Should We Worry About *Internal* Brain Drain?

Recently, the issue of internal brain drain in the developing world has come up on both development and economics blogs. The GiveWell blog mentions concerns that NGOs are pulling well-qualified individuals out of the private sector. Aid Thoughts and Roving Bandit take on the staff transfer from government ministries to development agencies and NGOs.

The issue is very clear to anyone who has spent time in the developing world. There is a steady stream of really good people leaving government agencies for jobs with the UN and international NGOs. That’s not surprising – UN and NGO work pays well and pays consistently. It offers opportunities for moving up, and a sense of making a difference in the world. Work for the government, on the other hand tends to be poorly paid, and not always on a regular basis. In many places it is plagued by bureaucratic incompetence and resistance to change.

As a result, the good people just keep leaving government posts for other jobs. As Aid Thoughts puts it, “When the top of that ladder ends at the UN, not the government, ambitious civil servants will feel less motivated to excel…Even when the few bright stars do bother to overachieve, they’re quickly snapped-up into the development sector.”

I think, however, that most proposed solutions are looking in the wrong direction. The problem is not that sexy UN jobs are pulling people out of government. The problem is that people are pushed out of government jobs by poor working conditions. It’s not a demand problem – it’s a supply problem. People who want to leave their government jobs will find a way to do it. If it wasn’t NGOs and the development sector pulling them out, it would be the private sector or international emigration.

Skilled personnel are ambitious and they don’t stick around in bad jobs. The issue goes beyond salary. You could force NGOs and UN agencies to reduce their salaries to government levels, but government work would still be boring and unsatisfying.

If you look at it that way, the solution is to build government capacities and make government work meaningful. Rather than trying to restrict opportunities outside the government, give the best people a reason to stay. Not an easy thing to achieve, it’s true. But a lot more humane than refusing them the right to chose their employment or trying to make all employment options equally bad.

Image: Flickr user lapolab