Southern African Countries Strained By Brain Drain

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The Southern African Development Community is still battling to stem the flight of highly skilled professionals forcing governments in this regional economic grouping to adopt a battery of preventive and recovery strategies to limit the emigrations which are threatening economic growth.

Debate about the shortage of skilled labor in this region has been raging for many years with some social commentators warning it has reached crisis proportions. And, according to reports from South Africa, the government in that country is moving to take practical steps to bring home about 25 000 of its health professionals working in western countries as a recovery strategy for its health care system. Skills migration is a global problem which has seen developing countries being the hardest hit while developed nations emerge the biggest beneficiaries. The Sadc region is reeling from a crippling exodus of their professional staff mainly to UK, Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand. Commentators blame this to a nexus of problems which include low remuneration, low job satisfaction, inadequate employment opportunities, increasing unemployment and under-employment, increasing forms of vulnerable work, poverty, the mismatch of education and training with economic needs.

Pull factors are the attractive and dramatic difference in salaries, perks, allowances, research and study opportunities offered in these developed nations which most of the countries in the Sadc region cannot afford.

Experts say countries in the region need to address the root causes of the problems if the brain drain is to be minimized. To stem the tide, South African health officials say they have unveiled a plan to train more health professionals as well as improving the working conditions in that country. “One of the things, of course, is to look as salaries–we think it is not fair to have senior nurses earning comparable or lesser salaries than clerks,â€? Percy Mahlathi, a South African health official was quoted as saying. “Secondly, to make sure that conditions under which they work actually get improved  -issues of work organization, places to stay and issues of professional development.â€?

South African health minister Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang pointed to the need for a regional approach to the brain drain problem since the problem was not unique to that country alone. Zimbabwe, too, has been grappling with the problem and is intensifying efforts to retain qualified and experienced staff in its health care system. Health and Child Welfare minister Dr David Parirenyatwa said it was disheartening that ‘billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money continued to be used to train human resources for other countries.’

Zimbabwe has over the years become a training ground for other countries with a number of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and radiologists among other professionals leaving the country in big numbers crippling the country’s health delivery system. “There is something you should know, there are two countries –very rich countries in the West that need at least five million nurses within the coming year and they do not have those nurses in their own countries,� he told a gathering at a graduating ceremony for 270 primary care nurses in Harare recently. “You can rest be assured that we will provide those nurses for them if we are not careful. That cannot be allowed to happen and we have to take steps to address it,� he said. Zimbabwe launched the primary care nurse program two years ago to close the gap created by an exodus of qualified nurses in the country.

The course takes only 18 months compared to the registered general nursing program which takes three years. Bonding has not helped much as the country kept on losing health professionals despite spirited attempts by the government to address their working conditions. Dr Parirenyatwa even warned that the government would have no choice but to withhold the certificates if western countries continue to bleed Zimbabwe of its health professionals dry.

UK, Australia and the US are the biggest poachers of doctors, nurses and other health practitioners from developing nations something which has forced African health ministers who are scheduled to meet in Maputo soon for the World Health Organization regional meeting to put brain drain high on the agenda. In 2003 alone, a total of 2 825 work permits were granted to doctors and nurses from Zimbabwe in the UK while 5 880 work permits were issued to health professionals from South Africa in that country.

Official statistics also indicate that about 12 500 doctors currently working in the UK are from African countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda that are facing serious staff shortages themselves.


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