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Leave us the worst and dullest!

The “global cold war for talent” is at its peak. Developed countries are introducing innovative developments to attract “the best and the brightest” from around the world, while developing countries are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of human capital for their development, and are putting in efforts to retain their most educated citizens within the country’s boundaries. Unfortunately, the countries of the Western Balkans, not surprisingly, behave as if they are not aware of the worldwide race for talent, and put almost no effort into either retaining their highly skilled individuals or attracting the ones from their own diasporas; despite the significant outflow of highly skilled individuals from the region.

The magnitude of the “brain drain” from the Western Balkan region is difficult to estimate without reliable data. The most widely used database for this purpose is the Docquier and Marfouk (2004) dataset on the stock of migrants by their educational level, compiled from the Censuses of 30 OECD countries from 1990 and 2000. According to this data (table below), the brain drain from the Western Balkans is not largest in the world, but is still above the world average, with the exceptions of Albania and Serbia and Montenegro (Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo were all members of a single state in 2000, when the data was collected). The data is corrected for the ages of individuals at the time of migration, meaning that this data shows the magnitude of emigration of individuals who acquired their education before, not after, migration. Other evidence provides more striking facts – for example, a study published by Uvalic (2005) reported that 75% of PhD degree holders, and 81% of MSc degree holders, have left the country since 1995. Similar figures for the emigration of highly skilled individuals are estimated for other countries in the region.


Brain drain 22+



World rank




Bosnia and Herzegovina









Serbia and Montenegro



World average



Such a degree of loss of skills and knowledge is depriving the region of the most important factors for socio-economic transformation and the development of competitive, knowledge-based, and open societies. Although, there were efforts put into attracting the return of highly skilled individuals from abroad (e.g. MIDWEB, “Unity through knowledge” in Croatia, RQN in Bosnia-Herzegovina), they were mainly funded and implemented by international organizations. The ultimate effects of these efforts, and the continuation of the “brain drain,” puts forth the question of true commitment, by the governments in these countries, to reducing “brain drain” by retaining and/or facilitating the return of their highly skilled citizens. There are various reasons that could explain such behaviour; for example, “democratic” governments of the Western Balkans may see the outflow of educated people as a solution for reducing the risk of opposition and dissident movements. Moreover, the widespread nepotism of the public sector, the largest sector for employment in all countries, is more easily implemented without the pressure of potential competition from highly educated individuals who are outside the close circle of friends and relatives of the ruling political elites.

If these governments are really interested in developing a more competitive and knowledge-based economy, as they propose in their different development strategies, clearer signals to the “best and brightest” people should be sent, suggesting to them that they are needed for the implementation of these strategies. For retaining individuals, more investment in research and science is needed. Human capital, as any other, flows to countries where it can be employed more effectively, and where returns on investments of such a capital are higher. Consequently, researchers and scientists from the region decide to move to other countries in order to obtain the needed environment for their work. For example, a recent study by Sejdini et al. (2013) has shown that the key reason for the emigration of young people from the Western Balkans is to further their education opportunities.

For the ones interested in returning, obstacles in the forms of degree validation, employment opportunities and other disincentives for return need to be removed. In addition, favourable conditions for return, including incentives for employment of returnees, as well as opportunities for temporary and “virtual” return should be provided. Once the appropriate measures for reducing the “brain drain” are successfully implemented, we can hope that a new generation of talented people will bring initial positive changes in economic and social development to the countries of the Western Balkans. The “old” way has many times proven that it is neither capable nor willing to do that.

The race for talents is ongoing and the Western Balkans is, slowly but surely, losing it. If we do not engage in retaining and attracting our most educated individuals, other countries will collect all the benefits of the contributions of the highly skilled to their societies. While other countries will be proudly hosting the new Teslas from this region, we will be spending our time discussing which country or ethnic group they belong to.


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