Global snowbelt leaves the world behind

October 2, 2013

By Ian Campbell

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Go north, young man, and, even more so, young woman. That is a message implicit in the World Economic Forum’s new Human Capital Index. Talent is squandered in most of the world. The flight of the talented to wealthy northern economies reinforces the recipient nations’ success and risks leaving the donor countries lagging behind.

The WEF’s new index offers remarkable geographical clarity. In an index of 122 countries, only one southern hemisphere economy, Singapore, makes the top 10. Chilly Scandinavia, Switzerland, Canada, Holland, Germany, and the UK are the stars. Inside this global snowbelt, health, education, the work environment and institutions all cooperate to help people realise their potential.

Elsewhere, frustration is the norm. Not just individuals but countries pay the price. Unrealised potential becomes an uneasy burden, not a productive force.

Predictably, health and education are a big part of the problem in emerging economies. But the obstacles are broader. Italy and Spain have good healthcare but lie in the bottom half of the global table for “Workforce and Employment.” Established workers cannot be removed from jobs. Young workers cannot get into them. The International Labour Office says women in Italy’s south are most likely to be unemployed.

Obstacle leads to exodus. Almost two-thirds of the workers welcomed into the U.S. on H-1B work visas in 2012 were from India: ranked 78th in the world in the overall index and close to the bottom for health. The mobility alleviates frustration and assists recipient economies. Some of these workers may return with enhanced skills and greater wealth. Many will not. A high outflow is rarely a good sign for the country left behind.

India’s loss helps the U.S. compensate for its own signal failures. Its ranking is a disappointing 16th, dragged down by a startlingly low 43rd place for a “Heath and Wellness” sub-index.

Workers, highly skilled or not, have long been willing to cross borders in search of opportunity. The problem is what they leave behind. Countries need to be removing barriers rather than seeing the talent and the progress slip off elsewhere, to the northern snow.

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