Brain Gain and a Historical Lookback

In 1907 the Swedish Parliament commissioned an investigation to try to reduce emigration to the United States. The original request included the following points:

  • That many emigrants would stay at home if they knew the hardships they would face in America.
  • A governmental information campaign on the dangers of emigration
  • Measures to stop and prevent promotion of emigration, claiming that agitators lure people into emigration using false information.
  • Many bitterly regret going to America where they find themselves in worse conditions than at home, and have perhaps spent all their money on the journey and can’t afford to go back home.
  • Many do not want to return due to misdirected ambition; they do not want to admit that they have made a mistake in emigrating. This explains why letters home from Swedes in America speak so highly of the new land.
  • Support to regretful emigrants by sending one of the Navy’s ships to New York to bring them home for free, under condition that they no longer be allowed to move abroad.
  • Talks about the significant economic loss of having able people in the age 15-35 moving abroad. And the even greater loss of spiritual capital, stating that it is known that it’s the energetic and intelligent youth that’s recruited for emigration. The most entrepreneurial leave for the New World, but the lazy and unproductive stay at home.

The thing is that I have heard all these points and arguments (perhaps except the one about lazy people staying at home) in present day Africa.   In 2001 Senegal even chartered a plane to bring home emigrants in France who supposedly were disappointed with their new lives in France, but could not afford to buy a ticket home, citing reasons similar to the ones above.  I can’t find any sources for it now, but I remember reading about it in Senegalese press.

In 2007 the Senegalese President Wade in a joint press conference with French President Sarkozy, said that Senegal would bring home all illegal immigrants in France, and expressed worries over brain drain.

The term brain drain wasn’t coined in 1907, but the phenomenon was clearly known. Here are some paragraphs about it in the Swedish emigration investigation:

“According to information from various sources there should currently be around 1 million people who through ancestry and language belong tothe Swedish nationality, but who through emigration from Sweden now make a contribution of intellectual and material force to a foreign people. To find means to reduce this drainage of force is a vital question for the country.”

“It’s undoubtedly a significant national task to seek to draw back a part of those who are lost to Sweden. It would be of great benefit for the country primarily from an economic point of view. Each Swede in a foreign country represents by his upbringing and labour a non-negligable monetary value. If some these former sons of the country could be regained for the homeland, it would create a significant benefit.”

My personal take on the brain drain issue is that the problem is greatly overestimated both by the Swedish MP requesting the investigation in 1907, and by the Senegalese president in 2007.  Briefly, it’s individuals that matter, not countries. And the large multiple positive effects of allowing people to move where they think they can best pursue happiness  outweigh any negative effects even for the originating country. The one exception I can think of would be the case where emigrants don’t work and live off social welfare for long periods of time.

The originating country benefits from a diaspora from day one, but if conditions improve it can witness a “brain gain” of ex-emigrants bringing all their experience back. As opposed to brain drain, this phenomenon could be underestimated. A recent article in British newspaper The Telegraph talks about signs of brain gain taking place in Africa.

Gustav Sundbärg, the head author of the 1907 emigration investigation (which when it was finished in 1913 comprised 5200 pages and is an important historical document) had views much in line with mine on brain drain and several other issues. He managed to outmaneuver more conservative co-authors who called for more restrictions on emigration, seeing it as unpatriotic, and arguing that things were fine and that there were no real reasons to emigrate.

In the investigation Sundbärg established that the only way to reduce emigration would be to make Sweden a better and wealthier country, and then launched a detailed, objective and very thorough look at the Swedish society and the emigration phenomenon from all angles. The investigation’s recommendations were to bring the best of America to Sweden and included to introduce universal suffrage, better housing, general economic development, broader popular education, and actually to reduce restrictions on emigration by allowing soldiers conscripted to the army to emigrate.

Gustav Sundbärg, photo taken in 1936

Many of Sundbärg’s descriptions, concerns and ideas seem fitting and relevant for Africa of today. Whereas others have absolutely no relevance for Africa, but are interesting anyway. Some freely translated excerpts:

From page 841:

“To look for the causes of emigration is in my opinion completely unnecessary. Nothing could be more clear. It’s in the human ambition to try to improve one’s situation. And that man or woman who does not try to improve his or her situation if it needs to be improved, and there is an opportunity at hand, is not much worth even if he stays at home.”

These words of an old swedish-american can, within the frame of his opinion, not be questioned. It’s a commonly heard opinion that patriotism as such should prevent our people from emigrating. […] For those who speak of patriotic feelings as a hindrance to emigration, would we like to bring forward the following small images of life from Jösse county in [region of] Värmland:

“I have worked in my profession”, says a poor shoemaker, “for 30 years and I can say that I have not yet managed to earn more than 1 krona [the Swedish currency unit] on average per day during the year.  I have usually worked 17-18 hours per day, but never managed to save enough to buy my own home. I am growing potatoes on a small plot of land on a slope close to where I live. I have still managed to raise seven children and now it’s looking bright even for me, because I’ve started to build my own home, not by my own earned money, but by money my oldest daughter, she is now 18, has sent home from America. She left when she was 14, and started sending us money already the first year. Since she turned 17 she has regularly sent us 10 dollar per month, and sometimes more, so that we in four years have received 1,500 kr from her. It’s with this money we now build our home.  But isn’t it curious that one can work hard a whole life here in Sweden and not manage to achieve as much as a young girl can save in a couple of years in America. I could never speak badly of America or the emigration, because I don’t know what would have happened to us if we hadn’t managed to bring the girl over there.”

This story has present day Africa written all over it:  Long working hours as self employed, subsistence farming, many children, strong family ties, reliance on remittances from abroad, children supporting parents, parents helping children moving abroad knowing they will not see them for years. One difference though, is how child labour is looked upon today.

From page 842:

Hearing these stories, one cannot complain about the door to America having been open for our youth. […] That it generally has gone well for our countrymen in America, is well known. That many make exaggerated descriptions in letters home to friends and family is equally well known, but this doesn’t change the conclusion above. It is often said that one never hears from those who have failed and gone under over there. But von Koch’s study shows that the number of such cases isn’t as significant as commonly believed. And besides, how many of those who made it in America would not have gone under if they stayed in Sweden?

It is not uncommon to hear that if the emigrant had worked as hard and energetically at home as in America, he would have become wealthy here as well. This as a general rule, is simply not true, and those who speak in this way know that it is false if they just look into the matter properly. That a few swedish-americans who have come home say these things, proves nothing, because for each of them there are 10,000 that with conviction say the opposite. And one only needs to think about the opportunities here compared to America to realise who is right.

But then there is stuff where it’s impossible to agree with Sundbärg or whoever wrote this particular text:

… gives the Swede in America a starting position far ahead of South europeans and Slavs.

If one looks closer at who has created America’s greatness in our day, one soon finds, that it is immigrated Anglo-saxons, Germans, Scandinavians and Dutch and their descendants in a few generations. After that, it is more rare to find in America individuals with the phenomenal energy and capability as the forerunners. But what this means when the migration from the aforementioned countries diminishes is self explicatory.

Of importance are also the very low birth rates among the anglo-saxon elements in America – already lower than in France. Werner Sombart has in the paper “Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben” given a drastic picture of this developement. [Here a German text is quoted saying that in 50 or 100 years America will mainly be populated by Slavs, Negroes and Jews]

At the time there was this worldview that protestant north-western Europe had high-quality people, and that Ireland, the Mediterranean countries and East  Europe were inferior. As the latter countries were producing more emigrants in 1907 and had more children it was believed America would eventually decline.

It all sounds a lot like views held about Europe today by populist xenophobic movements. It’s just that the Irish and Spanish and Czech are alright now, and are replaced by Middle easterners, South Asians and Africans.

3 thoughts on “Brain Gain and a Historical Lookback

  1. The emigration investigation also asked industry associations and trade unions on their take on creating a government managed employment service to find jobs in Sweden for Swedes in the US and bring them back.

    Here is what a trade union answered:

    “There is no need, known to us, of Swedish labour from abroad in the sectors where we operate, ie manual labour in Industry, Craftsmanship and Transport.

    And an industry association:

    “It is a fact that most fit and capable Scandinavians within a short amount of time manage to reach a good standing in the new country. To turn to such capable men and women with the purpose of making them return to Sweden, should generally have little chance of success.

    Unfortunately there are however not few Swedes in the United States of North America, that due to lesser capability or unfortunate circumstances never managed to get rooted in the new country and lead a troublesome existence. Measures for the return of emigrated Swedes would probably immediately result in the return of such less capable individuals, who might during a shorter period upon return manage to make a living, but would in all likelihood sooner or later become a burden on the public.

    Even if a few capable workers were made to return, it would not be certain that they could be persuaded to stay in Sweden. One has to take into account that workers used to the more free conditions abroad would not feel comfortable in the tyranny, that is practiced here by the leaders of the worker’s movement under under trade unions ans solidarity’s often misused name.

    One has to further consider the monetary conditions in different countries, a consideration which makes it of little use to try to make people return to Sweden from a country where wages are higher.”

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