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Sri Lanka’s brain drain epidemic

10 Jan 2021

  • Development is difficult when our best and brightest are leaving

  Sri Lanka cannot expect to develop, economically or socially, while the vast number of educated young men and women flee the country for greener pastures overseas due to a lack of opportunities in their home country. Our island nation has suffered from mass migrations in the past – the Burgher community fled during the ‘60s; the austerity of the ‘70s saw economic migrants; the 1983 violence resulted in hundreds of thousands from the Tamil community leaving; the resumption of war in 1990 saw many more Tamils and Sinhalese migrating; and the economic slowdown just after the new millennium resulted in another wave outward. No one in Sri Lanka counts the numbers, but immigration counts in Canada, the US, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, France, Germany, and India bear witness to this sorry tale of Sri Lankans moving to those countries. But today, we see a growing brain drain due to lack of economic opportunity and social stagnation, which is far more worrying and difficult to correct. While the number of Sri Lankan undergraduates currently studying overseas is not clear, we caught a glimpse of the number during the pandemic, when news reports said that between 20,000-40,000 were trying to return home last April. Most of these students will not return home after they graduate, but opt to stay overseas instead. This number is indeed staggering, and is an enormous figure in terms of brain drain, demonstrating that the vast majority of students studying in leading schools in Colombo – government, private, and international – are lost to the country forever. Even the largest government school in Colombo does not have more than 700 students completing school in a year, hence the enormous number currently overseas is alarming. While other developing nations such as India have suffered brain drain at various times, many have managed to stabilise the situation by creating opportunities domestically. These include India, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and several Middle Eastern countries.   Key indicators: A look at global numbers   The Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) is an annual benchmarking study assessing and classifying nations on the basis of their capacity to develop, maintain, and attract talent. First introduced in 2014, the GTCI offers an array of data and insights to help decision-makers develop talent strategies, address gaps in talent, and become more competitive on the global market. As shown in Fig. 1, Sri Lanka was ranked in the 2019 GTCI report at a dismal 83rd place out of 125 countries, with a total score of 36.95.   Top 10 most attractive countries for the global workforce     As Fig. 3 shows, the most attractive countries for migration show a commonality among global respondents. Global context   There are many factors that matter to a workforce that influence thoughts of migration, as shown in Fig. 5. The immigrant-to-population ratio, as shown in Fig. 6, is a key indicator on the actual movement of people out of a country. Sri Lanka ranks in the worst level of countries, while nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the US, and Australia rank very high. Brain drain is a major concern for many developing countries, and has rapidly become a key issue as human capital is increasingly playing a role in a linked, service-oriented, globalised economy. For developing nations like Sri Lanka, who hire many trained workers from greener pastures, sustainable economic growth is daunting. The Sri Lankan Government’s efforts to pursue the road of growth through the attraction of foreign direct investments (FDIs), the development of urban planning, and the modernisation of the economy through the leveraging of its people's potential will be in trouble if the rate of human capital flight out of Sri Lanka remains strong. Policymakers would struggle with the fact that this involves adequate accumulation of human resources to train their workers for upcoming changes in the world of work.  Therefore, problems related to the flight of human capital must be dealt with. The flight of human capital from developed countries is driven both by external and internal driving factors. Political instability, religious tension, and the average educational performance of the minority community would be included.  Politically uncertain countries with poor education performance and religious conflicts are more vulnerable to brain drain, particularly when they are small and close to a developed world, where educated people can easily migrate. Politically secure, well-educated, religiously harmonious countries, on the other hand, face a lower chance of being impacted by human capital flight. For example, in the early 2000s, increased militancy during the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War and the Tsunami resulted from the acceleration of human capital flight. The best way to fix human capital flight problems is to strengthen poor internal political and economic bodies, as opposed to the creation of policies to discourage emigration. The brain drain phenomenon in Sri Lanka must be put in perspective. The movement of highly qualified but important Sri Lankan professionals was mainly a private initiative between staff and their placement abroad before the ‘70s. In the mid-80s, the Government started institutionalising the management of temporary migrations of contract workers, after an increasing demand for employees in the Middle East. Those who served in engineering saw strong demand.  The country education framework supports students’ "free" undergraduate and postgraduate education. Consequently, its undergraduates and postgraduates are expected to pay back, and the Government has an obligation to create arrangements to obtain a degree of reimbursement if the undergraduate leaves.   Systematic migration contributes to economic drainage for graduates' training and education countries. Sri Lanka has more psychiatrists "exported" to London than it has to the entire world. Engineers were among the highest number of returning academics. Those who earned a major in medicine and agriculture hardly return home. But our universities are over-supplied with those studying humanities and social sciences, rather than medicine and other urgent national requirements.   Access to more money and credit is a key factor   The World Bank has proposed that governments should provide well-formed expatriates with opportunities to return home to work with financial and fiscal incentives. In view of the size of inequalities between nations however, the monthly wage for a Sri Lankan professional in London is sometimes 25 times what it is in Colombo. Moreover, the financial or fiscal reward cannot compensate for other factors such as social unrest and administrative lethargy, which affects the job.   The challenge  
  • Global competitiveness decreases: A lack of skilled labour will raise wages more quickly than productivity. Transfers sent home may also trigger exchange rate appreciation. Transfers will also result in less jobs and those who earn transfers have a reduced desire to work for a low hourly salary
  • Less tax contribution: Young workers between the ages of 25 and 60, who pay income taxes but receive no pension or educational expenses, make the biggest contribution to finances in a country 
  • Lack of professionals: They are also eligible employees (nurses, physicians, and technicians who find emigrating in higher-income countries easier)
  The Government should invest in the educational system first, considering that the lack of access to quality training and advanced training is one of the key barriers and reasons why people migrate. It could be a choice to discourage people from moving elsewhere for qualitative postgraduate studies (PhD and doctoral degrees). The lack of competitive wages for highly qualified professions is another issue. Reforms such as private sector growth investment and job creation must be undertaken to create a conducive environment for eligible labour to remain in the country.  Another cause of brain drain is inequality among marginalised groups. In particular, the emphasis is on qualified women who have little support. The Government needs to consider investment in programmes to cultivate women, and increase their job and career prospects to assist the country in retaining their talents. All those with leading roles and titles in the organisation shall always be respected and praised, while low recognition goes to production-level talent. For industries that depend on infrastructure and competitive innovations, brain drain is often persistent, as there is the potential of having a broader job experience. Low earnings or incentives, as well as limited career and organisational advancement may also be a factor. The transfer or migration to US, EU, or Australian companies guarantees a decent wage and assured career advancement.   Practical solutions
  • The Government should encourage entrepreneurship by providing small but significant amounts of financial support for startups
  • It should promote innovation among Sri Lankans by providing opportunities and financial support to develop and showcase innovations
  • It should promote learning by recognising the value of scholarly works and advanced degrees. This includes acting upon recommendations of committees and think tanks
  • Both government and private sector organisations should formulate and publicise clear career pathways that would reward hard work, teamwork, learning, and innovation, and take individuals to the top of their professions by the time they reach the age of 40
  • For visiting academics and experts, the authorities should introduce special programmes (including high pay) to inspire them to teach or work in Sri Lanka, in view of the fact that many academics, scientists, and specialists from Sri Lanka, or of Ceylonese descent, are not remigrating; but their skills and experience are of great value to the country
  • The day-to-day economic, living, and working issues, such as law and order, ease of travel, quality of healthcare, stability of the economy and currency, and quality of education must be fixed. These are key reasons that cause people to migrate, as they see no improvement in these areas over the years
  To move forward in national development, Sri Lanka needs to transform itself from a work-intensive to a tech economy, and will need to rely on high-quality workers and intellectual capital more than ever before. High-level manpower is still lacking, which will increase more dramatically in the years ahead in Sri Lanka's continuing push towards modernisation. The country's further growth and stability in the economic field would rely on its performance in reversing the brain drain and hiring its highly skilled from abroad.   © Niresh Eliatamby and Nicholas Ruwan Dias. (Dr. Nicholas Ruwan Dias [BSc, MSc, PhD] and Niresh Eliatamby [LLB, LLM, MBA] are Managing Partners of, a consultancy that finds practical solutions for challenges facing society, the environment, and all types of industries. Dr. Dias is a digital architect and educationist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Eliatamby is an author, journalist, and educationist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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