Doctors with Borders

It’s hard to know what is worse about a new paper in the British Medical Journal, the simplistic economics or the troubling ethics. The paper, The financial cost of doctors emigrating from sub-Saharan Africa, adds up the government-paid cost of educating a health worker in Africa and then multiplies that cost over ~33 years by an investment factor to find the “losses” to the educating country of educating a health worker who emigrates to Canada, the US, the UK, or Australia. The authors do this for nine sub-Saharan African countries with an HIV rate of 5% or greater or more than one million people with HIV/AIDS.

The numbers, by the way, are quite small since the cost of education in developing countries is low and because our laws make it difficult for workers to immigrate, thus the authors find just 567 doctors from Ethiopia currently practicing in the four western countries that they consider; n.b. 567 is the total number not an annual flow. (Note also that  the authors gin up the costs by multiplying by an investment factor which adds virtually nothing to the analysis and confuses present and future value calculations.)

You can get an idea of the quality of this paper by asking why the authors chose to focus on countries with high HIV rates. The only reason for this is to suggest that doctors who emigrate and the countries that attract them are responsible for millions of deaths. See below.

Turning to the simplistic economics we have first the suggestion that there is a fixed number (flow) of health care workers so if the U.S. were to forbid Ugandan health care workers from emigrating to the United States this means more health care workers for Uganda. Not so; without the prospect of high wages earned abroad, investment in education (the major cost of which is born by the worker) will likely decline. The Philippines “exports” more nurses than any other country but also has far more nurses than one would expect for a country of its income class, on par with that of Spain, Hungary or Singapore. Here is Michael Clemens:

…there is no such thing as a fixed quantity of nurses to be “drained” from the Philippines or Africa, like petroleum from the ground. People — in this case mostly low-income women — react to global markets and change their career plans accordingly. Many Filipinas wouldn’t have become nurses if not for the migration opportunity, and thus are not ‘lost’ in any sense when they depart. Africans are starting to follow suit, opening career paths for professional women who would otherwise have few. This should not be discouraged through closed immigration policy, but rather taken advantage of — through the establishment of for-export nurse training programs as the Philippines has done en masse. Unlike petroleum, these women are human beings. They have rights and ambitions whose fruition in the United States is a beautiful thing.

Even on their own terms the authors calculations are faulty. Emigrating workers, for example, don’t leave immediately after they have finished their education (as the authors assume in their primary analysis), there are fixed costs to building an education infrastructure which can reduce the costs of education for non-emigrating workers and emigrating workers often send remittances back to the home country. Not all emigrating workers send remittances but wages for high-skill workers can be five or even ten times higher in say the U.S. than in a sub-Saharan African country so educating workers and sending them abroad could be a net benefit for the educating country just based on remittances. Indeed, many families make exactly this calculation. Finally, the authors don’t even try to measure externalities which is what they should be measuring.

What is most ethically troubling is that the authors implicitly treat people as if they were the property of the state. Thus, an emigrating physician is a loss even though the physician improves his life prospects and those of his children. Development is about making people better off not about making geographic units “better off.”

Lest you think that I exaggerate consider that the lead author of this paper is also the lead author of an editorial in the Lancet that advocates making it an international crime to hire African workers.

Although the active recruitment of health workers from developing countries may lack the heinous intent of other crimes covered under international law, the resulting dilapidation of health infrastructure contributes to a measurable and foreseeable public-health crisis….There is no doubt that this situation is a very important violation of the human rights of people in Africa.

…Active recruitment of health workers from African countries is a systematic and widespread problem… the practice should, therefore, be viewed as an international crime.

Yes, you read that correctly: recruiting African workers with prospects of higher wages and a better life is a “very important violation of the human rights of people in Africa.”

Addendum: See this excellent paper by Michael Clemens for more on these issues.


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