Skills lost in "internal" brain drain

[Zimbabwe] Shoe worker in Zimbabwe.
Unemployment is forcing Zimbabweans to turn to the informal sector (ILO)

Chamunorwa Chirova is a new type of Zimbabwean entrepreneur - he makes his money by illegally selling fuel on the thriving black market.

It was not a job he anticipated when he graduated eight years ago with an engineering degree from the University of Zimbabwe. Until two years ago he was working at a beverage firm, struggling along in the depressed formal economy, when the economic crisis and rising cost of living made him reassess his future.

"The salaries were so small, and we were working shifts as a result of reduced production. This meant our salaries were sometimes cut," explained 35-year-old Chamunorwa. In the meantime, government price controls on basic commodities had created a booming black market. He decided to resign and take his chances there.

Now he supports his two children by selling fuel illegally on the street to desperate motorists, on behalf of dealers who have licences from the authorities to import the scarce commodity, while keeping an alert eye on the police. They are trying to stamp out the black market as it diverts fuel from the official outlets, where it is more than three times cheaper than the street price of Zim $1,500 (US $1.80) a litre, but seldom available.

The fuel shortage resulting from the government's crippling lack of foreign exchange has kept Chamunorwa in business. Despite the risks, he has been able to buy an old pickup truck with his earnings. "It's better than nothing, and I almost earn five times what my colleagues I left at that firm do," he said.

Tabeth Zuze, 25, made a similar decision to try her hand in the parallel market. She graduated from teachers' training college in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo only last year, but did not relish the idea of working in the rural areas, living in a one-roomed house with no transport, no clean water - and worse - no teaching aids, including even chalk.

She now owns two flea market stalls in Harare's city centre, selling plasticware and china imported from South Africa. "I earn enough to pay rent and buy food. I can [turn over] up to Zim $200,000 [US $244] a month," she said. Teachers in Zimbabwe earn an average of Zim $150,000 (US $183).

A recent report by the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre has shown that nearly 500,000 Zimbabwean professionals have left the country since 1990 in search of better opportunities overseas (See IRIN report: Focus on the extent of the brain drain). But an internal movement of skilled Zimbabweans is also under way, robbing the country of much-needed capacity, and shrinking the government's tax revenue base.

Both Chirova and Zuze represent the phenomenon of the "internal brain drain" - trained professionals who have remained in the country but chosen not to utilise their skills in formal careers.

The impact is felt throughout the professions. One lawyer told IRIN that his firm lost two junior lawyers this year alone. "The guys are now cross-border traders, selling sugar, cooking oil and clothes to Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. They say they earn at least US $5,000 every month," he explained. The average salary for a junior lawyer is Zim $450,000 (US $549).

Social worker Michael Phiri said Zimbabwe's formal sector is increasingly understaffed as professionals seek opportunities elsewhere. In many rural communities where he has worked, clinics were manned by orderlies because nurses drifted to urban areas to look for alternative jobs, or joined the legion of Zimbabwean health care workers employed abroad, typically in Britain or South Africa.

"Education is no longer a guarantee of employment, nor a good salary, as the economy is now more and more informal," Phiri said.

Chivora and Zuze deliberately opted out of formal employment. But for most Zimbabweans, the country's shrinking economy has left them with little other choice.

Zimbabwe's unemployment rate is estimated at 75 percent and is expected to reach 90 percent by the end of 2003. According to George Making, a human resources consultant, 400 companies closed in 2002 alone, leaving at least 350,000 people jobless.

Estimates put the number of formal jobs lost at over 800,000 since 2000, employment agent Tapiwa Chikudo told IRIN. The losses were mainly in the agriculture, construction and manufacturing industries. In addition, over 250,000 school leavers join the job market every year.

One independent researcher believes Zimbabwe's decline has been so severe that the economy would need to grow by an unprecedented 25 percent over five years to achieve a reasonable recovery.

"For Zimbabwe to recover to levels where it can generate sufficient jobs and wealth to ensure the repayment of loans on one hand, whilst allowing a significant improvement in the conditions of life for a poverty stricken and AIDS-ravaged population, the economy must sustain a minimum of a 25 percent economic growth rate over a space of not less than five years," said the researcher with the NGO, the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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