( Innovation and Migration: a Gift to the West, ( 2 of 2

Gussai H. Sheikheldin

(On having a cake and eating it too)

Immigration waves to Western countries are not only ‘manageable’ (i.e. in terms of sufficient space and resources to accept immigrants); rather, they continuously bring advances in innovation, knowledge and wealth regeneration, keeping the West leading the most important sectors in modern global economy. Progressive arguments that say the West has a moral responsibility towards immigrants only tell half the story. The West benefits from immigration in critical and measurable ways. Ironically, if migration is bad news it is so only for the rest of the world, as brain drain migration relocates many individuals of critical knowledge and skills from developing societies, where they are more needed, to developed industrialized societies.


Brain Drain: the cake the West keeps and eats too

As knowledge proliferates throughout the world, and as access to information and ideas and tools is more or less distributed worldwide (with still some uneven-ness yet not in the same fashion as decades ago) there is no surprise that the rest of the world is catching up with the West in terms of advances and innovations in science and technology. At least at the brain level—i.e. the knowledge and skills of individuals and groups from all over the world who are fortunate enough to have access to good education and room for experimentation in technology and science. Westerners technically do not lead the world on that front anymore. Indicators show that Westerners now have a fair share of that front but don’t hold a strong majority in it anymore.

Yet, Western countries still fairly lead the world on that same front. The secret to that is not really a secret—it’s the so-called brain drain migration. The labour market, division of labour and incentives in Western countries still have more capacity to recruit and retain stellar minds and creative talents. Bright and fortunate minds from developing societies, who had the chance of an education that matches and sharpens their talents, find it easier to join the ranks of ‘first world’ societies and build a life for themselves there, as the labour market there can absorb them more efficiently (generally speaking) and the infrastructure and public services (and the wonders of the market) there offer them a quality of life better than that which they would have had to be patient with – at least for a while – in their home countries. Their choice becomes even easier when there is political unrest in their home countries due to corrupt and/or brutal regimes (which might just be supported and/or funded by the same Western countries they end up migrating to).

The peculiar thing about migration to the West is that the West gets to clearly benefit from it while at the same time enjoy bragging about it, as a goodwill gesture, and also complain about it when it feels like doing so. On this one, the West can have the cake and eat it too.

Pro-immigration Westerners justify their position to their fellow citizens on grounds of compassion for migrants and paying a debt to humanity. The rhetoric of calling for helping those in need as an expression of humanity, and appealing to the senses of compassion, decency and empathy, in countering the ‘anti-immigration’ camp, is not a bad rhetoric. It makes a difference, and sometimes wins over some hearts and minds. However that rhetoric is both sentimentally and factually incomplete. It only tells half the story. For once, it underestimates, or bypasses, that while some humans may feel for others who are drowning (figuratively and literally) they do not want to drown with them, and if they feel that they may drown with them they will choose not to help, without feeling extremely guilty about it. Also, factually, there is a gross misinformation about how the continuous wave of migration is not only economically good for the West, but that it is actually what keeps the West leading the world today on most indicators of modern progress.

So dealing with immigration becomes a Western monologue, with both sides of ‘the debate’ being led by Westerners. The West appears compassionate for the rest of the world, on the one hand, and superior enough to determine which humans are worthy of joining its civilization on the other hand. Neither side of this ‘debate’ seriously entertains that the West is doomed without immigration; that it is actually a matter for survival for the West to keep accepting and encouraging steady and diverse immigration.

The Real Face of the Anti-immigration Camp

We can see why the Western anti-immigration camp keeps repeating the same arguments about why immigration is bad for the economy and bad for the overall quality of life of Western citizens, even when those arguments have been proven to be lacking evidence many times. It is because the public faces of that camp cannot speak bluntly of their true reasons for being anti-immigration (or, to be more accurate, very selective in immigration policies. Many Europeans migrate annually to either North America or Australia and they are rarely bothered).

Ultimately, the real resistance to migration is cultural resistance. Many North Americans are sincerely anti-immigration for cultural reasons. More migrants will mean wider cultural shifts from what the old citizens are used to, and that frightens many of them. It may come as a surprise for only a few, but a large number of North Americans do not like cultural diversity, have minimum experience of what it actually looks/feels like, and want to keep it that way. Whether it is for religious reasons (i.e. wanting to keep a predominant Judaeo-Christian worldview) or for confused chauvinistic (or simply racist) reasons, there is little that can be argued with folks who embrace such views, because, frankly, migration flows certainly bring cultural changes. In fact, North America is one clear witness to that, as its cultural trends changed, significantly, many times in history—when the first European migrants came; when the African forced-migration happened; when the American Revolution happened; when the US civil war happened; when the second wave of European migrants came in result of the World Wars 1 and 2; when the influx of migrants from Latin America increased; and so on. Culture is never a static thing. It is either dynamic or it’s dead, and North American life is a living example of that—not always a positive example but an example nonetheless. An objective look at North American life, in general, can show that cultural change is ironically the one constant thing there. It may just not be able to gracefully accommodate all flavors of bigotry. That is why, for those who are anti-immigration for cultural reasons, we cannot offer solace, but we can tell them to either choose between a vibrant economy and a modern life of enjoying the advances of science, technology and innovation, on the one hand, or a stale culture on the other hand. You cannot choose both.

There is an inherent inconsistency in the xenophobic approach of some anti-immigration folks. For example, when someone as prominent in American life as the vice-president Joe Biden, says casually on national TV that he’s ‘Irish’ (he didn’t say Irish-American) [1] no one ever questions his American-ness. It is taken for granted. There is absolutely nothing wrong with referring to your Irish ancestry in public without asserting your American identity in the same sentence. But you can imagine how some folks will freak out if the president, Barack Obama, said one day that he is ‘African’ or ‘Kenyan’ (without saying African-American) and how even liberal Americans will be at best apologetic for the president in ways they didn’t even have to worry about in the case of the vice-president. In essence there is nothing wrong with Americans from Irish, Scottish, Italian or Scandinavian ancestry expressing that in public and at ease; it’s just that, for the sake of consistency, that freedom should be available across the board.

This is one reason, in addition to many others, the xenophobic approach cannot really deny its bigotry if it expresses itself openly in public. So it mainly chooses to express itself in public in the only other way it knows how: national economy and national security. Ironically, Western economies acknowledge that they need two ‘foreign things’ to survive: foreign resources and foreign consumers. These are economies that perpetually need resources to make commodities and consumers to buy these commodities.

If the anti-immigration proponents really succeed in keeping the West for themselves, the West itself will become a place of devastated economies that no one would want to migrate to in the first place.

Who Truly Loses from International Migration?

One can finish this article by the counter-narrative that the current conditions of continuous ‘South-to-North’ migration is only a bad deal for economic South (the economic Southern hemisphere). It largely means that a big percentage of their bright, innovative, highly-skilled folks, and potentially important consumers for their growing markets, are lost to industrialized/developed societies that now have their own share and more of such important resources. For example, “In parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, sometimes more than half of all university graduates migrate to OECD countries, with potentially serious consequences for critical sectors such as education, health and engineering.”[2]

In modern history, no country has been able to achieve genuine economic and technological transformation without its own people taking the lead. If this south-to-north migration continuous to take place – for understandable reasons but problematic nonetheless – the West will only continue to get wealthier and more technologically advanced, while most developing societies will continue to be relatively poorer and less modernized.

However, and despite all, there are still some good things happening now in some developing parts of the world. There are big indicators of growing economies, increasing implementation of modern technologies, and better education and health indicators in parts of Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Even some funny things are happening: many Westerners are now migrating to developing societies, but in a different way. We can call this form of migration ‘opportunity migration’. These opportunity migrants do not need to migrate for economic survival or political reasons, but purely for even better opportunities in wealth and career. A recent study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found that more Europeans currently migrate annually to Latin America and the Caribbean than the other way around (i.e. more than Latin Americans and Caribbean people migrating to Europe)[3]. Parts of Africa have also recently witnessed a considerable flux of Western migrants that are responding to opportunity calls in some of the growing economies there. Interesting shifts and trends are happening throughout the world.

In a conversation I once had with a group of friends about the big brain drain migration of highly skilled/educated Africans towards the West, a friend of mine commented, “it seems that even the full half of Africa’s cup is also empty.” A worrying yet unescapable thought.

*Gussai H. Sheikheldin is a scholar of technology and institutions (in societies and in economies). His interdisciplinary academic and career profile combines engineering, public policy and sustainable development. Native of Sudanic Africa and resident of North America, he writes on academic and public platforms in both English and Arabic. Twitter: @GussaiHS Email: g.hamror@gmail.com


[1] TV interview with Vice President of USA Joe Biden at ‘The Late Show’ hosted by Steven Colbert, CBS channel, September 2015. Colbert as well joined Biden in saying that he’s ‘Irish’.

[2] OECD. “Migration and the Brain Drain Phenomenon”. Viewed November 3, 2015 on: http://www.oecd.org/dev/poverty/migrationandthebraindrainphenomenon.htm

 [3] “More Europeans Migrate to Latin America Than Vice Versa, Study Finds”. Global Voices (website), June 26, 2015: https://globalvoices.org/2015/06/26/more-europeans-migrate-to-latin-america-than-vice-versa-study-finds/