8 February 2011

Uganda: Brain Drain is Not to Be Celebrated

State Minister for Labour, Dr Emmanuel Otaala, recently said brain drain is not a problem in Uganda. Nothing can be more ridiculous. The minister was responding to remarks by Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba on the need to put in place measures to control brain drain in the country with severe shortage of skilled labour.

He said as government, their policy is to export highly skilled labour to developed countries so as to earn handsomely. In 'utter ignorance' of the prevailing conditions, the minister went on to say that Uganda does not lack doctors. "We have many of them gambling on Kampala streets...," said the honourable minister.

A World Bank report said recently that money sent by Ugandans working abroad in 2010 was expected to reach Shs1.7 trillion ($773m).

According to the report, 36% of physicians trained in Uganda emigrate.

The minister recently said the department responsible for employment of Ugandans abroad is being strengthened. The proposed employment of Ugandans abroad should be put in the right context.

It can only be seen as a positive development if the country is exporting surplus labour. It is intolerable for a minister in a country with one of the lowest doctor to patient ratios in the world (estimated at 1: 30,000) to think that the loss of 36% of her physicians to foreign countries annually is okay.

Uganda has one of the highest maternal and child mortality rates, largely attributed to the scarcity of professional medical staff in our health centres.

According to the 2010 MDG Gap Task Force Report by the Overseas Development Institute, only 24 per cent of births in the country are attended to by a skilled health personnel.

To condone brain drain for the mere fact that it increases foreign remittances is, to say the least, gross. No country has ever been developed by foreign remittances.

Moreover, the government does not have to do anything to increase earnings from foreign remittances. Can the minister tell us what efforts he invested in raising the remittances he seems to be celebrating? As long as the working conditions continue to deteriorate, the remittances from abroad will automatically increase, because of increased emigration of labour, both skilled and unskilled.

However, it should be remembered that it is skilled labour which we lack that accounts for the largest share of foreign remittances. Government should be working tirelessly at stemming the haemorrhage of skilled labour. It is unfortunate that the minister can make such a remark with impunity, not knowing that many people have lost their loved ones to the monster called brain drain. Being a doctor, the honourable minister ought to know better.

The minister reminds me of one of the characteristics of Less Developed Countries; those countries which produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce. So for the honourable minister, it is okay for Uganda to export physicians because they can increase our export earnings via remittances. It is also okay for Makerere to graduate hundreds of engineers annually, export them abroad and earn handsomely as the country continues to rely on foreign firms for engineering works. In the same vein, it is okay to continue exporting raw materials cheaply and importing finished products at exorbitant prices, because it is costly to add value to our raw materials. Already, the low labour productivity of Uganda is limiting its benefits from the East African Community. What will happen if we continue exporting our scarce skilled labour?

The writer is a free lance researcher. Uganda Forum for Economic Policy Analysis.

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