Sunday, November 23, 2008

India: land of opportunity?

Anand Giridharadas wrote an article in the NY Times in which he explains how his parents felt stifled in post-independence India where you had to be connected to be able to realize your ambitions and how they ended up immigrating to America. But Anand feels that the U. S. has lost its optimism after 9/11 and it is no longer the land of possibilities, whereas India has opened up.

So he decided to move back to India, along with a growing number of Indians. It is undoubtedly true that India has opened up compared to the post-independence period, but there is a key element that Anand forgets to mention: as an "American", he is at the top of the hierarchy in the job market in India. I did not realize this before I travelled and talked with several returnees in different developing countries, but after coming back from the West, their identities are often not defined by the "class" of their parents (as before) but rather by the fact that they are western educated and westernized. This gives them an enormous edge compared to others who never left the country.

Whereas his father was stuck in a business where advancement depended on age rather than talent, he is an America educated professional with a network of fellow American-Indian immigrants; which is more than enough to land him very interesting and challenging jobs. India might have changed, but what changed most for Anand is his social status. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, it means the hard work of his parents paid off, but it should be mentioned. It explains quite a bit of the temptation to return; whereas in America he is an average Joe, in India he is almost automatically a member of the upper class. I have not met a single returnee in my travels, from Philippines to Kenya (including India), who was not very rich compared to the median of the population.

But there is a very interesting quote in the article:

Countries like India once fretted about a “brain drain.” We are learning now that “brain circulation,” as some call it, may be more apt.

India did not export brains; it invested them. -Anand Giridharadas
Brain circulation. Very fitting. It'd be interesting to see an economic analysis from this perspective, to try to see which country has benefitted most of its "brain investment" and which sent immigrants who integrated in the west and never came back or sent money back.

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