A big problem faced by countries like Sri Lanka is the so-called “brain drain”: the emigration and non-immigration of the well educated and talented. “Brain drain” can hurt a country on many levels: well educated and talented people are required for their entrepreneurship and ideas, management and leadership skills, artistic and cultural creations, and earning power (etc.). After all, it takes good people to start and manage large corporations, to lead a country into the future, and to inspire others with artistic and cultural endeavors. To combat this problem Sri Lanka has tried many things to counter the brain drain, but one thing it has yet to do is to fully embrace foreigners.
Like people in many countries, talented and bright young Sri Lankan’s aspire to study overseas; for example in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Overseas universities have better reputations than a lot of Sri Lankan universities, and specialize in subjects that Sri Lankan universities do not. Many Sri Lankan’s achieve this dream, and these are the precise people that Sri Lanka needs to retain. These are the talented and educated Sri Lankan’s that are necessary for a country to prosper, they are the future public intellectuals, businesspeople, politicians and artists. However, some of the Sri Lankan’s that do manage to go overseas and study, meet and marry non-Sri Lankan’s when they are overseas. And here is the rub, the Sri Lankan government is hardly accommodating to non-Sri Lankan spouses.
For example; my Grandfather studied in England where he met and married my Grandmother. My Grandmother has now been living in Sri Lanka for more than fifty years, but is unable to work and must re-apply for her visa every year. In many countries fifty years would be more than enough to have attained permanent residency or even citizenship many times over, but in Sri Lanka my Grandfather must write a letter every year requesting a new visa for my Grandmother, and every year the requirements for her visa changes and often becomes more stringent. How many people must this put off? How many well educated and talented Sri Lankan’s decide not to stay in Sri Lanka because their spouses (many of whom are also well educated and talented) have no prospects of “gainful” employment and must suffer the indignity of begging to stay every year? How many well-educated and talented Sri Lankan’s choose instead to reside in countries where they and their partners can become full members of society? Choose to reside where they and their partners will both be able to work, vote, and contribute to society as equals.
But what about welcoming well educated and talented foreigners that aren’t related to Sri Lankan’s? Countries like the United States and Australia are empowered by their educated and talented immigrants. Australia opens its arms to immigrants, and accelerates the prospects of those with credentials it needs. Unlike Sri Lanka, where foreigners hoping to work must be sponsored by companies, it is possible to emigrate to Australia purely on one’s own steam, without a sponsor (it helps greatly to have a sponsor but it is not absolutely necessary). Furthermore, after fulfilling the requirements like a minimum period of residence, foreigners can become citizens of Australia: with the right to vote and seek employment wherever they wish. They become equal members of society, with the shiny blue passport that comes with it. Countries like Sri Lanka that do not offer similar prospects to aspiring immigrants miss out on greatness in a myriad of fields. They miss out on the immigrant businessmen like George Soros, immigrant innovators like Peter Thiel and Eduaro Saverin, immigrant public intellectuals like Fareed Zakaria, immigrant politicians like Julia Gillard, and immigrant artists and writers like J.M Coetzee. All of these immigrants have done their adopted countries invaluable service. Could Sri Lanka not use the business savvy of a Soros, the inventiveness of a Thiel or Savarin, the proposals and criticism of a Zakaria, the leadership (and inspiration to the female population) of a Gillard, and the wit and prose of a Coetzee?
In short, a country cannot succeed when it cuts itself off from the world, especially the world of greatness out there. A prominent theory of Chinese history is that China’s decline goes hand in hand with it’s becoming isolationist, and it is more than possible to prove much of what makes countries like America, the United Kingdom and Australia great is the vitality and inventiveness of their immigrant populations. Why would Sri Lanka be different? Can it, alone among all countries in the world, become great by itself? If Sri Lanka wants to put a dent in it’s brain drain it must encourage Sri Lankan’s with foreign spouses to reside in Sri Lanka, and encourage educated and talented foreigners to immigrate as well. I am not saying this is alone will fix the problem, but it is something that can be done with relative ease (e.g. change the immigration policy) and can be incorporated within a grand strategy. Among other things, stopping the brain drain requires opening up to foreigners.