25 December 1998

Ethiopia's Alarming Brain Drain

Addis Ababa — One concerned Ethiopian government official is reported to have said: "The whole of Ethiopia's education budget may be thought of as being nothing more than a supplement to the corresponding American budget because it finances Ethiopia's brain drain to that country, which deprives Ethiopia of the cream of its educated manpower". The same official is alleged to have added: "Believe it or not, nearly 80 percent of Ethiopian students who go abroad on scholarships never return home".

The size of the Ethiopian diaspora which has been variously estimated at anything between 300,000 and 500,000 lends ample credence to remarks such as those highlighted above. Hundreds of Ethiopians who travel abroad apparently to visit relatives and friends have opted to stay behind. Thousands more make use of the American DV system (a lottery immigration system) to emigrate to the U.S.A. A certain wag put it all very aptly when he said: "It is only the weak and the unimaginative that do not migrate to America and Europe".

The problem assumes greater significance when one remembers that it is normally the best and the brightest that flee the country. In an era when the concept of "brains at the top" is gaining increasing recognition as perhaps the single most important determinant of economic growth in any developing country, a brain drain that mercilessly depletes a country's pool of intellectual brilliance and talent would mean nothing less than the slow death of the nation in question.

It would not be too simplistic to attribute all the economic differences between Ethiopia and Singapore to differences in the quality of their leaderships. Ethiopia has not yet had a Lee Kuan Yew or a Mahathir bin Mohamad. The "brains at the top" hypothesis argues that economic growth is first and foremost a function of leadership. The usual causes of underdevelopment catalogued, including shortage of capital, skilled manpower, and foreign exchange, law rates of saving, poor infrastructure, absence of entrepreneurial talent, etc; actually define underdevelopment and should, as such, be taken for granted in any underdeveloped country. The important question should therefore be: who is going to alleviate and solve them? A good leader, who else? In the modern world, good leadership presupposes a high level of formal education, immense intellectual grasp, an unwavering commitment to the cause of economic development, a strong belief in the power of human ingenuity to eradicate poverty and create immense wealth and the ability to work and otherwise cooperate with others.

What sorts of people in Ethiopia would be considered good leaders? First of all, good leaders in Ethiopia would be those who know that capitalism does not function properly without free competition; Secondly, they must know that land is a major factor of production and as such hardly any economic development can be achieved without ready access to it by economic operators; Thirdly, merit, not patronage, pedigree or political affiliation, should be accepted by them as the only legitimate criterion for manpower recruitment, appointment and promotion; Fourth, they must realize that the most important function of government in the economic sphere is to facilitate, not impede, economic activities; Fifth, they must be free of corruption and allow others considered more able than themselves to replace them; Sixth, they must regard political power solely as a means of achieving economic development and must not pursue it as an end itself or as a means of personal aggrandizement; Seventh, they must encourage others to think hard and speak and write freely provided the focus is on ideas rather than on people and whatever is said is backed up with concrete facts and sound reasoning.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of finding such people is severely eroded by Ethiopia's brain drain. So, in Ethiopia today mediocrity and outright incompetence are the order of the day. We find people in positions of power and responsibility who do not even know their own personal interests; vain officials whose only ambition seems to be to boss other people around; officials whose idea of making money appears to be only through stealing public funds; indolent bureaucrats who are experts at avoiding the people they are supposed to serve by making all sorts of excuses, most notoriously pretending to be busy attending a meeting! It is no wonder that in Ethiopia today several risible economic policies and practices are in effect: Individuals cannot own land; houses and other properties confiscated by the predatory Derg regime continue to be in the possession of the present government; the official policy of ethnic bias prompts leaders to allocate disproportionate amounts of public resources to favoured regions; the mixing of politics with business is flagrantly practised; privatization of nationalized enterprises is going on without any regard to the issue of compensation; back-breaking increases have been made in rents on government-owned (but previously privately-owned) commercial premises; unprecedentedly high taxes are levied on rental income and capital gains; bona fide franco valuta imports are prohibited; private foreign exchange bureaus are not allowed; foreign participation in the banking and insurance sector is banned; directed credit is commonplace; top-notch university lecturers and experienced civil servants have been dismissed or forced into early retirement; Peasants critical of official economic policy and political thinking have been dispossessed of their plots of land; commercial farming is eyed with suspicion; and peasant agriculture is being saturated with fertilizer to the neglect of irrigation. Similar deficiencies are easily observed in the political arena as well, but there is no need to go into them here as they are quite well-known.

If Ethiopia cannot find a group of leaders who can solve all the above enumerated problems and do much more, it is just no use talking about turning Ethiopia into an African "tiger". Even assuming that in contemporary Ethiopian political power can only be seized by bullets rather than ballots, considerable advances can be made in accelerating economic development if a successful teaming up of the military and civilian elites can be achieved. After all, neither Singapore nor Malaysia is the most democratic country in the world, but their astounding economic progress has aroused the envy of even the most developed western nations! That is the perspective from which Ethiopia's brain drain should be viewed and that is why we must try and identify the root causes of the drain and put forward some solution proposals.

Why do particularly brilliant and talented Ethiopian youths run away from the country? Several reasons may be discerned, including the following major ones:

generally, Ethiopia's current socio-economic environment does not permit them to fully exploit their potential;

more particularly, educational opportunities and facilities are extremely poor;

suitable employment is difficult to find;

wages and salaries are incredibly low;

housing is in extremely short supply and is very expensive relative to wages and salaries;

Similarly, desirable consumer goods such as cars, fridges, TV sets, etc. are expensive, again relative to income.

The political and economic programme of the government is not acceptable to most of them;

Political persecution has also been a factor in many cases.

Hence, the solution proposals should lie in reversing these unfavourable conditions. The first order of business would be to make official political and economic thinking as amenable to the views of the country's intelligentsia as possible. Other recommendations would encompass the following: improving the quality of education; adjusting upwards the salary scale for civil servants substantially; providing free or subsidized housing for government employees; and tolerating original or radical views and even adopting them should they hold prospects of accelerating the social-economic development of the country. At any rate, the issue of Ethiopia's brain drain is as serious as this: Brain drain gives rise to lack of good leadership; It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the most important single determinant of economic development in backward economies such as Ethiopia is good leadership; Therefore, Ethiopia's alarming brain drain implies that the country may well remain doomed to unmitigated poverty and general scientific, technical and economic backwardness, unless the problem is reversed in good time!

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