ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Latin brain drain could be a blessing

The conventional wisdom has long been that Latin America's brain drain -- the thousands of scientists, doctors and academics from the region who move annually to the United States -- is a tragedy for talent-exporting countries. Don't bet on it: In many cases, it could be a blessing.
Granted, Latin American and Caribbean countries whose government-funded colleges offer free tuition risk losing part of their investment in education when their best graduates pursue their careers elsewhere. But, in the new global economy, what used to be called "brain drain" may often be a "brain gain."
In India, Taiwan and several Eastern European countries, thousands of migrants have returned home bringing new knowledge, capital and fresh contacts. In Taiwan, returned expatriates lead about 40 percent of high-tech companies at the Hschinchu Science-Based Industrial Park.
And those highly skilled expatriates who stay abroad often become a source of foreign investment and family remittances, as well as highly motivated founders of academic exchange programs. From what I saw during recent trips to Ireland and Poland, investments from current or former expatriates made possible much of their economic progress in the past decade.
I was thinking about these examples while reading "The International Mobility of Talent," a new study by MIT-trained Chilean economist Andres Solimano, of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
The study confirms that the United States continues to be by far the favorite destination of Latin American and Caribbean talent, drawing about 60 percent of all highly qualified professionals and entrepreneurs who leave the region.
According to World Bank estimates, 14 percent of Mexican university graduates were living abroad in 2000, compared with 11 percent of Colombian graduates, 5 percent of Chilean graduates, 3 percent of Brazilian graduates and 2.5 percent of Argentine graduates.
The figures are not likely to have changed much since, experts say.
Still, very few highly skilled professionals from the region are admitted to the United States under H-1B visas reserved for people with "distinguished merit."
Technology professionals
In 2002, 65 percent of these visas went to Asian-born people, while only 6 percent to South Americans. This is because the United States is giving most of these visas to information technology professionals, where Asians excel.
While the U.N. study does not go as far as stating that emigration of highly trained professionals is a plus for their home countries -- I guess it would be politically incorrect for a U.N. agency to do so -- it provides a balanced perspective that may help change people's minds about talent mobility.
"If emigration follows a cycle, and the emigrant returns home bringing fresh capital, contacts and knowledge, we have a positive development effect for the home country," it says. In addition, "talent often circulates, rather than permanently emigrates. Talent may pay frequent visits to the host country, remain engaged with professional organizations, universities and other local counterparts."
Some Latin American countries are beginning to get the message. Last month, Argentina's Labor ministry, the Chilean government-funded Chile Foundation and Mexico's Institute for Mexicans Abroad ran separate meetings with expatriates to try to build bridges with them. In some cases, the meetings were held in the United States.
In an interview last week, Solimano told me that Latin American countries should create government programs to try to reconnect with highly skilled professional emigres, and offer tax exemptions and other incentives to those willing to return.
But one of the main hurdles to drawing talent back home is Latin America's ingrained culture of distrust toward returning talent, he said.
"In Latin America, many people look with fear and distrust at colleagues who return from successful careers abroad," Solimano told me. "Instead of hostility, there should be a mentality change, a new policy of open doors."
My conclusion: Emigration of talent will continue, whether exporting countries like it or not. So they should start taking advantage of it. In the new global economy -- as Taiwan, India, Ireland and Poland have shown -- "brain circulation" can be a plus for everybody.
X Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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