Eric Bloch Column

Reversing the brain drain
By Eric Bloch

WASHINGTON Mbizvo, the permanent secretary for Higher and Tertiary Education, announced this week that a taskforce on human skills identification, deployment and retention (HSIDR) has been established, under his c

hairmanship, to conduct a national human resources survey to identify critical staff shortages impacting negatively upon Zimbabwe’s economic recovery programme.

The intent of the survey is to determine the nature and magnitude of skills shortages afflicting Zimbabwe, and to establish in detail the critical skills necessary for a successful economic turnaround.

Mbizvo said: “The initiative is vital for the establishment of a data bank, not only for identifying the available skills in the country, but also for indicating both the skills shortage areas and the manpower requirements for appropriate and effective national manpower planning and development.”

Amplifying on this statement, Mbizvo noted that, in common with many other countries in Africa, Zimbabwe is losing skilled, qualified personnel to Western countries while, in addition, the HIV and Aids pandemic has also affected Zimbabwe’s productive sectors, compounding the very great deficit of private and public sector resources in skills.

The survey, scheduled for completion within the next two months, is to be conducted by a consortium of entities with requisite expertise and resources, apparently primarily Zimbabwe-based, but with research networks in Botswana, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Over and above quantifying the extent of Zimbabwe’s unfulfilled needs, the consortium is to formulate recommended strategies that, according to Mbizvo, will attract and retain critical human resources, the utilisation and establishment of synergies with skilled Zimbabweans in the diaspora, and the promotion and recognition of innovation in Zimbabwe.

While an authoritative quantification of the extent of Zimbabwe’s skills needs and of the immense gaps in fulfilling those needs will undoubtedly be useful — for no problem can be satisfactorily resolved if not properly and fully identified and recognised — nevertheless one must inevitably be sceptical as to anything substantive flowing from the study, insofar as strategy solutions are concerned.

That scepticism is founded upon it being undoubted that any effective strategies must encompass very major changes in political actions, ideologies and policies, in conduct of government, and in the disastrous state-created economic environment.

As government has steadfastly demonstrated, over more than 26 years, an absolute inability to recognise any need for self-change, and cannot accept that it is capable of doing anything wrong, and as it therefore has no will to implement any recommendations which are at variance with that which it has consistently done, the prospects of any meaningful HSIDR strategy recommendations being implemented must be non-existent.

The extent that the taskforce will have to research the massive, never-ending flow of Zimbabweans into the diaspora is minimal, insofar as identifying the reasons for the continuing exodus is concerned. Many of the estimated more than three million that have flocked to South Africa, Botswana, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere have made no secret of their reasons for doing so.

Numerous of those who have left were farm-workers, factory labourers, or engaged in other fields of employment which were often only semi-skilled in nature, and have been unemployed ever since government destroyed the economy in general, and the agricultural sector in particular, while very great numbers have never been gainfully employed, having finished their schooling at a time when a devastated economy offered few, if any, employment opportunities.

In order to survive, the greater number of those millions has taken up unlawful residence in other countries, some obtaining gainful formal employment and most merging into the informal sectors. Their departure from Zimbabwe has been almost wholly economically driven, they perceiving no other way to survive.

But others who have left have done so for political reasons, finding it untenable to live in an environment of alleged democracy which is actually autocratic and dictatorial in the extreme, or to live under a political regime which has repeatedly shown its contempt for human rights.

That contempt has been demonstrated by the abysmal Operation Murambatsvina last year, by the actions of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s, by the incarceration of persons accused of criminal offences (often spuriously) for prolonged periods without trial, by disregard for fundamental principles of justice and by the frequent, blatant disregard of many of the political hierarchy for the laws of the country.
 
Lack of democracy, absence of justice and abuses of human rights perpetrated by those in political power have been very strong motivations for many to depart Zimbabwe to take up employment and live in more acceptable political environments.

Among the many skilled Zimbabweans that have departed  — including doctors, nurses, paramedics, accountants, pharmacists, engineers, architects, quantity surveyors, information technology experts, electricians and lawyers — very great numbers have moved to other countries not because they could not find employment within Zimbabwe, but because that employment did not, in the catastrophically hyperinflationary environment, generate a sufficiency of income for them to support themselves and their dependants.

They found little alternative but to seek and obtain employment in other countries, earning US dollars, British pounds, euros, rand or other currencies of substantive value, and then to internalise into Zimbabwe some of those foreign currency earnings through the unofficial, alternative, markets at very considerable premiums. Those premiums accord them the means to provide the financial support so critically needed of them by their relatives, which support they could not fully provide if their incomes were wholly Zimbabwean.

Even those without obligations to support many others have sought to earn foreign currencies, in order to accumulate capital. The average young, skilled Zimbabwean foresees no opportunity of ever owning his own motor vehicle, or home, or even all the usual, comfortable household furniture and appliances as aspired to by those setting out on independent adult life, and cannot envisage ever accumulating a sufficiency of capital to establish their own businesses, or acquire an investment stake in an enterprise, if the source of the funding must be Zimbabwean employment. So they too look at greener pastures, wherein they can earn valued foreign currency.

Therefore, any strategies to curb the brain drain must include a genuine restoration of democracy, an unequivocal regard for human rights, an absolute respect for, and compliance with, the fundamental precepts of justice and, therefore, a total transformation of political attitudes and of the political environment. There is little, if anything, to suggest a governmental willingness to undergo such a transformation.

The strategies must also include those which will bring about desired economic recovery, but over and above many other key elements necessary for that recovery, government must be genuinely willing to cut its spending — yet it is now buying another six un-needed fighter aircraft that Zimbabwe cannot afford, while its people starve!
Government must take the unpalatable measures of reversing the appalling, destructive, facets of the mismanaged land reform programme to create a real, investment-conducive and welcoming environment (inclusive of absolute respect for and implementation of Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements), to contain corruption and to deregulate the economy. 

Without all of those, the economic turnaround cannot, and will not, materialise, and the brain drain will continue.

However, the taskforce will also have to recognise that even if all that transformation occurs, many of those who have left Zimbabwe will not return. Admittedly, eventual return was their intent, but as time elapses, they sink new roots, make new friends, get married, have children, acquire homes, attain career advancement, or establish businesses, resulting in the original intentions of ultimate return to Zimbabwe permanently being eclipsed.

Thus re-establishing the necessary skills base will necessitate that concurrently with transforming the political and economic environments into ones which do not drive skills to other countries, a new skills base will have to be developed progressively through secondary schools, universities, technical colleges and other tertiary institutions, apprenticeships and so forth.

That will require, for a transitional period of time, international skills developmental support, employment of expatriates and enhancement of employment conditions in tertiary education — so as to attract and retain those able to endow others with the required skills.