For decades, the developing world's best and brightest have set off to seek their
fortunes on foreign shores. But in recent years, the tide of brain drain has been
turning, with some of these so-called "sea turtles" making the voyage home.
By Chiara Piotto & Natasha Silva
Some species of sea turtle manage to migrate thousands of miles across oceans between foraging and nesting grounds, and seasonally to warmer waters. Then they migrate to nesting areas to breed, usually in the area where they were born.
Encouraging young people to do the same is now one of the biggest challenges in many countries - like China, where emigrants who return home to start businesses or do research are called haigui, or sea turtles. It's the opposite of "brain drain," as researchers call the migration of young, talented people from areas of the world in economic crisis or suffering from a chronic lack of jobs to more welcoming ones. Europeans usually move from east to west, and from south to north. People born in developing countries move to well-developed ones. The migrants look for research or job opportunities, and usually they find them. But with the passing of time, some of them are willing to go back to their native country "to breed in the area where they were born."
Unfortunately, they do not always have the chance to do so. "I was born and I grew up in Italy up to the end of high school," says Tufts University economist Enrico Spolaore. "When I had to choose the best place to study economics, I flew to the US." The loss of human capital is an economic issue for the drained countries, as it reduces long-run economic growth and income. "I don't think that the right approach should be to have every country keep its own youth," Spolaore says. "Every country should be in the condition to attract people from abroad to balance drain and gain. There would be a winwin in the end."
Resisting the call
Some countries easily attract talented young people. Take Singapore, where Leader of Tomorrow Yeo Oswald comes from. At the age of 21, after having completed his studies at the prestigious University of California at Berkeley, he flew back to his motherland to found Glints, an online platform displaying internship and graduate job opportunities in Singapore. "90% of our candidates were Singaporeans. The rest were from all over the world. It's a window to attract foreign talents, especially from developing countries, but also a showcase for our own talents," Oswald explains. Oswald behaved like a sea turtle himself. "I decided to go back home to start my company, even if I was studying next to Silicon Valley," he says. "Not only because in Singapore there is great access to capital, but also because there I had my mentors, my investors, all the support I could need, my cultural community. It was the perfect context." According to Manu Chandaria, Chairman at the Comcraft Group in Nairobi, the possibility of staying or coming back is up to the individual. "I was born in Kenya, I grew up in Mumbai and New York," he says. "The startling differences between those three cities had a great impact on me and led me to wonder: what have they done to get those huge buildings and big businesses? I thought: if they can do it, I can do it." Chandaria is an exception: only a third of the Kenyans leaving the country every year for studies overseas (about 30,000 each year, according to the Kenyan government) return after completing their studies. "Becoming an entrepreneur in your native country is always possible.
First, you can't underestimate yourself: to reach big goals you need great efforts and imagination, and must take into account that they could also lead to failure." Of course, some resist the call to leave from the beginning. "I wanted to go study in the US, as most of my high school classmates did. But they went, and I stayed home," says Indian Leader of Tomorrow Vaidehi Tandel. "I thought that I might find top-class education in India too. Now, most of my friends who went abroad are coming back to Mumbai. I am very happy not to have left." Vaidehi is the Associate Vice President of the Infrastructure Development Finance Company in Mumbai. "There are some push and pull factors, of course. There are too few job opportunities in India not to expect some young people to flee. But still, I now work for the government and I know I can make a difference in my country through my job," she explains. "I mean, experience abroad is important, but what could ever be better than making a difference in your motherland? And not being forced to leave your family and roots? You will miss them, one day or another."