There are apparently more Malawian doctors working in Britain's regional city of Manchester than in Malawi itself. That is ideal for Britain's rapidly expanding health service but not so good for Malawi. What to do about this so-called brain drain from poor to wealthy countries is one of the most enduring and difficult challenges in international migration.

One proposal - conveniently deployed by anti-immigration lobbyists in rich countries - is to limit emigration from developing countries. However, policymakers should be suspicious of such approaches and instead find more creative ways to address the issue.

Evidence of large numbers of highly-skilled people emigrating from the developing world is not hard to find: between a third and half of the developing world's science and technology personnel live in the developed world and about 40 per cent of all African professionals have left the continent's shores in the post-colonial period. A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that up to three-quarters of all highly-skilled workers in some small developing countries such as Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago and Fiji, have emigrated to OECD countries.

For larger countries, the relative scale of loss may be much smaller but evidence suggests that their emigrants are disproportionately well-educated. For example, nearly 80 per cent of working-age Indian emigrants to developed countries have a tertiary education, compared with 2.5 per cent of the overall Indian population.

Is all this mobility a problem? Yes, to the extent that some small countries are losing the type of people critical to driving economic growth, delivering public services and filling the ranks of the political classes. However, we should not forget that in most cases, highly skilled emigration brings considerable benefits to all concerned. It can be a hugely enriching experience for the individuals involved. Their home countries benefit from remittance income, from inward investment by diaspora communities and, if migrants return, from accumulated skills and capital. Receiving countries, where demand is driving these flows, pay less for training immigrants and can fill vacancies quickly. Finally, greater labour mobility helps improve global economic efficiency.

This nuanced picture of costs and benefits shows how inappropriate a one-size-fits-all response can be, particularly when it involves limiting migration from all developing countries. Here, we need to distinguish between brain drain and what I call brain strain. While the former refers to the movement of people, the latter refers to the instances in which their movement has negative development impact. The clearest example of brain strain can be found in some sub-Saharan African countries where emigration, particularly from the education and health sectors, may be hampering progress in critical poverty eradication efforts.

The important point is that brain drain does not always lead to brain strain. For example, the emigration of Indian information technology workers may not be hampering India's development. Given that the emigration potential may actually be fuelling additional human capital investment locally and that India receives huge remittances (about $8bn per annum), the net impact of migration may be positive.

Limiting mobility across the developing world may deprive countries such as India of these benefits. Limiting mobility from only the most vulnerable countries is also problematic because it might infringe the human rights of the individuals concerned and, in any case, might not work. Resourceful migrants will always find a way of getting around recruitment bans.

We need interventions that acknowledge that mobility is, in itself, not necessarily the problem. Rather, we should pay attention to the impact of that mobility. Improving the development prospects of the Guyanas and the Malawis of the world will require targeted strategies such as limiting active recruitment from the most vulnerable sectors and creating incentives for return. But the most enduring interventions may lie outside the remit of immigration policies. Financing additional training facilities in vulnerable sectors may help meet local demand. Delivering aid to bolster local wages may promote the retention of key workers. Additional funding for professionals in the developed world to spend time in poorer countries could also be effective, certainly in the short term.

Migration is here to stay. Strategies to limit mobility may end up being ineffective or counter-productive. Instead, we need strategies to optimise the impact of greater mobility. This requires better understanding of the relationship between poverty, migration and development. It also requires greater political will on the part of the leaders of developed countries to counter the negative impact of their demand for workers - where and when it occurs - rather than pull up the drawbridges.

The writer is senior research fellow at the UK's Institute for Public Policy Research

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