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Costa Rica is failing to stop brain drain, Tico expats say

June 5, 2014

Costa Rica has failed to address the migration of its highly skilled workers and “lacks strategies to take advantage of Costa Rican talent outside the country,” a recent survey noted.

Luis Muñoz Varela, a researcher at the University of Costa Rica’s Institute for Educational Research (INIE), surveyed Tico professionals working and living abroad in order to conduct the report. Muñoz contacted 145 expat professionals and academics who are affiliated with the Costa Rican Talent Abroad Network (Red Ticotal), part of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most respondants said they don’t see institutional or governmental interest in bringing them back to Tiquicia or taking advange of their research and work, Muñoz told The Tico Times.

Ticos participating in the survey recommended the Foreign Ministry establish a program of periodic meetings, workshops and similar events to share findings with local professionals. The meetings could be held either in the countries where expats reside or in Costa Rica, they said. They also said local universities should offer more exchanges in order to bring Tico researchers, academics and other professionals to Costa Rica to share their knowledge with students.

Another suggested priority is the creation of government programs to help generate new jobs in Costa Rica to persuade expats to move back home. “There are very few incentives to return to the country, and most respondents believe the number of talented professionals seeking opportunities abroad is increasing,” Muñoz said.

Costa Rica does not have recent data on the “brain drain” phenomenon, but research funded by the World Bank in 2009 determined that from 1990-2000, 9 percent of Costa Rica’s population with higher education moved abroad each year.

The figure was lower than the Central American average, which at the time was 13 percent. “But it is logical to think that figure has increased, considering factors such as economic globalization and increased interest by local students to pursue post-graduate degrees abroad,” Muñoz said.

Another factor of Tico brain drain is the increased presence of foreign companies in Costa Rica, which eventually send local employees abroad for training. Many employees also are relocated to other countries.

An easing of immigration policies in some countries also has boosted the trend.  The United States, Germany and the U.K. are among countries that recently reformed immigration laws to facilitate the arrival of highly qualified professionals from other countries, Muñoz said.

Prior to the survey, Muñoz researched local agencies and organizations in an attempt to locate records of work being done abroad by Costa Rican professionals, but he didn’t found a single document or statistic.

He decided to conduct the survey of members of Red Ticotal, an organization of Tico scientists and other professionals living in 20 countries. More than half – 54 percent – live in the U.S., followed by 9 percent in Germany, 5 percent in Canada and 5 percent in Spain.

While some may be alarmed at the study, when compared to other countries, Costa Rica’s brain drain seems miniscule.

A report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (OECD) in October 2013 indicates that countries facing the biggest human capital flight usually show rates of 70 percent or more. Ethiopia is experiencing the worst brain drain in the world, with the country losing some 75 percent of its skilled professionals in the past decade. Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Iran, China, Mexico, Jamaica, Malaysia and the U.K. follow as the top brain-drain countries, each falling above 70 percent, the OECD report states.

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