Brain drain – the Romanian example

Daria writes*

“Brain drain” is defined as the emigration of highly skilled workers from developing economies to more developed ones. Globalisation and  membership in the European Union have had positive and negative impacts on Eastern European countries, which in the context of liberalisation have become known as human-capital-exporting countries. Unfortunately, the surge in medical personnel, engineers and entrepreneurs working abroad has caused serious damage to the countries of origin that now struggle with dormant economies.

Romania ranks first in emigration among European countries. The 1989 fall of the Communist regime was the first opportunity for Romanians to look for new prospects abroad. However, only following Romania’s EU joining, the brain drain effect started to impede development in specific sectors. The healthcare sector is one in which innovation seems impossible.  More than half of its workers have migrated to Western countries, meaning that those left behind are struggling to meet day-to-day health care demands.

Reports have shown that four out of five Romanian doctors consider working abroad and over 20,000 have left to practice in countries such as the UK or France since 2007. This problem disrupts the country’s development. There is often concern regarding the financial losses, since Romanian taxpayers pay for the education of doctors and nurses. The training of one doctor in Romania costs approximately 100,000 €. These costs deepen the economic disparities between Western and Eastern Europe, but education costs are overlooked during EU budgeting meetings. That oversight may not be accidental when destination countries gain knowledge and economic benefits from such workers.

While long-term economic consequences involve a more elaborate analysis, short-term repercussions are more visible. The brain drain has depleted the healthcare system, with a 20% personnel shortage in Northern Romania The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has exposed the workforce to risk and the weaknesses of the sector. The lack of qualified personnel and scarcity of hospital funding (Romania allocates only 5% of GDP to healthcare) led to unprecedented measures such as closing hospitals in major cities.

Brain drain is often irreversible, so Romania should soon focus on a “brain gain” approach. Various studies have shown that such a strategy might foster and encourage growth . “Brain gain” generates economic gains and knowledge capital. Policies promoting  return-migration would bring experience and skills to the healthcare sector.

Although remittances from the diaspora of 1.9 billion dollars in 2014 helped the economy, monetary gains cannot entirely offset the negative effects of brain drain. As an increasing number of highly skilled Romanians work abroad because of exacerbated income inequalities and corruption in their home country, radical institutional change to encourage “brain gain” is needed.

Bottom Line: Brain drain has little to no positive effects for Romania, especially in the healthcare sector losing trained specialists. Reversing the drain is needed to foster progress and development.


* Please help my Economic Growth & Development students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Brain drain – the Romanian example”

  1. Hi Daria,

    I found your post super interesting. The topic hit home for me personally, to say the least, and I also did some research on the brain drain. I agree that a holistic long-term (cost-benefit) analysis is necessary to understand the aggregated impact of the Romanian brain drain.

    Here are a few points I wanted to bring up. Hopefully, you can find some of them helpful 🙂 First, what other factors can you imagine to be influential in determining the Romanian brain drain? Income inequality and frustration with corruption seem intuitive. A similar case: the Hungarian medical brain drain (basing this on anecdotal evidence from friends) is partly based on the lack of medical equipment. It must be depressing to see people dying you were meant to save. Perhaps healthcare sector funding (other than wages) would be a relevant factor for Romania as well.

    Second, you mentioned that brain drain processes are often irreversible. Why is that? Is there maybe a case that managed to turn brain drain into brain gain?

    Third, have you considered motivating inward migration to Romania from other countries? I see some issues with the feasibility of this idea (eg. once in Romania, who stops them from just leaving for other EU countries?). Not sure if this is relevant, perhaps you could point this out as an area for further research in case you find it important.

    Fourth, one of your cited articles argues that: [b]ut the overall impact is largely negative: namely stunted economic growth and stretched public finances.”I am not sure how true this is, especially when we reflect on the criticism of just looking at growth. While it’s possible that the overall impact is indeed negative, I would be curious to see more of a (maybe formal?) proof of this. I do understand the difficulty of only adding publically available sources, so don’t take this as a point of criticism of your post.

    Finally, a paper I can recommend is this one: https://www.euroframe.org/files/user_upload/euroframe/docs/2019/Conference/Session%202/EUROF19_Lewis_Swannell.pdf It talks about the macroeconomic determinants of migration and their respective relevance in a large-N, quantitative study. I found this text useful in writing a paper about migration. Let me know if you would like some more recommendations on research on this topic!

    Good luck, and I look forward to hearing more about your topic!

  2. Hey Daria! Super interesting topic.

    I wondered, what do you think about Zetland’s comment that “brain drain” is actually reversed in the very long run, because people (no matter their “human capital assets” eventually return to their families and the place they consider their home country?

    Second, you wrote that education costs are overlooked during EU budgeting meetings. Could you think of ways to correct that?

    Or would it be worth at looking whether an EU education budgeting would
    1) be useful as counterweighing brain drain
    2) be a good policy promoting return-migration?
    3) be politically feasible?

    To 3), political feasibility:

    a) Are there enough countries experiencing brain drain that, if they work together on the European level, they are formative enough to influence such an amendment in the EU budgeting to a fairer distribution of educational costs?
    b) Interesting to look at there would be the principled os subsidiarity and proportionality. Which political matter is determined by the EU (eg, monetary policy or customs union matters) and which be the member states themselves (eg tourism, culture, education).

    The principle of proportionality comes into play when EU action is necessary, that is when the objectives of the Treaties can be better achieved at the EU level or in an area in which the EU has exclusive competence.

    The principle of subsidiarity pursues two contrasting goals:
    I) to allow the EU to act if a problem cannot be adequately addressed by national policies alone
    II) to guard national sovereignty in those areas that cannot be dealt with more effectively at the EU level.
    (Baldwin, Richard E.. The Economics of European Integration (Kindle-Positionen2918-2919). Kindle-Version.)

    Education and training is not competence o the EU but is decided upon on the national level. Since brain drain is occurring because of the EU, it could be easily argued that this is a problem that should be dealt with on the EU level. Especially because even if the EU does not have competence, it can always “support, coordinate, and supplement” (Baldwin) policies that are non-exclusive (matters of the member states not on on the EU-level)
    Maybe investigating that let alone would make an interesting essay. And maybe ist useful to you.:)

    PS: financial times link costs money unfortunately 🙁

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