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Focus on the extent of the brain drain

[Zimbabwe] Sky scrapers.
Zimbabwe's economy has shrunk in recent years (Obinna Anyadike/IRIN)

Zimbabwe is experiencing a debilitating flight of professional and skilled people escaping the country's economic crisis, a study funded by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has found.

A large number of Zimbabweans had taken up South African citizenship and there were probably more Zimbabweans in South Africa than in the United Kingdom, the country with the highest official tally of expatriate Zimbabweans.

The study was undertaken by the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC), under contract from the National Economic and Consultative Forum, to measure the rate and level of the 'brain drain'.

It confirmed that the "level and trend of the brain drain in Zimbabwe has reached unacceptable and unsustainable heights". Noting that "during the last four years, this brain drain trend has escalated in magnitude to levels that have serious implications for the country's capacity to deliver on the sustainable development front".

Zimbabwe dropped to 145th place out of 175 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI) rankings in 2003. The HDI is a composite measure of average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, education and a decent standard of living. [See IRIN report: Economic revival programme struggles to do the job]

The SIRDC study estimated there were 479,348 skilled Zimbabweans "in the diaspora, although the study team is aware that there is a large number of diasporants that it could not contact". The majority held bachelors degrees and "about 20 percent held masters degrees, while 5 percent held PhD degrees," the report noted.

Most Zimbabweans who had left the country since 1990 had gone to the United Kingdom (36.8 percent), Botswana (34.5 percent) and South Africa.

Although data collected from government departments, embassies and other official sources showed that South Africa had the smallest proportion (4.6 percent) of immigrant Zimbabweans, the authors of the report believe this to be a "a gross underestimation of Zimbabweans in South Africa, the preponderant majority of whom are illegal immigrants".

"As the illegal immigrants have no defined places of abode, and are constantly on the run from law enforcement agents, there was no way for us to interview them so as to include them in our catchment," the SIRDC stated.

During a visit to South Africa, the report's authors also found "the majority of diaspora Zimbabweans there had changed their citizenship. We could thus not find an appropriate manner of handling the case of the diaspora Zimbabweans in South Africa. Many Zimbabweans readily mix in with the South Africans because of the similarity of last names. Our view, not backed by data from this study, is that there are probably more diaspora Zimbabweans in South Africa than in the UK," the authors commented.


More than half the respondents sampled in the study had emigrated for work reasons (54.5 percent). "The most common work-related reasons for emigrating given ... were the low salaries in Zimbabwe, followed by the exchange rate, and better career advancement opportunities." In recent years the Zimbabwe dollar has depreciated sharply against major currencies and those of its neighbours.

About 8 percent of respondents mentioned "political factors" as their main reason for emigrating.

"If the Zimbabwe government does not do something to make staying at home more attractive and rewarding, the brain drain will continue unabated," the study warned. The forces driving people out of the country were as powerful as the opportunities luring them away.

There was no alternative but to enact "necessary economic reforms that make staying at home attractive and rewarding" for skilled and educated Zimbabweans.

The shrinking economy was not only forcing productive Zimbabweans abroad but had also resulted in what the authors of the report termed an "internal brain drain".

"The deteriorating economy in Zimbabwe has forced some professors, lecturers, medical doctors and scientists to operate minibuses, taxicabs or operate beer parlours. It is a form of internal brain drain to have many architects, accountants and pharmacists underemployed," the study said.


The health and teaching professions were the worst affected by the brain drain.

"An examination of the professions of those who are leaving the country shows that a sizeable proportion of them are doctors, teachers and nurses. In fact, the health care sector is the most affected. Many are leaving because health care and education spending cuts across the board have denied them a place to stay and work in Zimbabwe."

The report found that the flight of doctors had been "so overwhelming that the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare has had to recruit hundreds of Cuban doctors who are paid in foreign currency to fill the gap".

"Many professionals leave Zimbabwe for the brighter opportunities offered abroad, complaining that Zimbabwe is too corrupt, and needs more politicians of high moral standards. The dilemma is that Zimbabwe will not advance in development if the majority of qualified people continue to leave.

"The reason why certain professionals are leaving Zimbabwe is that they think working at home is synonymous with supporting the current government and not the people," the report observed.

The majority of emigrant Zimbabweans interviewed said they intended returning. But about a quarter were not sure whether they would ever live in Zimbabwe again.

Erecting legal barriers to the emigration of educated professionals would only encourage illegal emigration and discourage "bright Zimbabweans from seeking to better themselves through overseas education in the first place".

"If brain drain is a valid concern, the main thrust of public policy in Zimbabwe should be driven by efforts to stem [the tide] and targeting our policy thrust towards domestic equity, efficiency, and growth," the authors of the report concluded.

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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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