The Brain Drain From Ethiopia: What to Do

The Brain Drain From Ethiopia: What to Do?

Teketel Haile-Mariam, PhD



For those old enough to remember, the Ethiopian economy was on the verge of take-off in the early 1970s. That was a period when young college graduates chose to engage in various types of farming and other businesses, rather than being employed as public civil servants.  The same degree of enthusiasm was evident in other areas such as in literary, artistic, and similar cultural aspects.  A truly middle class group of entrepreneurs, well versed in modern management and technical skills, was emerging.  In all, there was general air of optimism and hopefulness about the future. Very few Ethiopians chose to abandon their country and emigrated to other states then.  Even those who were sent abroad on scholarships for further education could not wait to return back, despite the availability of opportunities for permanent residences in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.  Those opportunities were instead taken by non-native Ethiopians  who immigrated from other countries during earlier periods  such as Armenians, Greeks, Italians, and even a few Arabs.


A dramatic surge in emigration started in mid-1970s, coinciding with the ascent to power of the Derge regime. The Derge brought upon Ethiopia disastrous economic and political turmoil, which continues unabated today.  The level of poverty has widened and deepened, the rate of unemployment has increased, political and economic insecurity have become the norm, and the majority of Ethiopians are desperately poor and hopeless.  These economic and political upheavals are the fundamental reasons why probably most Ethiopians prefer to move to other countries now, and those who are already abroad may not be willing to return. 


In less than three decades, the country has become a nation of aspiring emigrants rather than a heaven for immigrants dreaming of  better opportunities and live in Ethiopia.  In the process, the country has lost thousands of its well educated and experienced who, under normal circumstances, should have been the professional leaders, technocrats, managers, scientists, politicians, lawyers, teachers, artists, researchers, university professors, entrepreneurs, doctors, etc.


The Ethiopian emigrants are mostly scattered in North America and Europe. Most of them probably work in service sectors, but there are also quite a few who are engaged in all sorts of professional jobs as doctors, nurses, teachers, university professors, scientists, engineers, researchers, government officials, international civil servants, journalists, lawyers, investment bankers, traders, etc.  All can be considered to be fairly well educated by virtue of living in advanced societies, whether that education is obtained through formal or informal means.  Reading newspapers and journals, watching and following how the societies function, and managing ones professional and personal lives in the most sophisticated societies of the world are all sources of education.  The immigrants manage to survive and even prosper in such societies.


Is emigration a bad thing by itself or are there benefits in encouraging people to seek employment outside?  How may the exodus of professionals be slowed (or should it)? Are the emigrants a lost cause or are there possibilities to still utilize their expertise and how?


Emigration is not necessarily a bad thing for both the country and the emigrees.  It could benefit the country by:  (a) reducing the pool of unemployed and underemployed (and easing social tensions associated with that), (b) reducing the strain on social services caused by the exploding population growth, (c) helping to improve the environment since reduced population would mean lower demand for all sorts of goods and services, (d) being an important source of foreign exchange earnings that could potentially surpass traditional exports such as coffee and hides, and (e) being an important source of non-formal education for those who remain behind.  And the emigree would gain better opportunities for advancement professionally and financially, while at the same time helping their relatives back home.  The money they send back to their relatives would also generate very important economic benefits for the country, which would have additional direct and indirect multiplier effects.  But emigration also has its down side since it deprives the nation of critically needed professional human resources.


Considering both the positive and negative consequences of emigration, how may a prudent public policy tackle the issue?  I suggest a three-pronged approach:  (a) encourage the emigration of particularly those who are unemployed/underemployed or those with limited potential for gainful employment, (b) slow down the exodus of the professional group, and (c) encourage reversal of the brain drain, starting with the earliest emigrants.  Let me elaborate on the last two of these three options (there is no doubt about promoting the first option).


Investment in education is a critical element of public policy, and Ethiopian tax payers had spent millions of  their meager resources to train citizens in the hope and expectation that those investments would yield dividends for the nation.  It is government's responsibility to ensure that those dividends are realized. Given the very few supply of the professionally trained and experienced in the country,  the dividends that could be realized from the effective use of such scarce resources would be very high.  Conversely, the more these resources are lost to emigration, the larger the dividend losses would be for the nation.


While not overtly forbidding professionals from leaving the country, government should encourage them to stay and participate in development efforts by, inter alia:  (a) providing them with attractive benefits that should enable them to maintain comfortable life styles (it is far superior to have a few highly remunerated managers than a big and disruptive bureaucracy that only sucks public funds), (b) not marginalizing them in policy making decisions so as to maintain and/or increase their levels of professional satisfaction, (c) rewarding professional competence rather than party loyalty in recruitment and promotion, and (d) not being hostile towards them for fear of political opposition from these relatively well informed segments of society.


How may the brain drain be reversed?  I would start with the earliest groups of retirees.  It would be unrealistic to expect well established professionals who are in the middle of their career progressions, have young families, and not yet comfortable with their levels of wealth accumulation to all of sudden pack it up and return to the country of their birth.  But those who have already gone through those life and career cycles may be enticed to do so.  No matter how rich one may be, western societies have no respect for old age, and promise of comfortable retirements in a society that accords respect to chronological maturity could be natural enticement.


The retirees have normally accumulated wealth of experiences, have many years of productive lives left in them, and most may have burning desires to share their experiences.  The earliest Ethiopian emigrants have probably nearly reached their retirement ages, and there may even be many who have already retired and living in their adopted home country or elsewhere.  At least some may even be willing to provide free technical services in their fields of expertise, if enticed to return.


The willingness of retirees to share their professional expertise and wealth of experiences can only be realized if there are corresponding desires by the government to utilize those services.  I hear anecdotes of reluctance in some quarters of government to utilize the services of such professionals, partly because of insecurity caused by perceptions of being overwhelmed by the highly educated, experienced, and perhaps more financially secure colleagues.  But the extreme shortages of qualified professionals and the critical importance of human resources to manage the country's affairs should override this transitory feelings of insecurity.


The large pool of professional retirees in the Diaspora would only get bigger over time as more Ethiopians get older and retire.  That can be a gold mine of investment resource, and the government should take advantage of this opportunity.  Ethiopians have a tradition of strong sense of loyalty to their country of birth, and government should take advantage of that for mobilizing the pool of retirees in the Diaspora to help the country come of out the miserable and humiliating poverty.


Human resource is a critical element for successful economic development, and it is good that government appears to give priority to capacity building.  Capacity building is a wide encompassing strategy that should include, inter alia:  (a) using domestic consultants and contractors instead of foreign ones, (b) building the capacities of local training institutions, (c) cultivating a culture of respect for professionalism, (d) rewarding professional competence in public services, and (e) encouraging emergence of critical mass of private entrepreneurs.  To these should be added the willingness to encourage, welcome and use the services of retirees in the Diaspora.  A more generalized proactive policy for reversing the brain drain would be even better.


If the government takes the above concrete actions, that would be a tangible demonstration of its seriousness in building an all-inclusive human resource base, improving the efficiency of public services, promoting transparency in government, fighting corruption, promoting private sector led economic development and poverty reduction, and instilling democratic principles in the nation's culture.  Otherwise, all the talk about capacity building and the numerous other "initiatives" would continue to be empty rhetoric and public relations gimmicks.n