The international mobility of the highly skilled and talented individuals: Perspectives from Latin America

CALVO, Jahir

In this article, Jahir Calvo from the University of Panama, explains the challenges for Latin America regarding international mobility. It is also noted that the region should strive to give their highly skilled and talented professionals adequate and rewarding conditions to stay as a first choice.


The international mobility of people with special talents and highly specialized knowledge from the science and technology fields is not considered a new phenomenon. However, it was not until the mid-90s when the forces of globalization made it more pronounced (Aráuz & Wittchen, 2010).
Undoubtedly, the mobility of this human capital - considered one of the most valuable assets of every nation - contributes to the creation and diffusion of knowledge, as well as the provision of intellectual enrichment in the new so-called “knowledge-based society” era, in which the imperative has been its accumulation in order to foster growth and competitiveness.
However, this same imperative has caused a global competition between top countries for attracting the best and the brightest, a situation that, under specific conditions, could be depriving the scarce human resources of certain countries and greatly decimating their futures (Aráuz & Wittchen, 2010).
Observed trends show that the issue is more critical in some specific countries and regions, where the numbers have significantly increased over the past decade and it is predictable that in the future it may become even more pronounced.
This article gives an overview and analysis of the issue from a Latin American perspective. Emphasis is placed on some main facts and on the strategies and programs being implemented to counter and understand the phenomenon.
Main facts
There is a general acknowledgement that Latin America is a region that loses more highly skilled and talented professionals (HS&T) than it receives. In fact, Didou and Gérard assure us (2009) that the region has been less successful in attracting skilled foreigners, since it has been more concerned about the outflow (emigration) than the inflow (immigration). The latter, add the authors, is seen as an unfair competition for national professionals.
The concern about the issue in the region rose in the late 1960s and the 1970s when a massive exodus of these HS&T took place due the social and political instability that arose in many Latin American countries during these years (Solimano, 2003). In spite of the restoration of these trigger conditions in almost the entire region in recent decades, the issue continues to gain attention in the press and in several research and policy agendas (Didou & Gérard, 2009) due to the persistence of other important pushing factors that are limiting the possibilities of the HS&T to remain in their home countries, meaning a very significant loss of knowledge for the region.
Zarur (2008) points out the weak systems of science, technology, and innovation in most countries of the Latin American region together with the Caribbean (LAC). According to this author, the severity of this issue is evident when looking, for instance, at the few number of full-time researchers (less than 150,000) which represent only 3.5% of the total scientists on the planet – a value below the world average, and at the low percentage of scientific world production (1.4%) and patent requests (0.2%). In this same vein, figures from 2008 of The Network for Science and Technology Indicators –Ibero-American and Inter-American– (RICYT) show that the expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP in LAC is only 0.62%, which falls considerably behind that of world leaders, for instance the United States, where the expenditure was 2.76% (RICYT, n.d.).
In addition to the above mentioned factors, there is a limited availability of good job opportunities that could match the profile and field of specialization of the HS&T (Aráuz & Wittchen, 2010), an almost nonexistent regional policy of doctoral training, an incipient development of the industrial sector, a lack of definition of national or regional priorities for human resource training, a slow updating of policies of international scientific cooperation, and a lack of economic incentives for developing scientific activities (Zarur, 2008).
According to Wickramasekara (2002), the outflow is evident and severe, and policymakers cannot ignore it. Didou (2010) points out that it has increased proportionally more than the global one. In absolute terms (number of people), Mexico stands out as the most affected country in Latin America, where the number of HS&T Mexicans who emigrated raised to 0.9 million in 2000 (Podemski, 2010). In relative terms (as a percentage of the educated labor force), Podemski (2010) and Docquier (2006), have pointed out that the most affected Latin American countries are those in Central America, with El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua standing out as the most affected. In this same regard, Wickramasekara (2002) underlined that Central America loses more than 30% of the HS&T group due to the outflow. The rate presented by Zarur (2008) is much more disturbing. She states that it indeed exceeds 50% for many countries in Central America.
Figures presented by Zarur (2008) also indicate that between 1961 and 2002, more than 1,200,000 HS&T from LA&C have emigrated just to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This represents a $30 billion loss for the region, since the minimum cost of university training is $25,000.00. The consulted sources used by Didou and Gérard (2009) point out that the outflow to OECD countries for the period between 1990 and 2000 has an increased regional average of about 11%, roughly 1,500,000 HS&T.
The United States remains as the main attraction for these HS&T (Özden, 2006). However, as Aráuz and Wittchen (2010) have recognized, the majority suffer the brain waste phenomenon and perform semiskilled and unskilled jobs.
Countering and understanding the phenomenon
In trying to counter and understand the alarming phenomenon, Latin America has seen the need to develop and implement mobility policies and an observatory about the issue. The available literature points out the retention, return and circulation of skills policies as mechanisms dealing with the issue, and the Observatory for Academic and Scientific Mobility (OBSMAC, by its initials in Spanish), as support for its understanding.
Through the first policy, retention, Latin American countries are trying to achieve the permanence of their HS&T at home and discourage their outflow. This aim requires the provision of adequate and rewarding conditions at home (Wickramasekara, 2002), such as better availability of significant research opportunities and high quality in education.
In the case of the second policy, return, the aim is to recover the HS&T who are considered recoverable assets for the home country. Programs under this policy take full advantage of the “embodied knowledge” of the person to be reintegrated into the national community (Meyer et al., 1997). However, to achieve this, diverse and creative conduits must be opened (Aráuz & Wittchen, 2010). On the one hand, it is important to prove incentives to return, such as the ones that are being provided by Mexico: research positions, higher salaries, one year of salary support, and the coverage of the repatriation expenditures (Holm et al., 2005; Aráuz & Wittchen, 2010); and on the other the creation of networks at home is mandatory, in which these returnees could effectively find a place to be operational (Meyer & Brown, 1999). Although these programs are generally very costly and difficult to sustain (Zarur, 2008), attempts are being made in Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and Peru.
In case the Latin American HS&T cannot return home due to professional or personal circumstances, a third policy is being implemented. This is called circulation of skills, and is achieved through the creation of diasporas in which this group of people concerned with the development of their country of origin could be remotely mobilized and contribute partially to this aim in a productive way. In this sense, they may stay wherever they are, and work from a distance for their home country in some manner (Meyer et al., 1997). Such programs are currently operational in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. The Latin American Association of Scientists also runs at a regional level. According to Meyer et al. (1997), these kinds of programs are a real and workable proposition to transform the negative effects of the outflow into actual benefits, taking advantage of all the heterogeneous resources to which the HS&T are locally connected in the host country (equipment, colleagues, data, documentation, institutions, and funds). The latter, adds the author, suggests that the diaspora option does not need a massive infrastructural investment beyond the reach of many developing countries. This indicates a fundamental difference with the return option.
In looking at the results achieved by the aforementioned mobility policies and programs in the region, it is evident that they are not quite known. Zarur (2008) stresses that the retention option is still considered to a greatly ineffective, since very few countries of the region have strengthened the needed conditions. Brazil is one of these few that stand out for having invested in both its national innovation and research system, and its education system (Saravia & Miranda, 2004). Regarding the return and diaspora options, Didou and Gérard (2009) point out that these are so far limited in scope, and with few exceptions, they have been more publicized than evaluated. In the region, the opinions are split, assure the authors. There are groups who have valued their positive effects and those who have denounced their low efficiency in terms of amount of resources spent and demonstrable contributions to the consolidation of subject areas in national scientific fields.
Undoubtedly, the limited success of these policies and programs can be attributed to factors of different natures. Perhaps the absence of sufficient knowledge about the phenomenon holds an important place within these. Indeed, researchers Didou and Gérard (2009) have argued that the issue has not yet been well documented throughout the region and statistics remain imperfect, difficult to assemble and often contradictory. Therefore, a better understanding of the phenomenon is imperative. In trying to overcome this reality, the Institute of Higher Education of Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC), an entity of UNESCO, launched the initiative OBSMAC in 2010, which aims to become a virtual area of confluence for collaborative works, studies, discussion, analysis, documents and opinions on the topic throughout the region that could help the Latin American decision making structures in the process of countering the phenomenon (UNESCO – IESALC, 2010).
In the current globalizing world, the international mobility of highly skilled and talented individuals (HS&T) is a real phenomenon that we cannot ignore. According to UNESCO (2005), this mobility is inevitable and indispensable in the new knowledge-based society era that requires even more creation and diffusion of knowledge in order to foster growth and competitiveness. This brings together an increase in the demand of this skilled labor force and new and unexpected opportunities for them to be exploited.
Although this mobility can be considered to be a positive phenomenon from the point of view of globalization, the concern is from the national perspective of sending countries’ sustainable development, since any decrease in the human capital stock, considered the most valuable asset of any nation, means the possible stagnation or decimation of their future, that in extreme cases, assures Hunger (2002), can lead to the breakdown of entire sectors.
Even though it is demonstrated that the mobility of the HS&T is not as severe in Latin America as in other regions, the analysis carried out in this article revealed that it still represents a very significant loss of knowledge for the Latin American countries, which have not been able to develop adequate and appropriate responses and policies to effectively manage the phenomenon, and when available, the same are limited in scope, and with few exceptions, more publicized than evaluated. What’s more, according to an OECD report, most of the countries in this region experience most of the outflow, significantly to the United States, with very few returning benefits (OECD, 2004). Although there is little evidence to identify the extent to which the outflow of this group of Latin American people is a temporary or permanent project, the truth is that it prevails over the inflow (brain gain) or over the brain exchange and circulation (Didou & Gérard, 2009). The rationales behind this characteristic outflow have been, among others, social and political instabilities, inadequate options for development, and the research and development capacity issue of the region.
Undoubtedly, the challenges for Latin America in this regard are many. Given differences among countries, it is not possible to identify a “receipt” for what Latin American governments should do more of, what should they do less of, or what should stay the same. However, from the literature reviewed, it is noted that the region should strive to give their HS&T adequate and rewarding conditions to stay as a first choice, or return as an ultimate alternative, in order for them to contribute to the future of their nations. Among others, it is necessary to provide quality education that could meet the market standards; offer enough and better employment opportunities and merit-based career progression in their fields of specialization; secure appropriate remuneration; create the proper research and professional practice conditions; achieve greater harmonization of standards for qualifications; created at home the networks and creative conduits that could generate transactions (demonstration effects) and in which the returnees could effectively find a place and be operational in local labor markets; liberate the potential of diaspora communities and enable them to play a meaningful role in the countries’ development; have sufficient absorptive capacity for making possible the brain circulation; and have the appropriate telecommunications infrastructure to promote greater virtual mobility and less of a physical one.
The OBSMAC assumes to be the meeting point that the region needs to advance in its process of resolving unknowns and organize a more effective dissemination of knowledge, proposals and programs related to the phenomenon. There is no doubt that further work and initiatives will be needed in the advancement of this goal. However, as stated by Hadaś and Lang (2010), the most important consideration when coping with the phenomenon is a better understanding, its reconsideration and the answer of its uncomfortable questions, meaning the end of the almost exclusively theoretical, political, anecdotal and emotional debate that has been the trend until now.
Reference list
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Didou, S. (2010). México: Políticas gubernamentales de salida y retorno para la formación de recursos humanos altamente calificados. URL: dmdocuments/obsmac.pdf (Retrieved April 1, 2010)
Docquier, F. (2006). Brain drain and inequality across nations. URL: (Retrieved May 3, 2010)
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About the author

Author’s Bio

Jahir Calvo is Licentiate in Electromechanical Engineering and holds a Graduate Diploma in Top Management from the Panama University of Technology. He also holds a Specialization in Higher Education Didactics and is candidate for the master degree in the same area of specialization from the University of Panama. In 2009, he was awarded with a dual scholarship from Panamanian Government and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to continue his education in Germany, and is currently a Master’s student of the International Master Programme in Higher Education Research and Development offered by the International Centre for Higher Education Research Kassel together with the Department of Social Sciences of the University of Kassel in Germany.


He has experience in the higher education field, specifically in the coordination, implementation and evaluation of researches and technical studies in the areas of university planning and statistics. Among his areas of professional interest highlight the evaluation and accreditation processes in Higher Education.


For further information about this article, contact the author at the following e-mail address:


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government