STATHIS KALYVAS

How to reverse the brain drain

COMMENT

Kyriakos Mitsotakis at a meeting with Greeks who live and work in London in May 2017, before he became prime minister.

TAGS: Society, Business, Economy

The Greek brain drain has been a hot topic of discussion over the past few years, most recently as a result of Labor Minister Yiannis Vroutsis’ announcement of a pilot program for luring back 500 Greek scientists and experts by subsidizing 70 percent of their salaries for a period of one year.

The scheme has come under intense criticism, first and foremost because the minimum salary of 3,000 euros is seen as too low by international standards and the one-year subsidy period as too short. Furthermore, immigration and repatriation are not only motived by financial concerns; they are also related to the country’s chronic ailments and dysfunctions. After all, why should anyone come back to work in an environment that is so problematic and lacking in meritocracy?

In order to properly assess such an initiative, we need to bypass the stereotypes and answer two fundamental questions: Why do some people leave their countries? And, once they’ve left, why would they come back? The reasons people leave their countries are as numerous as the people who choose this path, but two stand out.

The first and most obvious is economic necessity. This was the main cause behind the great migration of 2009 on, and not the country’s problems. After all, was Greece functional and fair before the brain drain started in 2009?

The second is ambition. Great opportunities tend to accumulate in a handful of very specific geographical locations. If you believe you have talents and skills and want to develop them to their full potential, you will inevitably seek to work in those places where the best of the best are gathered so that you may associate with them, work with them and learn from them. How can you develop your skills fully if you settle for staying where you were born? How can you fly if you never spread your wings? Inevitably, these places are outside Greece, not because our country is a failure but because it is small. The option of moving in this case has absolutely nothing to do with the process that is described in the public discourse in such theatrical and depressing terms. Quite the opposite; it is dictated by optimism, and this is the case regardless of whether you are attached to your country or not.

In both cases, however, the truth of the matter is that it is hard to come back once you have built a life elsewhere as you become bound by economic and personal reasons, and may even have become accustomed to a life with different values and characteristics.

Clearly, the prospect of repatriation – where it exists – is not based first and foremost on the unrealistic expectation of working under the same or  similar conditions to those abroad. We need to look for its motivations elsewhere: in nostalgia, fatigue, the need for a lifestyle change, the desire to give back to your country, or even in the possibility that your expectations abroad have been dashed. It is equally obvious, therefore, that economic incentives like those announced by the minister will only have a limited effect. This does not mean that they are negligible nor that there is nothing to be done short of a complete transformation for the country.

People who are leaning toward the option of coming back for the reasons mentioned above are usually on the fence. Small and short-term incentives like those being offered by the ministry may give them the nudge they need to make the jump. This does not mean they’re deluding themselves, though: They know that even if – to paraphrase C.P. Cavafy – they came back to Ithaca to find it poor, it won’t have fooled them. Wise as they will have become, so full of experience, they’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.


Stathis N. Kalyvas is the Gladstone Professor of Government at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.

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