The Dangers of Brain Drain

What is brain drain, who wins and loses because this phenomenon, and how does it affect a nation like Bulgaria? 

A) Understanding Brain Drain Map the Ripple Effects of Brain Drain
B) Bulgaria’s Loss Bulgarians Speak on Brain Drain
C) Then Who Gains? Simulate an Ad Hoc Committee

This lesson was contributed to by Ms. Rita Ulrich.

A) Understanding Brain Drain

  1. Explain how brain drain works using an example within your city or state. Who is leaving? Why are they leaving? Where are they going? What impact has it had on the city/state?
  2. Which countries suffer the most from brain drain?  Why does this happen? What happens to talent when it leaves a country? Why would this create further complications for countries that suffer from brain drain?

  3. Define the term “diaspora” in the context of brain drain.

  4. Imagine what would happen if the best and brightest left your school at the end of the year. What are some ways that your school could keep its students from wanting to leave? How could your school make students want to return?

Quite simply, brain drain is “the departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another, usually for better pay or living conditions.” Essentially, it is the best and brightest – choosing to leave for opportunities they cannot find in their home economy. Often, the people who leave are skilled in a field, such as science, mathematics, or medicine – they are intelligent, skilled, and have specific skills that are in demand both abroad and in their home economy.

The phenomenon was first identified in 1960 when British scientists and intellectuals began migrating to the United States, which at the time had a stronger economy and offered better pay.  Brain drain is now discussed more frequently as one phenomenon that characterizes the relationship between developed and developing countries.  According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Nearly one in 10 tertiary-educated adults (those with some university or post-secondary schooling) born in the developing world … now live in the developed world.” In 2000 almost 175 million people, or 2.9% of the world’s population, had been living outside their country of birth for more than a year. The reason individuals leave their home country can be broken down into three main reasons: economic, political, and social.

Economic reasons are mainly due to low wages or working conditions for professionals. Many highly skilled and educated people may choose to leave for a country that offers higher pay or greater allowances than their own country. Some who leave do so with their family, as a means to support their significant other and children. Others who leave do so by themselves, sending money back to support their family back home. As the images below show, Bulgaria is ranked the lowest country in the European Union for minimum wage.

Minimum wage by country in Euros.

Consider this wage in the context of basic cost of living: in Bulgaria, a simple one-bedroom apartment costs around 220 Euros a month and heat/water cost around 50 Euros.  It quickly becomes clear that work outside of Bulgaria may offer greater opportunity for money and potential savings for those with the skills, education, or physical ability to find it.

Protesters take to the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria in the first of three major 2013 demonstrations against a harsh economic plan put in place to end a recession.  High youth unemployment, lack of government transparency, and frequent government corruption are all ongoing problems in Bulgaria, constituting strong economic and political catalysts for brain drain.

The second main reason that people leave their home countries is political. If there is instability at home – such as war, disease, or economic depression – then those who are highly skilled or educated may feel safer or better able to maintain their job if they leave. Political instability in home countries makes people lose confidence in their governments and future prospects for a better life. These are individuals who may have difficulties because of their ethnic, cultural, religion belongings or being a member of opposition political groupings in their home countries. 

The economic difficulties of a country may play directly into the political struggles of a nation, and combine to push a person to leave. Protests, frequently changing control of the government, or uncertainty in the future of a nation may all create instability. 

The final reason that brain drain occurs is social.  Essentially, this means that people may feel disrespected in their field, overlooked for their work, or hold the opinion that there are better opportunities for career advancement elsewhere. Simply by looking at how a countries education and schools rank compared to the rest of the world can tell a potential emigrant a great deal. Brian drain occurs mostly where individuals from undeveloped countries move to the developed countries in need to expand their studies. Most learners opt not to return to their countries but decide to dwell in the foreign countries and work after gaining the adequate skills. Lack of proper systems in the education sector has also resulted to the inadequacy of school facilities that offer abstract ideas on what the learners intend to achieve at the end of a lesson. This has made most of them to move to other countries whose education systems are quit more improved and the schools have adequate and relevant facilities of learning.

B) Bulgaria’s Loss

  1. Watch the video in this section. Listen to the people of Bulgaria speak about their problems. Explain the three factors that contribute to brain drain in Bulgaria as mentioned in Part A. 
  2. Consider that in the last 30 years, Bulgaria has lost approximately 3 million people.  How has this impacted the country and its economy? Which individuals are leaving? In what ways is the nation feeling the loss? What potential dangers do you think this creates?
  3. Describe the political system in Bulgaria since the fall of Communism.  What is crony capitalism? Why are people protesting against it? What happens for some people who feel unable to fix it?
  4. Think about the United States. Some politicians talk about “draining the swamp” from Washington D.C., meaning they want to get rid of the wasteful spending or removing corruption where possible. In your opinion, is this similar to the problems in Bulgaria? If not, why not, and if so, how? Explain.

bulgariaLocated in Eastern Europe, in the former Communist Bloc, Bulgaria has struggled with a brain drain problem since the 1980s. In 1989, almost 9 million people lived in Bulgaria.  By 2017, the population had actually fallen to a little over 7 million.  By 2050, that number is projected to be less than 5.5 million. By the end of the century, it could be close to half what it is now. Some relevant statistics include:

  • 3 million Bulgarian emigrants in the world
  • 2 million population lost between 1989 and 2017
  • 5% – average skilled emigration rate from Bulgaria
  • 11% – emigration rate of scientists

The reason so many individuals have left since the late 1980’s is twofold – the fall of communism tied with the opening of Bulgaria to the greater region of Europe when the country joined the European Union. The Guardian reports: “Opening of the borders was both the best and the worst thing that has happened to Bulgarian society after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”  Or as East German dissident Wolf Biermann wrote in the 1970s, “I can only love what I am free to leave.”

Mass emigration of people mostly aged between 25 and 50 has dramatically hurt the Bulgarian economy and its political system. Businesses complain about a shortage of qualified labor. Bulgaria’s health system is deprived of well-trained nurses who can earn several times more by taking care of a family in London than working at a lower-paid local hospital. Most of the best graduates of Bulgarian high schools do not even apply to study at Bulgarian universities – a fact that makes them even less likely to pursue a career in Bulgaria, once they have attained their foreign education.  In fact, after the Chinese, Bulgarians are now the second biggest foreign student community in Germany, home to many of Europe’s most prestigious universities and technical schools.

In addition, the loss of talented people has contributed to Bulgaria’s slowed economic growth in two distinct ways.  First, the overall size of the labor force is diminished.  Second, it is the most intelligent and capable Bulgarians that are being lured away to the developed nations for these greater opportunities and/or higher after-tax incomes. 

These difficulties and losses do not go unnoticed or unfelt in a country the size of Pennsylvania.  The German news network DW reports, “More than 225,000 Bulgarians were living in Germany in 2015 – many with an above average education. While Germany’s labor market has profited from this influx, Bulgaria has suffered: The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences estimates that in five to ten years the country will have lost some 400,000 qualified workers.”

Most keenly, this brain drain is felt through the loss of doctors. Eleven percent of Bulgarian doctors leave the country.  DW reported that as of 2017 there were only 28,000 doctors in Bulgaria, whereas seven years prior there were 35,000. This trend has led to concerns that the outflow of healthcare professionals is negatively affecting the healthcare system in Bulgaria and other developing countries – and along with with it, the health of the population.  This is leads to even worse conditions in developing countries, creating a new motivation for Bulgarians to seek a path out of their home country.

To make matters worse, the government of Bulgaria has been plagued by rampant  “crony capitalism,” meaning that business leaders have a close relationship with political leaders, and both help each other through preferential rules, corruption, and questionable contracts to attain money or advantages – which ultimately hurt taxpayers, diminish government services, and weaken overall trust in government.

This crony capitalism has not gone unnoticed in Bulgaria, and has resulted in numerous protests throughout the country. One of the major difficulties for many Bulgarians is that the mixture of better pay in a foreign nation and the potential of living in a country that is already stable and highly functioning is very enticing. The mass anti-government protests that took place in Bulgaria in 2013 perfectly captured the difficulties associated with this problem: protesters may have been shouting “We do not want to emigrate,” but in the end some of them did, because ultimately, because of rules that allow free movement within the European Union, it is now easier to go to Germany than to make Bulgaria function like Germany.

C) Then Who Gains?

  1. What is brain gain?  How is your city or state benefiting from the brain gain? If it isn’t, why not?
  2. What are remittances? How could Bulgaria use remittances to help build up their country and prevent further brain drain? Create at least three possible plans the government could use to effectively use remittances.
  3. Watch the video Iranian Brain Gain. What are some of the other ways that people can help a country achieve brain gain without moving back home? Be specific, giving at least three examples from the video.
  4. Think about your own life. Pretend you move across the country to another state. How could you stay in touch with people from your own state to stop brain drain from occurring? What are at least two things you could do to help your state?

If you were to take the concept of brain drain and flip it, what you are left with is the concept of brain gain – the immigration of highly trained or qualified people, regarded as beneficial to a country’s economy or society. Although fairly straightforward, it has only recently been described by researchers. When individuals from a country select to move elsewhere for greater educational opportunities or higher wage offerings, there are positive effects that can come out of the change.

One of the largest advantages comes from something called a remittance. A remittance is the action of sending money to one’s home country. For Bulgaria during the last decade, this money is worth as much 88.1 million Euros in one year, according to  data from the Bulgarian National Bank – a significant portion of the country’s GDP.

In fact, remittances from expatriates living abroad constitute a significant proportion of foreign revenue for many developing countries. The most obvious way in which migrants repay their homelands is through remittances. Workers from developing countries remitted a total of $325 billion in 2010, according to the World Bank. In … a few … places, remittances are more than 20% of GDP. A skilled migrant may earn several multiples of what his income would have been had he stayed at home” the economist explains. This money that comes into a nation can boost the overall wealth. 

Besides monetary gains, remittances are associated with greater human development outcomes across a number of areas such as health, education, and gender equality. There are also positive “spillover” effects, with some of the expenses and investments made by remittance-receiving households spreading out to entire communities or possibly even regions. Just as an entire village can die due to brain drain, so too can an entire village thrive or come back to life, in part from remittances sent home by family and friends abroad.

After working abroad, laborers may return home with skills that would have been hard to pick up had they never gone abroad. In recent years (especially since the creation of the European Union), immigration has flowed from southern, central and eastern EU countries to developed, wealthy, stable Germany, a country that, like the United States, benefits greatly from brain gain.  While Bulgaria enjoys the advantages of the brain gain monetarily, the truth is that many Bulgarians choose to stay in their newfound homes instead of return – Bulgaria is most clearly a country suffering from brain drain.

The movement of skilled workers internationally represents brain gain for the countries that take advantage of their skills and experience and brain drain for their countries of origin. On the brain gain side of the divide, countries increasingly are looking to position their immigration policies to attract the types of international workers and students whose skills they desire. Bulgaria is working to do just this, but due to a variety of issues, has yet to see any success from their efforts. A contributing issue that makes the situation more complex is Bulgaria’s reluctance to welcome skilled refugees.

If immigration policies can be successfully balanced with economic opportunity and needs, then the movement of people between countries does not have to represent simply a drain for one nation or a gain for another.  


  1. What are the greatest dangers of brain drain? What potential problems does it create for a country? Draw a graphic organizer like the one below and with every circle, expand further and further out to predict how the loss of professionals from a nation can impact it negatively. Think about the best doctors, thinkers, researchers, or lawyers. Focus on a specific professional field, such as a doctor, and how their loss can impact each level of society.
  2. Read through the following quotes from Bulgarians living both at home and abroad.  Based on their words, categorize the speakers into two groups: Brain Drain and Brain Gain. For each one, explain the reason why you believe they left, or why they choose to return/stay.  
    1. “I do not know that there is a brain drain, but I do know if I want to get a job I need to go to university outside of Bulgaria”
    2. “Brain Drain? I guess, but it is not permanent. I will come back to Bulgaria when I want to start having a family.”
    3. “I left because I wanted to get a good job.”
    4. “I came back because I have a good job and can support my family”
    5. “I came back to work with an NGO”
    6. “I came back because I was offered a great job”
    7. “I will never go back to stay, America is where Dreams come true. Really.”
    8. “I encourage everyone I know to leave.”
  3. Pretend that you have been selected by the Bulgarian Parliament to serve on an Ad Hoc Committee tasked with stemming and reversing the trend of brain drain from your country.  You will work in small groups.  Each group will compile research and present a proposal on tackling the brain drain issue in Bulgaria.  In addition, you are tasked with challenging and questioning the proposals of other groups.  In the end, as a class, vote on or synthesize multiple proposals in strategy for reversing Bulgaria’s brain drain.  The suggested format for your research and proposal presentation should be as follows:
    1. How do we combat the Brain Drain Issue?
      1. Your Answer to the above question.
      2. Historical Background of Bulgaria. Answer the questions: Who are the Bulgarians? What is their story? What is their identity and what makes someone Bulgarian?
    2. The Brain Drain Issue:
      1. Why are people leaving? What is already being done? Why is it not working?
    3. The Plan:
      1. What should be done? How will it work? What needs to be put in place for your plan to succeed? What are you asking for and how will you know it is working? What will your plan look like and how long will it take?
    4. Conclusions:
      1. Why does this need to happen?  Why is yours the best plan?

Ms. Rita Ulrich is an contributor, with lessons focused on the 2010s refugee crisis in Bulgaria, as well as many other topics.  She graduated with a bachelors of science from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, majoring in both social science education as well as psychology. Afterwards, she pursued a masters in international education from the University of Sydney, Australia. Ms. Ulrich began as a teacher rather unusually, by deciding to start her career overseas in Seoul, South Korea. After falling in love with the culture, she decided to stay for a total of four years, spending most of her time teaching both middle school and high school students. Then, Ms. Ulrich moved to Qinhuangdao, China, teaching at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao working with freshmen and junior students. She returned to the United States in 2015 in order to continue teaching at an American school, becoming a recipient of the Fulbright-Hays award to Bulgaria and Greece in 2017. She currently teaches social studies and A.P. psychology at a college preparatory high school in North Carolina.