From Brain Drain to Brain Gain

Thailand - When we think about migration we tend to think about the physical movement of people. Because it is people who move, often taking with them their families and their possessions. We emphasize the physical because we think in terms of migrants doing physical work – construction, child-care, nursing, etc.

But what we are really seeing is the exchange of ideas, of attitudes, of different ways of doing things. We have become used to the phenomena of ideas flying  across borders through cyberspace but we don't recognize the human hard drives that physically bring their entrepreneurism and experience to host countries, and back home.

We also tend to concentrate on the dollars and cents side of things. Most people already know that remittances send by diaspora communities more than double official overseas development assistance. (Over USD 400 billion in 2010 of which USD 325 billion went to developing countries).

But what makes this happen, what drives this and accelerates it is the intellectual capital. The ambition. The dream. The aspiration. In short, it's all about the brain.

We know that migrants are often the best and brightest. They have the resolve to make hazardous journeys far from their homes and loved ones in pursuit of a dream, or just of survival. When they bond together in a host country, they can become a powerful force for development in their places of birth.

In Thailand we realized this as long ago as 1990 when the concept of Reverse Brain Drain (RBD) was promulgated by the Damrong Lathapipat Foundation. This in turn led to the establishment of the Association of Thai Professionals in America and Canada (ATPAC), the Association of Thai Professionals in Europe (ATPER) and the Association of Thai Professionals in Japan (ATPIJ).

The RBD Office was set up in 1997 by the Ministry of Science and Technology to be administered by the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), where I now work.

Reverse Brain Drain means just what it says. Encouraging the successful emigrants to come home, on a permanent or temporary basis, to give back some of what they have learnt and achieved. I am a product of the Reverse Brain Drain programme, one of 40 Thai professionasl to return home, fulltime or temporarily, through this programme.

Policy makers and governments need to engage with diaspora communities.  Ministers and civil servants should ensure they welcome the expertise and status of Diasporas.

This is especially relevant when we note that in 2015 the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will become a reality and will transform the ASEAN region, with free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour, and the freer flow of capital.

To enhance regional integration, the ASEAN Economic Blueprint explicitly addresses the need for increased mobility of persons through its provision for liberalized flows of skilled labour.

This in turn has implications for a range of related national regulations and practices, including visa regulations, investment requirements, welfare entitlements and pension funds. Diaspora members, who are living embodiments of mobility, who understand what it is to belong to more than one place, are ideally placed to help regional governments plan for and adapt to the post 2015 reality.

Two organizations, for whom I have the utmost respect, have recently embarked on “developing a road map for Engaging Diasporas in Development”. (I use quotation marks and capitals as this is the name of the handbook produced by IOM, the International Organization for Migration and MPI, Migration Policy Institute, targeting policy makers and practitioners in home and host countries).

The Handbook, to be discussed this evening at an event in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand here in Bangkok, makes the case that diaspora engagement is a process that requires sustained attention across a broad front. It also requires a strategy. Whilst every diaspora’s relationship with countries of origin or ancestry and countries of destination or settlement is unique, certain fundamental elements are necessary components of almost all successful strategies of engagement.

A government’s strategy for diaspora engagement needs to include the following elements: identification  of goals, mapping diaspora geography and skills, creating a relationship of trust between diasporas and governments of both origin and destination countries, and ultimately, mobilizing diasporas to contribute to sustainable development. The “destination” is arrived at when the diaspora is established as a true partner in the development of its country of origin. In Thailand, the Reverse Brain Drain programme has brought us a long way down that road.

July 2012


“Developing a road map for Engaging Diasporas in Development”,  a handbook produced by IOM and MPI, Migration Policy Institute, targeting policy makers and practitioners in home and host countries,  was launched on 11 July 2012, at an event in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. One of the panelists at the event was respected scientist Dr Noppawan Tanpipat, who returned to work for the Thai Ministry of Science and Technology under an initiative called Reverse Brain Drain. She explains the concept, and the rationale for the handbook, below. The handbook is available at