Working to Reverse Lithuania’s Brain Drain

“The last one to leave [the country], please turn off the lights“—was a widespread saying among Lithuanians a few years ago, at the peak of country‘s emigration flow to Western Europe and Scandinavia. Over 400,000 people have left in the past ten years since the country‘s accession to the EU—more than 15 percent of the whole population, by highly conservative measurements. Of those who left, two-thirds represented perhaps the most productive workforce—18-40 years old.

The trend, which could be seen in many Eastern European countries, has caught governments unprepared. The UK, for example, forecasted that following the 2004 EU enlargement, only about 13,000 extra immigrants would arrive yearly—instead, they received over a million new arrivals in ten years. What is less well known, however, is that governments in ‘donor’ countries were similarly unprepared for the change. For both sides, the movement was too intensive to be sustainable.

For Eastern European countries, and Lithuania especially (whose 15 percent rate of emigration has been the largest among the newly accessed EU countries), the new trend raised radical new challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, it set a demographic bomb in Lithuania—for every 100 children (below 15 years old), the number of elders (above 65 years old) has increased from 88 to 129 since 2004. It is also a substantial brain drain—many of the most talented minds leave the country in search of better quality education or greater work opportunities.

On the other hand, this presents a dramatic opportunity for the country. Living abroad, these hard-working, persistent and talented Lithuanians accumulated wealth, social influence and knowledge that would not have been possible had they remained in Lithuania. As a result, it is very likely that Lithuania‘s future success will be measured by the extent to which the country succeeds in bringing these people back. This does not necessarily need to be in the physical form of living in Lithuania—there are many ways to contribute meaningfully from a distance, too. Indeed, the diaspora already does so by sending remittances, which grew every year since 2004 and in 2014 constituted 4.4% of country‘s GDP. Some also live a busy life between Lithuania and other countries, made possible thanks to budget airlines, while others come home during Christmas and other holidays, shopping and using various services here.

Nevertheless, much more can be obtained from the vast and varied communities of the thriving Lithuanian diaspora. A good example is the American Lithuanian community—the displaced persons generation who fled from the Soviet terror after WWII, but always remained passionately concerned about Lithuania‘s fate during the Soviet occupation era that lasted 50 years. Several years before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, American Lithuanians took initiative to support Lithuanians in their home country and led a massive diplomatic campaign in Congress and the White House, calling for diplomatic support for the independence aspirations of the repressed nations. After Lithuania gained independence, for several years they played an active role in Lithuania‘s political and social life, offering expertise and financing various educational and social initiatives, as well as raising their own candidates for important political offices.

However, the ‘new diaspora’—those who left after 2004—are very different from the WWII refugees. One possible explanation is that they emigrated under very different circumstances and were motivated by different reasons. The earlier emigrants were usually forced to flee by the repressive regime, and always kept a loyal and sometimes romantic devotion to their homeland—a result, perhaps, of a highly patriotic upbringing during the interwar period.

The new migration wave happened during a time when no existential threat was present, and people‘s minds are focused on new opportunities and search for a better, more prosperous and comfortable life. Indeed, surveys that ask why people emigrate show that two reasons dominate: the first one is money; the second is lack of respect and tolerance in Lithuania.

Emigration as a topic attracts a lot of attention in mass media, as well as in private homes and in institutional corridors; but these conversations are rarely made political priorities or made apparent through political will to act. The government’s official policy program “Global Lithuania” is poorly financed, and the bulk of finances are allocated for a single measure—financing Lithuanian schools abroad.

To be sure, there are several notable initiatives. One is a program called “Create for Lithuania”, which invites young individuals—potential future leaders from various walks of life—to work in governmental institutions with a fixed 1-year contract. The work involves implementing three 4-month projects, often bringing innovation and result-oriented attitudes to their work and collaborating closely with leaders from key institutions (e.g., Vice-Ministers, Heads of Departments). Many of them remain in the public sector afterwards and almost all, thanks to the enormous network of people they grow during the year, remain in Lithuania, often with impressive job offers at hand. The program received high recognition nationally and even internationally: it was mentioned by UNESCO as an excellent example of youth diaspora involvement.

Another initiative is “Global Lithuanian Leaders” (or GLL)—a network of accomplished Lithuanian professionals from all over the world. GLL organises conferences, initiates projects like “Talents for Lithuania”, “Big Brother” and annual “GLL Awards” to recognize the most notable Lithuanian diaspora members. Most activities tap into the skills and networks of its varied membership. The underlying assumption of such diaspora networks, which develop around many countries with significant diasporas, is that no matter where you live physically, you can still contribute meaningfully to your country. Their difficult-to-measure effect is that they bring economic, diplomatic, and other opportunities to the society by promoting ties between countries via its members.

These initiatives, only a few of which are mentioned here, have several limitations. First, most initiatives are created and financed by private actors and NGOs, while the official government policies and strategies lack financing and often face organizational barriers. To increase government effort and impact, though, a straightforward solution exists: politicians would start caring if Lithuanians abroad were more politically active and thus better represented in the parliament and presidency. Currently political participation abroad is only about 2%, compared to over 50% in Lithuania.

Second, the initiatives are limited in scale: the “Create for Lithuania” program employs only 10-30 people every year—a drop in the bucket, compared to the hundreds of thousands of emigrants living abroad. The limitation in scope applies even if one sums up all the small initiatives: there is a need and the space to scale up these effort significantly.

Third, the existing initiatives are mostly aimed at the top ranks of the emigrant community. While this is understandable, as economically it gives the greatest returns, the rest of the diaspora should not be forgotten. For they, too, represent the most productive part of the society—18 to 40 year-olds. Moreover, they may be willing to make contributions or to return home in equal measure compared to the more elite emigrant population, and would definitely benefit from institutional support in doing so.

Fourth, initiatives that enable diaspora contribution from a distance should be supplemented with ‘return home’ policies that are more sustainable in the long term. Children play a key role in this way: no matter how patriotically they are educated at home, they will want to live in the country where they grew up—their social circles, dearest memories and deepest cultural knowledge are there, after all. Indeed, very few American Lithuanian diaspora members come to live in Lithuania, and their financial and other contributions are also declining (although they remain strongly devoted, in their own way). Thus, while initiatives that enable people to contribute from a distance uniquely empowers those people, the ‘return home’ policies should not be abandoned.

These policies are most effective early in the emigration period. For people who have lived abroad for 5 years, coming back is difficult; for those with families who have lived for 10 years abroad, it is exceptionally challenging. There needs to be more favourable family policies, as well as various types of psychological and other support available. The focus should be on the reasons why they leave: namely, money and the culture of (in)tolerance. Lithuania needs to strengthen economically and offer them high quality, well-paid jobs; and society should be nudged towards greater collective empathy, enforce greater justice, and learn to pay equal respect to everyone regardless of their social status, intelligence, or other factors.

The upcoming ten years will define the lives of approximately one sixth of the Lithuanian nation. Many people can be attracted to return home, if wide and effective policy measures are implemented; otherwise, they will deepen their roots and remain abroad for generations, if not forever. Surely, it is not bad per se; but for Lithuania, whose single greatest asset is its small, shrinking population, this represents a frightening scenario. The momentum is building, however, and significant advances might be just around the corner.