The tumultuous events that have unfolded in Ukraine over the last several years have led to great movements of people in and out of the country. Yet the questions surrounding the phenomenon of ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain gain’ are all toо rarely discussed.
One of the least discussed outcomes of the 2014 Euro Maidan “Revolution of Dignity” is the effect it has had upon the phenomena of Ukraine’s brain drain, brain circulation and brain gain.
A list of the challenges that Ukraine is simultaneously facing would not be exhausted by the illegal annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war with Russia. There are numerous external threats, but these are outnumbered by the internal threats that include potentially disastrous political populism, continued fecklessness within the national legislature, poor and occasionally counterproductive policy and ineffective policy implementation. For twenty-five years it has had devastatingly poor governance on both the national and regional levels, and an oligarchic overtaking of the economy (all political rhetoric aside) with a complete disregard for the nation’s developmental strategy. Despite, or perhaps because of all these interlocking problems, the issue of brain drain has never been seriously addressed in contemporary Ukrainian politics.
Ukraine boasts, and continues to produce, an extremely well educated population. A disproportionate (and some say artificially high) percentage of the population, at least half, hold a bachelor’s degree or higher level of certification. It is a population for which the government has systematically failed to provide an environment that would allow for the organic development of both society and economy, and thus the opportunity to develop as a nation. Furthermore, there has been no effective policy to engage with the brains that have already drained away to friendly nations. Not enough of an effort and few attempts have been made to enlist the large and well connected broader Ukrainian diaspora that is several generations removed from their native Ukrainian citizenship, but who nevertheless retain a keen interest in the country of their historic origin.
The “Revolution of Dignity” and its aftermath witnessed a display of patriotism from both the diaspora and the more recently expatriated “drained brains.” This culminated not only in a return to Ukraine by some (these being the most motivated and also among the best), but also with the opening up of networks abroad that were far more conducive and willing to explore business, academic and civil society opportunities than ever before. The very dire political situation had many serious upsides in terms of the mobilization of the diaspora’s empathy.
Those that put their careers on hold, whether they were employed internally or outside of Ukraine, to answer the immediate needs of the nation are all too often given scant recognition. The result, however, was a significant and mostly unmeasured “brain gain,” both of Ukrainian brains and of those further afield who were willing to assist the nation.
In its most needy and dysfunctional time, the nation’s call was answered by ethnic Ukrainians — and many other sorts of people.
There is now a serious question that relates to the relative temporariness of that brain gain and what, if anything, can be done to prevent a reversion to the Ukrainian brain drain phenomenon that has in part resulted in stunted national development. Those professionals that put careers on hold in order to assist the nation in its moment of need will want to return to those professional careers eventually. It is not incidental that those people who are the most highly valued in a global economy are also the people that Ukraine most needs. Such professionals expect to return to those careers no differently than Ukrainians who were mobilized in times of military need expect to return to their previous vocations when demobilized from the front lines.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry claims that 75% of the military now consists of contract soldiers. Whatever the actual relative figures are, it is still a far cry from the almost exclusively conscripted army that existed prior to the recent bouts of Russian aggression. This raises the obvious question of whether the Ukrainian government should actively and aggressively pursue a similar line with contracts for those professionals that put their careers on hold for the sake of the nation and have rushed to fill the administrative, bureaucratic, technical and managerial void, as well as a void of integrity, critical and creative thinking, since the conflict began in 2014.
There is currently a critical need to think beyond the long term policy issues of “brain drain” or “brain gain.” It is also necessary to think in the immediate term about brain retention and perhaps also of brain circulation. A policy of contracting (of course with sensible remuneration) would allow for the planning of brain departure and arrival, in specific social and economic sectors at critical places and times for both the contracted and the contractor, while other long term policies would be adopted to manage the traditional broad and ongoing process of Ukrainian brain drain.
Is it possible that some form of Public Private Partnership (PPP) — complete with a packaged non-compete agreement between public and private realms in hiring the best and brightest contractually for 1 or 2 years — could be achieved? At it’s best, this sort of theoretical agreement would apply not only centrally, but also regionally. Perhaps such a deal could take the form of a sabbatical in which the government would contract the best and brightest while remunerating them with the same private sector salary? This sort or arrangement would provide for a temporary and functional governance fix, short and planned career breaks, and would ensure a turnover of personnel within a time period likely to frustrate any long term attempts at corruption schemes, nepotism, cronyism, and so on.
Unfortunately, Ukrainian brain drain will undoubtedly continue, with national development further exasperated by the ongoing demographic decline that is caused by myriad other factors (and which is similar to that of the rest of Europe).
To stem, let alone to reverse, the trend in brain drainage, it is a matter of producing conditions that would encourage the best and the brightest to remain in Ukraine rather than to seek opportunities elsewhere. It is well known that the primary causes and drivers of brain drain are not always concerned with remuneration, but rather the lack of opportunity.
There is no quick fix, for such a policy would require a combination of political foresight and creation of social targets, budgeted finance, centers of excellence that by their very nature would attract the best and the brightest. There would need to be a plurality of fully funded international “Masters and Return” education programs, and a focus on research and development (perhaps 2% of GDP redirected back into research as a starting point for a nominal funding figure) in addition to the rest of the standard policy fare associated with preventing brain drain.
A serious overhaul of the labour code would need to be carried out in parallel. This would include massive deregulation as well as the creation of freely functioning economic, trade and business environments in which the best young professionals could cultivate their seeds of ingenuity and creativeness. Doing so would be no less critical for the sake of long term planning than in stemming brain drain.
Strategically, if taken together, these two steps could actually bring about significant brain gain of varying duration and developmental outcomes by attracting the intellectual and professional elite from around the world. As an immediate priority it has to be recognized that those professionals that came to the aid of the nation in 2014 will now want to return to their previous careers if they have not done so already. Thus, brain retention and brain circulation should be at the forefront of policy thinking by way of immediate mitigation. The long term policy needs to forcefully tackle continuing brain drain (which is now at a scale that is perhaps better described as hemorrhaging) and to encourage brain gain where it is possible.
Nick Holmov is The Odessa Review’s political and policy columnist. He is a writer, and consultant specializing in Ukrainian politics, civil society, local governance and security affairs. He is the founder of the widely read Odessatalk blog.