Why US brain drain harms developing countries

US companies lure highly skilled, and cheap, foreign workers at the expense of Americans with the same skill sets.

Brilliant minds can do more good for developing countries if they apply their talents in their communities [Reuters]

The companies that have exported or outsourced American jobs and industries to low-wage countries are now ferociously lobbying Congress to enact legislation to more than double the number of skilled professionals they can import annually under H-1B visas from the developing world.

Greased by campaign contributions, this expanded brain drain drive on Capitol Hill and in the mass media is led by the super-profitable, tax-subsidised corporate welfare Kings of Silicon Valley – otherwise known as Google, Facebook, Oracle, Intel, Cisco and their northern neighbour, Microsoft.

Over the objections of labour groups, these companies and their allies, including banks, IBM, Pfizer, and General Electric, have persuaded the US Senate to increase the yearly H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000, and as high as 300,000 under certain conditions. Foreign workers trained in science, technology and engineering are preferred to their US counterparts because, in the words of economist Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, they are indentured “people who could not switch employers to improve their wages or working conditions…. Too many are paid at wages below the average for their occupation and location: over half of all H-1B guest workers [there are already 500,000 such workers] are certified for wages in the bottom quarter of the wage scale”.

Bringing more such workers from abroad, says Eisenbrey, “would obviously darken job prospects for America’s struggling young scientists and engineers” trying to find jobs commensurate with their skills.

In fact, reflecting the surplus, the pay is so low that of the nine million Americans who have degrees in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) field only three million have a job in their speciality.

All these facts do not stop New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, and many other pundits and politicians, from demanding many more H-1B visas and immediate permanent residence for foreign students earning US advanced degrees.

Isn’t it fortunate for the people of Bangladesh and others that a young Muhammad Yunus was not lured away to Wall Street and stayed in Bangladesh to start the now famous micro-credit movement in thousands of villages?

But there is a more stunning indifference by corporate lobbyists, pundits and members of Congress to the consequences of the brain drain on developing countries. While the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is stressing the need for developing countries to build up their “human capital”, back in the US, the corporate powers-that-be and their political allies are undermining this tenet of US foreign economic policy.

If “human capital” means anything in the poorer areas of Africa, South America and Asia, it means civil engineers, scientists, physicians, nurses, computer and communications specialists, logistical experts, architects and entrepreneurs. They all are in short supply in these regions that have already lost so many skilled people to the West.

When a wealthy nation like the United States allows its giant corporations to turn their backs on the American labour force, impoverished societies overseas are also exploited unconscionably, often with deadly results.

In Africa, human beings die or become seriously sick for lack of physicians, nurses and indigenous scientific laboratories searching for ways to prevent or deal with infections and other diseases ignored by Western nations. Moreover critical public services are not maintained for the necessities of life.

Look at this problem from another perspective. Isn’t it fortunate for the people of Bangladesh and others that a young Muhammad Yunus was not lured away to Wall Street and stayed in Bangladesh to start the now famous micro-credit movement in thousands of villages? Or wasn’t it better for Brazil that Paulo Freire was not lured to Berkeley but instead remained in Brazil to create and apply his brilliant world-famous literacy programme for impoverished rural Brazilians?

Wasn’t it better that an aggressive brain drain did not bring Hassan Fathy to our land instead of him becoming Egypt’s “people architect” to show poor Egyptian peasants how to build small homes from the soil beneath their feet and stimulate architectural counterparts in other developing countries?

A quick glance at the annual report of the Ashoka Community of Fellows, founded by Bill Drayton, showcases the kind of skilled people from developing countries who became “change makers” because they remained in their own countries where they learned their many talents and refined their motivations.

Sure, nobody is forcing skilled workers from less developed countries to come to the US other than dictators, but if the US wants peace, stability and better livelihoods to have a chance, it has to tell its giant corporations to pull back on their gluttonous appetite to recruit the “cream of the crop” from these countries and invest in American skills.

These companies should display a little American patriotism by getting off Congress’s back, hiring or training more Americans and finding some “cognitive empathy”, in the words of Drayton, towards other far less privileged societies. 

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Ralph_Nader