If there is a country in the world that is suffering from brain drain and migration, Sierra Leone should be among the first. The genesis of migration and brain drain in this country started during the one party rule in 1978 and has continued unabated until now affecting every sector of the economy and the country as a whole. It will continue under this particular government whose Education minister is the worst this country has ever seen.
Three reasons have been responsible for this massive exodus from the country to greener pastures. Politics, poverty and the war have been the main causes for this downturn of human resources. When the late Siaka Stevens imposed the One Party Rule, many educated elites were harassed, sacked or locked up. Others who were rightfully qualified for jobs were frustrated by loosing out to the wrong people.
When the country entered the era of bad governance, many qualified men and women packed their bags and left. After 1980, many of our famous lecturers left the university because they were able to see the future. The economy collapsed with soaring prices and the Leone depreciated to unprecedented levels that reduced decent men and women to paupers.
Thirdly, the war finally brought the bad governance and poverty out in the light and after 11 years of fruitless fighting, skilled and unskilled decided to try their luck elsewhere as Sierra Leone cease to be their home.
Brain drain or capital flight as the Western countries refer to it can be best defined as the emigration of trained and talented individuals to other nations due to conflicts, lack of opportunities, discrimination or other reasons. The reason why the western countries refer to it as capital flight is because the country has no more financial capacity to invest or grow, so this gives rise to capital flight by its citizens.
Investment in higher education is lost when trained individual leaves and does not return. I remember when I was working at Sierra Leone External Telecommunications (SLET), almost every week a worker AWOL either through training programs or annual leave. Almost all the engineers and technicians who were working at SLET are out of the country; very few remain. So I would say higher education and professional status is often embraced as the most secured path to escape from the beleaguered economy, politics and poverty in the country.
The idea is those young professionals who have been costly trained, moved and thereby benefiting the Western countries by pursuing careers away from home. Valuable intellectual capital and tax revenue is supposedly lost in this manner. It’s a common topic. Every year, hundreds of qualified doctors, lawyers, architects and other professionals leave Sierra Leone for the West. They are tempted by significantly higher wages and brighter prospects. But this brain drain is costing Sierra Leone dearly.
This is something that this government doesn’t take into cognizance when they talk about attitudinal change. The new education law of belonging to the ruling party before one would be considered for presidential scholarships and grant would definitely anger students who are out of the country and would refuse to return. Also those who are not in the university and are being denied their rights would become disgruntle and pack out. Most of the doctors that have qualified this year will definitely leave for greener pastures next year after their houseman ship.
The departure of qualified professionals leaves the country poorer, and holds back development. Universities turn out graduates, only to see them take their skills abroad. This is the phenomenon in the country and it is widespread. In Sierra Leone, higher education and professional recognition are often viewed as the surest path to escape from the troubled economy and bad governance.
I want to look at it from another angle. Is there really a brain drain? What this question asks in effect is, whether Sierra Leone has been devoid of human resources, in terms of qualified professionals or whether it has in fact become over bloated with more than enough qualified professionals that are looking towards making more money by embracing the opportunity the West offers.
The number of Sierra Leonean doctors in the city of Chicago surpasses the total number of doctors in the country. I am sure the Sierra Leonean population in America would be about 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population. The only good thing is most of the Sierra Leoneans abroad regularly send monies for their families and friends thereby contributing to the country’s economy. But money alone cannot eliminate poverty in the country, because even one million dollars is a number with no intrinsic value. Human resource is the most important in the production line.
The issue that should be addressed should be whether Sierra Leone is the best or the worst for it by the rampant fleeing of its highly skilled nationals to western countries in search of greener pastures. I am of the belief that, under the status quo, Sierra Leone would still remain poor even if all the money in the world should be sent.
Money cannot teach our children. Teachers can. Money cannot bring electricity to our homes, Engineers can. Money cannot cure sick people, Doctors can. Because it is only a nation’s human capital that can be converted into real wealth, that human capital is much more valuable than its financial capital. This is the reason why America is using the Diversity Lottery to woo experts from poverty stricken countries to a more robust and developed world.
Knowledge is the engine that drives economic growth, and Sierra Leone cannot eliminate poverty without first increasing and nurturing its intellectual capital. That is why I’m very angry with the Minister of Education for destroying the fabrics of education in the country in just two years. Children taking NPSE exam with candles and lamps and it is definite that this will be the worst NPSE result for a long time. Reversing brain drain will increase the country’s intellectual capital while also increasing its wealth in many, many different ways.
Let us look at the setup of the new banks and the NGOs, it is the norm that because they are foreign institutions they would have the boss, but must of the managerial positions are given to foreigners not because they want to but because to a large extent there are not much qualified Sierra Leoneans for these jobs. The institutions have been recycling the available ones: an accountant will work for this NGO for one year and part ways with them and move to a bank, that is the norm.
Industrialized countries are in growing need of two types of immigrant labour — those willing to do poorly paid, dirty and dangerous jobs that their own nationals scorn, and highly specialized professionals, such as software specialists, engineers, doctors and nurses.
The US, Canada and Australia have fewer nurses and they are looking for more qualified nurses. Because of such shortages, industrialized nations have embarked on massive international recruitment drives. South Africa recently had to appeal to the government of Canada to desist from recruiting its medical professionals. In the rural province of Saskatchewan, Canada, more than 50 per cent of doctors are foreign trained and at least 1 in 5 of the 1,530 doctors there earned their first medical degree in Africa.
However, it may become even tougher to stem the outward flow of skilled professionals from Sierra Leone in the future. With falling birth rates and aging populations, demand for labor in Western countries is forecast to grow, as younger people are needed to maintain productivity.
In Sierra Leone, thousands will continue to seek opportunities in richer countries to find better paying jobs and raise their standards of living. And in a globalize world, where the dominant economic paradigm promotes the free movement of capital, it will become increasingly difficult to restrict the free movement of skilled labor.
Brain drain in the country has financial, institutional, and societal costs. The country gets little return from their investment in higher education, since too many graduates leave or fail to return home at the end of their studies.
In light of a dwindling professional sector, Sierra Leone institutions are increasingly dependent on foreign expertise, to fill the human resource gap created by brain drain. Most of institutions have to bring in expatriate professionals at a high cost.
The departure of health professionals has eroded the ability of medical and social services in the country to deliver even basic health and social needs. I am sure the country has even fallen short of the minimum World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 20 physicians per 100,000 people.
This continuous outflow of skilled labour contributes to a widening gap in science and technology in the country compared to smaller countries in Asia and the Caribbean. According to a report from Fox news, there are more African scientists and engineers in the USA than in the entire continent of Africa.
The flight of professionals from Sierra Leone has endangered the economic and political systems. As its middle class crumbles and its contributions to the tax system, employment, and civil society disappear, we risk becoming home to even greater mass poverty.
Can brain drain be reversed? My answer is: YES. It will, however, involve a total deviation from the status quo. Brain drain is a complex and multi -dimensional problem that can be reversed. Take a look at India and China; they’ve succeeded in reversing their brain drain into brain gain. I believe Sierra Leone can do the same. But it would mean the country has to have a government with vision and innovations not ‘attitudinal change’, working for pride and the love of the people, then and only then the status quo will be changed.
By Austin Thomas