Last week I was able to attend the conference of the Association of African Universities (AAU) as it met in Tripoli under the title 'The African Brain Drain - Managing the Drain: Working with the Diaspora' . The challenge for the conference was to come up with ideas to reverse this African brain-drain.
The migration on a large scale of highly qualified professionals from their country of origin seeking a better life abroad is a serious developmental problem for Africa. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that every African professional migrant costs his nation US$184,000. The Libyan Doctors Society has a membership of about 150 doctors of Libyan origin in the UK alone. In short, it is estimated that the brain-drain is costing Africa in total up to US$4bn a year.
The 'push factors' in Africa causing skilled labour to migrate (the brain-drain) to the 'developed North' are numerous and include economic, social and political reasons. The 'pull factors' from Northern countries contributing to the brain-drain include better pay abroad, flexible career paths, a strong entrepreneurial culture, high living standards, and the value placed on intellectual worth.
However, the problem of falling birth rates and aging populations in the North means that their demand for (cheaper) professional labour is expected to continue to rise. Institutions and governments in the North do not hesitate to engage in aggressive recruitment strategies to satisfy their labour needs. These include immigration policies targeting only the highly skilled such as America's Green Card system, and Canada and Australia's visa processing systems all filter applicants on the bases of skills.
It is obvious that the scale and degree of problems experienced by the rest of Africa may not apply equally to Libya on every level. However, Libya does suffer from the brain drain phenomenon. For various reasons some Libyans have decided to return home, while others have not. We can expend much time in emotional debate as to why they are there, and how they got there, and why they are there and not here.
For the record, I am a member of that Libyan diaspora who after decades abroad returned home. What is important to me is that Libya has now decided to embark on a road of enterprise, development and economic reform. I feel that valuable Libyans living abroad should be proactively encouraged to return if they have a desire to.
The barriers to attracting this diaspora back to Libya are not famine, starvation or an over population fighting for scarce resources. Libya has the resources, but it needs to implement policies that will entice this diaspora back home. Libya, without well trained, educated, experienced professionals, will not be able to seriously fulfill its developmental goals of 2009 (the 40th anniversary of the Revolution), 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the Revolution) or the National Planning Council's Libya Project 2025.
Some well known, hand-picked members of the Libyan diaspora have been enticed to return home and are today holding strategic administrative positions. This is great news, but they are not enough. Libya needs a large enough number of returning diaspora to reach a critical mass, and create enough momentum that would be reflected in its economic and developmental growth. I believe that these individuals possess a comparative advantage which is exactly what Libya needs to gain comparative advantages in certain sectors.
I therefore believe there needs to be a well publicized campaign to encourage the thousands of professional Libyans abroad to return. This campaign must be backed-up with tangible enticements that would make it their worthwhile leaving the comfortable life in the developed world. Conditions in Libya and the general business environment must be improved.
The slow pace of reform maybe sending the wrong signal abroad.
Bureaucracy, corruption, nepotism, favouritism, and the general lack of organization in Libya's administration make performing the most simple of tasks an all day, time-consuming affair. These factors may be causing the diaspora to delay their decisions to return. But that delay is hurting Libya's development.
There are also, alas, some local Libyans who are envious and disturbed by the possibility of highly qualified, experienced professional Libyans coming back and 'taking their jobs'. This, in my view, though a natural human reaction, is a selfish and short term view that will not benefit neither the holders of this view nor the nation as a whole in the long-term. Libya needs to build-up its human capacity base and it needs to do it fast. It would take a generation to re-train the numbers needed to get the economy on a quick road to recovery. A well managed, growing, job-creating Libyan economy would benefit all Libyans in the long-term including the above mentioned 'envious' elements and the poorest sectors of the population.
Importing foreign professionals is an expensive short-term alternative that needs to be used as a stop-gap. Singapore has taken this option. It has implemented a policy of 'brain-gain' by 'kidnapping' foreign brains - by enticing them with offers they cannot refuse. But most foreigners eventually move-on to a better offer or return home.
Hence, in my opinion, Libya's brain-drain can be turned into its advantage. I see the Libyan diaspora as a potential reservoir of brain-gain waiting to be 're-kidnapped' and returned home. Why 'kidnap' foreigners a la Singapore for the short-term gain, when we can 're-kidnap' our own suitably qualified boys and girls for a longer term prospect. Enticing the well educated, well trained Libyan diaspora would also be a short-cut to kick-starting Libya's developmental and reform plans. I, therefore, call on the General Peoples Committee, the Economic Development Board and the National Planning Council to take immediate action to implement proactive policies that would attract these much needed Libyans back home.
About the Writer
The writer is a Ba in Politics Economics & Law – University of Buckingham, England Msc in International Politics – University of Southampton, England
Graduate of the GPC /NES/Monitor Group - Leadership Development Programme