Mar 18, 2020

“Should I stay or should I go?” An assessment of brain drain in select North African states

“Brain drain” refers to the migration of skilled or educated individuals from one geographical area to another. Read more here...

We live in a world where the job market extends far past our own towns, cities, or national borders. However, national economies continue to rely on bright minds to ensure their domestic growth and development.

“Brain drain” refers to the migration of skilled or educated individuals from one geographical area to another. Based on its wording, the term implies that this occurs in such excess that it reduces the capabilities and productivity of the working population. The impacts of brain drain can be seen particularly strongly in North Africa.

Formally known as “flight of human capital”,  brain drain as a phenomena highlights a bottleneck in policymaking. Having more skilled workers in various fields implies that education levels have improved, whether that be as a result of government investment or not. However, the pernicious effect of underemployment as an outcome means that individuals (with the means to do so) may seek work that fits their educational capacity elsewhere.

Brain drain’s impact on a state can be seen from the revenue streams of the country itself. With more nationals residing elsewhere, revenue made from remittances (cash transfers sent back to countries of origin) tends to rise.  In the case of Morocco, remittances account for nearly 7% of the country’s GDP. While this may greatly benefit the families of those who have emigrated, and in a broader sense, the state, it is an extremely precarious income route.

In this article, we look at the current state of “brain drain” across nation states in North Africa and what can be done as a result. Three countries in our sample share geographical and historic similarities (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), while Egypt remains as an outlier. The reason for this is to explore the heterogeneity within the North African region.

Using data from the Human Flight Capital section of The Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, we look at different rates of brain drain across four North African countries and try to understand why this has occurred.  This section of this index assess the number of skilled workers leaving their country of origin. If highly skilled people are leaving, who’s responsibility is it to funnel their skills back into the state?

(Morocco: Human Flight and Brain Drain Indicator: Fragile States Index, The Fund for Peace).


Let’s start with the highest of the countries we are assessing. Although brain drain has decreased slightly, Morocco has seen significant human flight in the past ten years, reaching a peak in 2017. The impact of this can be seen in the country’s annual incoming remittances, which accounted for 6.7% of its GDP in 2017. The reasons why Moroccan talent is attractive outside of its borders is possibly due to its population’s tech capabilities.  In 2019, software development Github found that Morocco accounted for the majority (70%) of users from the African continent.

(Egypt: Human Flight and Brain Drain Indicator: Fragile States Index, The Fund for Peace).


As can be seen, human flight and brain drain in increasing in Egypt, despite seeing an improvement between 2013 and 2016. In 2017, remittances made up 5.5% of the country’s GDP. Whilst the majority of Egyptians relocate to Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries to work, this is often to take temporary positions in lower-skilled jobs. On the other hand, higher-skilled Egyptians from technical backgrounds will migrate to Western Europe and North America in a more permanent fashion.

(Tunisia: Human Flight and Brain Drain Indicator: Fragile States Index, The Fund for Peace).


Despite seeing a peak in 2017, human flight is on the decline in Tunisia. This would make sense as in 2018, up to one-third of Tunisia’s graduate population was unemployed, thus seeking work elsewhere. Remittances still contribute towards 5.0% of the country’s GDP as of 2019.

The reason for this decline can be seen from the country’s growing tech accelerator hubs. Accelerators have made efforts to invest in local ideas to account for the youth unemployment crisis, a factor which has encouraged recent brain drain. From this, they are encouraging young people to create their own enterprises, thus their own jobs. One of these accelerators is Flat6Labs, which is responsible for creating up to 700 startups.

(Algeria: Human Flight and Brain Drain Indicator: Fragile States Index, The Fund for Peace).


Of the four countries assessed, Algeria ranks lowest in terms of remittances as percentage of GDP (1.19%). However, human capital flight has increased greatly from 2014 until this past year. Based on the low level of remittances, further research is needed to determine what type of jobs are being provided by Algerian migrants once they emigrate. According to the Financial Times, one third of Algerian youth (graduates or not) are unemployed. In the case of our research, Algeria may differ from the other North African countries being assessed as its political instability may hamper its capabilities to invest greater in both education and innovation.

What conclusions can we make?

Perhaps understandably, we see that the main destination for Magreb migrants is France. At first glance, this would make sense as French remains widely spoken in these states. However, this route of emigration is long-standing for Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, dating back to the late 1940s when France desperately needed increased labour to rebuild its infrastructure following World War II. Egypt differs here, as it supplies the majority of its emigrants to the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.

What this data does not identify, is the level of skill these workers are bringing to their chosen destinations. Past research by the Migration Policy Institute shows that migration from the countries observed in this article occurs through two “waves”. The first mid-20th century wave appears to be  made up of high-skilled workers, and the second, in the  later 20th century, of lower-skilled, manual labourer. This trend may reverse as the population of North African becomes younger, and more people gain university degrees. What the phenomena of recent brain drain trends shows is that government investment cannot be made solely in education without being complemented with investment in research and innovation.

What can be done?

1) Exchanging knowledge

Some of the states mentioned have invested in global undergraduate and postgraduate university scholarship programs in top global universities. These programs, one of which exists in Egypt, often require graduates to return to the their home country to pursue work there. Investing in improving the knowledge of domestic talent will further incentives young minds to innovate at home and open opportunities for more local youth.

2) Enhanced government investment in emerging industries

It seems that some of the states mentioned have managed to investment effectively in bettering education in relevant global industries. The issue is that there seems to be less of an incentive for those skills gained to be applied domestically. The example of Flat6Labs in Tunisia shows that with modest government support, young people can create opportunities to fit their skills.

To conclude, further research needs to be undertaken by domestic governments on the demographics of those leaving their countries of origin for work elsewhere. From undertaking this, they can identify where the “brain” lies and how to meet its employment needs.

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