There was once a time when the best prospects for a talented, intelligent young person from a developing or emerging country lay in the West. The vast majority of the world’s leading universities were (and still are) to be found in the US and Europe, while the earning potential, whether you were in a white-collared profession or a sector such as catering or construction, tended to be far greater in the West. And yet the past couple of years have seen an unprecedented number of these workers from emerging markets returning home.

African promise

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In Africa, many of the continent’s economic powerhouses, countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, are now witnessing unprecedented brain gains, fuelled largely by the returning diaspora keen to be a part of their countries’ success stories and economic growth. In South Africa, the Homecoming Revolution, an non-government organisation dedicated to engaging with diaspora in key developed countries and encouraging them to return home, has built up a network of more than 20,000 expatriates, while a recent survey commissioned by Reconnect Africa, an online business news portal aimed at Africans overseas, showed that one-third of African professionals currently working in the West see better opportunities for career progression in Africa.

Whether this will translate into a pan-continental brain gain for Africa remains to be seen, and a shortage of skilled talent remains an impediment to Africa’s economic development. Certain countries, however, have seen a huge influx of returning diaspora. Between 2009 and 2010, more than 10,000 Nigerian expatriates were reported to have returned home, while data from the International Office for Migration reveals that of more than 1.1 million Ghanaians that emigrated between 2000 and 2007, only 153,000 did not return to the country.

The stories behind each country's mass repatriation are varied, but a common driver is the realisation that ambitious young professionals can progress their careers far more rapidly back home than abroad. Many top young graduates leave already lucrative and promising careers in the West with the realisation that they can become CEOs of successful nascent companies and other organisations in their home countries by the time they reach 30.

Better prospects

Business Week magazine recently featured the revealing story of a 30-year-old Harvard law graduate from Nigeria who turned down six-figure corporate job offers in the US to return home and help build and run a $50m private hospital with a charitable component for the poor. This story and many others like it portray an important social and emotional dimension to these repatriations. Talented African expatriates want to be a part of their countries’ success stories and become leading agents of positive change in the continent.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Latin America’s prospects also appear to be brightening. The region’s largest country, Brazil, will come into the global spotlight over the next four years when it hosts the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and then the 2016 Olympic Games. The staging of these two world-class events are set to symbolise the broader energy and promise of what is now the world’s sixth largest economy.

All of this energy and promise has translated into a major influx of returning diaspora. Brazil’s justice ministry recently estimated that about 2 million Brazilians now live abroad – a sharp decline from 2005, when the diaspora was estimated at about 4 million. It is not just broad notions of Brazil’s promise and potential that are luring its expatriates back home, however.

In 2011, research conducted into top executive pay by the Association of Executive Search Consultants revealed that CEOs and directors of businesses based in São Paolo typically command higher salaries than their counterparts in New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. As such, talented Brazilians who once saw the traditional commercial centres of the US, Europe and Asia as their best routes to a prosperous career are now seriously reconsidering their options.

East to West to East

Economic uncertainties in much of Europe and the continued growth of some markets in central and eastern Europe have also seemingly led to some interesting repatriation trends in recent years. The massive East to West migration, which was spurred by the 2004 enlargement of the EU, is now showing signs of reversing – and some estimate that hundreds of thousands of expatriates from Poland and other central and eastern European countries are leaving western Europe to return home and pursue career opportunities more in line with their qualifications and experience.

Previously, many talented workers came to take jobs in the UK and elsewhere in western Europe for which they were overqualified – for example, stories of Polish graduates and even junior white-collar workers coming to work as waiters or waitresses in London or plumbers in Paris were commonplace, though other expatriates came to pursue professional white-collar careers.

With stagnating economies and rising redundancies in the West now contrasting with, for example, Poland’s enduring economic growth – it is the only country in the EU not to have slipped into recession at some point since the onset of the 2008 financial crisis – many of these workers now see the appeal in returning home. Whatever jobs many of these returning expatriates held in the West, the international experience and exposure to new languages and cultures has put them at a significant advantage when seeking employment back home.

The economic benefits of such brain gains are clear to see in many emerging markets. Renewed confidence among the Polish diaspora in the country’s economic prospects also appears to correlate with foreign investor confidence in the country; last year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development predicted that Poland will be the leading FDI destination in the EU between 2011 and 2013. The prediction was based on the number of times a multinational company stated that Poland was a top FDI priority.

Nurturing talent

This returning diaspora does not constitute a panacea, however. In Brazil, for example, the elevated salaries of São Paolo's executives are in part driven by the scarcity of talent: even with Brazil’s diaspora returning in their hundreds of thousands, workforce solutions firm Manpower recently reported that 64% of employers in Brazil encountered challenges when filling vacancies. With access to skilled labour increasingly named as one of the top factors influencing an investment decision, addressing talent gaps will be of paramount importance to countries such as Brazil as they try to reach their economic and investment potential.

The same applies to Africa. While parts of the continent are displaying promising signs of economic development and talented workers continue to return in their droves, Africa’s overall FDI performance is yet to pick up. Inflows to Africa continued to decline in 2011, albeit at a slower rate than in 2010.

While many of the expatriates returning to Nigeria, for example, may be highly educated, talented innovators, major challenges still remain when it comes to the calibre of the workforce at large. In the World Economic Forum’s 2011-12 Global Competitiveness Report, Nigeria ranked 114th out of 142 countries in terms of higher education and training, while it came 127th in the overall competitiveness index.

One of the key challenges – and opportunities – facing countries such as Nigeria is to ensure that the entrepreneurialism and innovation being injected into the economy by returning expatriates becomes a catalyst for broader investment in education, research and innovation. This way such countries can capitalise not only on returning talent, but also on emerging home-grown talent.

In spite of the challenges that lie ahead, what each of these mass repatriations in countries around the globe have in common is that they display the undeniable sense of optimism that the returning workers have in their countries’ futures. This is an optimism that if capitalised upon correctly will in turn – it is hoped – lead to increasing levels of foreign investor confidence.

Daniel Nicholls is the insight manager at the economic development advisory firm OCO Global. His forthcoming book – Foreign Direct Investment: Today’s Great Scramble – will be published by Gower later in 2012.