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Eric Bloch Column

Zim brain drain feeds on poverty

IN recent months it has become fashionable to castigate the developed world for its alleged “poaching” of skilled persons, be they doctors, nurses, teachers, or others.

fy>Alongside vitriolic condemnation of these supposedly diabolical actions are pronounced contentions that the so-called poachers should compensate the countries from whence the skills were sourced.

The diatribe against the supposed poaching and the demands for compensation, have emanated primarily from politicians but, of course, they have been strongly supported by state-controlled media.

The most recent such outpourings in Zimbabwe occurred last week, when Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, Sport and Culture, Aeneas Chigwedere responded to a question during question time in the House of Assembly.

He was asked what long-term strategies government had to arrest the current brain drain, and consequential shortage, of teachers in Zimbabwe.

The minister commenced his reply by saying that “what is happening is that teachers are being poached by our neighbouring countries”.

However, he failed to recognise that he who will not be poached can generally not be poached. The fish would not rise to the bait, if the fish were not hungry.

Zimbabwe’s skilled engineers, pharmacists, accountants, teachers, doctors, nurses and other skilled health-care providers, and hoteliers, as well as almost all others possessed of skills, have been departing Zimbabwe in droves. Some are doing so in response to blatant offers such as advertisements in Zimbabwean newspapers seeking science and mathematic teachers.

Others responded to advertisements in international newspapers and on the Internet, or merely depart Zimbabwe to seek employment opportunities abroad.

But they do so for many reasons, comparable to the circumstances of the hungry fish that is irresistibly drawn to the plump and juicy worm being dangled before it. For some it is that they find the political environment untenable. The absence of any genuine democracy, and instead a near-total governance by dictatorship, despite the facades of democracy, are anathema to some to an extent that they seek other, more genuinely free and democratic, milieu.

This is especially so when fundamental principles of justice are abused, with undue violence and brutality in the effecting of arrests, disregard for human rights after arrest, vicious oppression of the masses with actions such as Operation Murambatsvina, unhindered attacks upon supporters of political opponents, and the like.

Many others are driven to seeking livelihoods beyond Zimbabwe’s borders because of the pronouncedly deteriorating sociological environment.

Confronted with endlessly frequent, often very prolonged, interruptions in electricity and water supplies, frighteningly inadequate health care services, inclusive of hospitals not only under-staffed, but also under-equipped, intense scarcities of basic commodities, telecommunications facilities that are less effective than smoke signals, and massively declining education services.

There are many other reasons for the constantly growing exodus of the skilled from Zimbabwe, but the greatest trigger of that exodus is Zimbabwe’s disastrous economic circumstances.

With the exception of a few “fat cats”, mainly politically connected, the majority of the population is very desperately struggling to survive on incomes markedly below the poverty datum line.

With real inflation being in the region of 20 000%, as distinct from Central Statistical Office (CSO) determination of inflation at less than half of that level, very few generate income that keeps pace with the soaring inflation.

They are becoming more and more poverty-stricken, unaided by the skills that they have striven to acquire and develop.

That poverty becomes increasingly intensified as calls upon them for desperately needed support emanate from ever greater numbers of their extended families.

In his response to his questioner in the House of Assembly, Minister Chigwedere did not recognise this economic consideration which impacts upon Zimbabwe’s retention of skilled persons.

He told the House that “by improving the living and working conditions of the teachers, by raising their salaries to satisfactory levels…”, Zimbabwe can reduce its tremendous loss of educational skills.

This would certainly be so, but to a substantial extent would have to be accompanied by credible assurances that the salary enhancements would be on an ongoing basis to such an extent as would, at the very least, maintain lifestyle, but preferably would improve it.

However, such assurances are unlikely to be forthcoming, and even more unlikely to be believed if they are given, when regard is had not only to government’s abysmal track record of disregard for its undertakings, but also to the minister’s further declaration to the House of Assembly that the retention of teachers must also be achieved “by bonding them and preventing them from going”.

To most teachers this sends a message of impending “slavery”, for their freedom of movement, choice of employers, of employment, and similar considerations would be wholly destroyed by bonding constraints.

Undoubtedly, the minister would justify his proposed action by contentions that the state has paid for the imbuing of the teaching skills into the teachers, through state-funded universities and educational colleges.

However, that is only partially so, for almost without exception aspiring educationalists must pay fees for their studies, or have those fees paid for them by families. They also devote anything from three to five years of their lives to their studies.

That they should then be compulsorily indentured to the state, without any assurance of ongoing, sustainable and equitable remuneration is unjust, and can only result in many dishonouring their bonding commitments and fleeing the country, never to return.

Zimbabwe’s losses of the skilled, in innumerable disciplines, is cataclysmic, and must be halted, but at least it conveys one partially compensatory feature in that it provides millions in Zimbabwe with partial living, thanks to the funding sent to them by their relations abroad, and is indirectly probably Zimbabwe’s greatest present source of foreign currency, albeit through alternative markets and by supply of goods.

If the brain drain is to be curbed, it is not by demands upon neighbouring states not to employ Zimbabweans.

It is not by specious demands for compensation from the countries employing the Zimbabweans. It is not by actions of force such as bonding.

It is by restoring democracy, respecting human and property rights, and just and equitable law.

It is by restoring economic wellbeing. It is by reestablishing infrastructures that meet national needs.

Until all this is done, nothing will halt the brain drain, or the consequential continuing decline of Zimbabwe.

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