anymore. There is a lingering fear. The fear of uncertainty that educationists, scholars, human rights activists talk about in reference to ‘brain drain’ is oblivious to geo-political realities of our times. The affect of the ‘war on terror’ in the movement of human capital is ignored in these conversations.

What is particularly significant in Uchacha-A Chak’s remark is that the experience of fear and uncertainty is not a homogenised experience. It is gendered and ethnically different. A young boy from Bandarban, Mongchhaila Tangchangya, who was the first from his neighbourhood to get to the Dhaka University, for him the scholarship from United Nation to study abroad means a lot more than what the concept of brain drain can encapsulate. For him, it is a way of challenging all the privileges that a Bengali chauvinist state denied him.


Ahona Kabeer, a Bangladeshi undergraduate student from Duke University listed a lot of things as her reasons behind choosing a university in the United States, things that our education system does not offer. But, the experience that made her to decide to apply for permanent residency is the freedom she gets as a woman, ‘every night as I bike back from the library to home piercing through the darkness, the shadows of long trees, I miss my friends, my family, but I still cannot think of trading my fractured freedom that I enjoy here. It is sad, very sad. This foreign land has given me something that I longed for in Bangladesh.’

Then, there is a common set of answers that we hear in response to the question — why you chose to immigrate? The answers from Bangladeshi students studying in different universities in the west are —

‘Life is comfortable, easy.’

‘There is no traffic congestion.’

‘One does not have to bribe the government offices to avail the public services.’

‘You are not harassed by police every day, we are not scared of law enforcement agencies.’

We cannot deny our longing for a life that promises a little more ease. And, our government cannot deny the fact that it has failed to ensure our basic rights as citizens. Therefore, the reality of brain drain is not a question of individual choice or guilt. It is a question of structural failure of the state. Although, I do not want to simply pass the blame on to the state and set ourselves free of our responsibilities.

In given context, certain choices are marketed as ‘better.’ No student in Bangladesh can pass a day without running into an advertisement of ‘Study abroad’, or ‘immigration lawyers in town’ in his/her Facebook feed. The west is marketed as a preferred destination and the urban middleclass youth is their targeted customer. What I want to mark here is that the project of brain drain (study abroad or immigrate to a western destination) is an emerging industry. As much as the western countries talk about their stricter policy to screen non-westerners’ entry to their land, their immigration policy include provisions through which universities can earn money from students of Bangladesh, India or Pakistan. As a targeted consumer of this industry, we do not have to be docile, passive customer — we can ask questions, we can negotiate for our country. We can talk about enabling bi-lateral, multi-lateral relationship through which the movement of human and financial capital is not a one way street. In order to do so, we must problematise this phenomenon of ‘brain drain’. Inducing guilt or burdening the youth with guilt is a dead ally to come out of this crisis.

Instead of falling into this trap of brain gain and loss, we need to recognise this industry that profits from brain drain and enter into this process of emigration being critically aware, so both countries can benefit equally from this exchange.

Shovon Das is a student of University of Western Ontario.