The Upside of the Leg Drain

19 February 2006

The Upside of the Leg Drain

By Gwynne Dyer

Most people are ambivalent about the “brain drain.” On one hand, it’s hard to blame young doctors or teachers or engineers from poor countries for moving to rich countries where the pay is higher, the working conditions are better, and opportunities for further training abound. On the other hand, what about the poor people they leave behind, with little money and fewer prospects, who paid the taxes that made it possible to educate these high flyers?

By contrast, there is relatively little concern about the “leg drain.” The star football (soccer) players of Europe are increasingly drawn from the developing countries, but nobody sees anything wrong with that. Well, almost nobody.

“I find it unhealthy, if not despicable, for rich clubs to send scouts shopping in Africa, South America and Asia to “buy” the most promising players there,” wrote Sepp Blatter three years ago in the Financial Times. “Europe’s leading clubs conduct themselves increasingly as neo-colonialists who don’t give a damn about heritage and culture, but engage in social and economic rape by robbing the developing world of its best players.”

The perpetually irate Swiss president of the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA) is being a trifle harsh here. This practice gives a few poor but talented young people growing up in forgotten slums a chance to transform their lives though sheer sporting prowess, and it really doesn’t hurt anyone. But now along comes Branko Milanovic, a senior economist at the World Bank, and sets out to quantify the costs and benefits of creating what amounts to an international market in good football players.

The best players from the poor countries earn twenty or fifty times what they could back home, and the people waving the money at them do very well, too. The rich, big-city clubs of Europe have widened their lead over the smaller and poorer clubs in their own national leagues since the restrictions on foreign players were loosened.

Put good players with other good players and they all get better, so the relatively few teams in the national leagues that can afford to bring in lots of foreign talent dominate the competition as they never did before. In 2002, for the first time since the Second World War, not one team from the poorer southern regions of Italy qualified for a place in Serie A, the Italian premier league. Until the late 1990s, there were always three or four southern teams there.

It’s the free market at work: the standard of play has risen, but only the richest teams can afford to buy that standard. If you make different rules, however, that kind of discrimination by wealth doesn’t happen.

For the World Cup, FIFA insists that national teams be made up of citizens of the country in question, so most of the “imports” take their skills and experience back to their home countries. The result has been that countries like Cameroon, Turkey and Nigeria are suddenly showing up in the finals alongside the perennial contenders like France, Germany and Italy. Their players go off to Europe to make money and acquire new skills, but when it comes to international competition they still play for the home team.

Branko Milanovic’s real concern is the “brain drain,” and the whole point of his paper is that something CAN be done about it. Simply to ban the emigration of skilled workers from poor countries to rich ones would be an abuse of human rights, but it is perfectly possible to devise rules that return some of their skills to their home countries.

The problem is worst in the English- and French-speaking Caribbean: Haiti loses 84 percent of post-secondary graduates to richer countries, Jamaica loses 85 percent, and Guyana loses 89 percent. But Africa is also haemorrhaging skilled people, especially in medicine, science, engineering and accountancy: Ghana has lost 26 percent of its citizens with a tertiary education, South Africa almost 9 percent, Egypt 8 percent.

Most migrants send money home, of course (remittances account for 13 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of the Caribbean region). But the home countries spend a large part of their limited education budgets on training students who then emigrate, and they are owed something both by the destination countries and by the emigrants themselves. Something more than an occasional cash transfer.

Milanovic proposes that doctors, nurses, teachers and scientists from developing countries who export their skills to Western countries should spend one year in five serving the people back home. That wouldn’t work if the emigrants left for political reasons, like the quarter of all Iranians with a tertiary education who now live abroad, and even for others it would need much fine tuning. What about people with kids in school or dependent parents? Who decides when they must go home for a stint of voluntary work, and who pays them while they are there? Who covers their mortgages while they are away?

But the rich countries are systematically looting the poor countries of highly qualified people to fill the gaps left by their own education systems, and they do owe something back. One way would be to make some form of service to the home country a condition of entry for highly educated immigrants from developing countries. The human rights implications are complex, but it bears thinking about.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Put…there”; and “Most…transfer”)