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Western Balkans: The Young and Talented Leave

Western Balkans policymakers often complain that their best minds are leaving. But they do so without offering any solution how to fix this issue.

August 2, 2017

Western Balkans policymakers often complain that their best minds are leaving. But they do so without offering any solution how to fix this issue.

Complaints, but no ideas. The issues to be resolved are clearly delineated. They clearly pertain to tackling the huge deficits in proper governance and the high levels of corruption. Which is exactly how the “insiders” – i.e., those in power – tend to prefer it.

After all, they often personally benefit from the current lay of the land. The thought that it is their own very insistence on preserving an anti-democratic, corrupt power structure that diminishes their countries’ future and propels outmigration by the talented (and unconnected) is irrefutable.

Yet, it seems to be too much of a leap of faith for them to fathom.

Restricting the young?

Instead of cleaning up at their own doorstep, one option mooted about is to restrict the mobility of the most talented people.

However, outside the reestablishment of totalitarian structures, that is simply (and thankfully) not possible in today’s world.

The conclusive proof comes in the form of a thought experiment: Imagine their movement could be restricted. Even then, the Western Balkans would not become more skilled.

If they prevent people from leaving, these folks also cannot gain the additional skills they would need to advance their home country’s economy.

In addition, young people’s mental horizons have expanded and are eager to look for opportunities in order to realize their full potential.

Lack of opportunity at home is what makes them leave. Studies suggest that the poorer the country, the larger the proportion of inventors who are pushed abroad.

A recent study of the World Intellectual Property Organization suggest that the percentage of patents filed by emigrants is 98% in the case of Albania, 75% for Bosnia and Herzegovina and 71% for Serbia.

Brain drain as an opportunity

From this perspective, brain drain could be seen as an opportunity for the Western Balkans. In such a perspective, skilled migration is seen as an investment, to be re-exported in the long run to the country of origin with new skills and know-how.

However, rather than somberly complaining about brain drain, it is brain gain initiatives that are increasingly imperative.

Open avenues of circular skill migration could carry a real transformational significance for the future development of the Western Balkans. Unfortunately, it is this very debate which is woefully underdeveloped in the region.

That is why emigration shouldn’t be perceived as a problem for the governments in the Western Balkans. They should see it more as an opportunity – and an incentive (to reform their governments and political as well as economic structures, at long last).

Moreover, given the high unemployment rates and the lack of indigenous capacity to absorb the growing labor force, these political leaders really have no other choice anyway than to be grateful for out-migration.

Truth be told, the more cynical among those leaders are grandstanding on this issue. They know full well that why they really like outflows of educated people.

To them, this offers the benefit of reducing the risk of political opposition at home and – literally – exporting the demand for transparency and accountability.

Migration as political protection

In other words, such out-migration is key to keeping things precisely the way things are. worst of all, it slows meaningful competition in the public sector, the largest sector for employment in all countries.

Instead of jobs going to the most talented people – the ones that could actually advance the country – those precious jobs are doled out on a patronage basis. As a result, it isn’t the most qualified, but the best connected who get these jobs.

In the long term, the loss of skills is depriving the region of the most important factors for socio-economic and democratic transformation.

A two-step solution

In light of the above, in order to achieve meaningful progress, the Western Balkans governments should focus on:

  1. Strengthening institutions and economic policies to create the environment that encourages people to stay
  2. Promote return migration by attracting skilled workers back home.

This is the only way by which the clear and present danger of emigration and slower income convergence mutually reinforcing each other can be avoided.

Editor’s note: The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Valbona Zeneli’s institutional affiliations.


Instead of jobs going to the most talented people, precious jobs are doled out on a patronage basis.

Young people’s mental horizons have expanded and they look for opportunities to realize their full potential.

The loss of skills deprives the region of the most important factors for economic and democratic transformation.