- Highly skilled professionals continue to emigrate from Malawi and the rest of Southern Africa. The impacts of this 'brain drain' are complex and it is clear that many African countries and Malawi in particular, have been left with serious specific gaps in many areas especially in the health sector.
Statistics have it that by the 1990s, the doctor-population ratio in Malawi and other surrounding countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania was 1 to 30,000 compared to 1 to 300 in industrialised countries.
Between 1960 and 1987, sub-Saharan Africa is thought to have lost at least 30 percent of its highly skilled men and women to the highly industrialized nations.
In Malawi alone, it has been reported that over the past five years, 52 percent of health administrators, 64 percent nurses and 85 percent physicians have left the government health system either to join private medical providers, other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or have left the country to join overseas health systems.
There have been several initiatives by government to reverse the trend and recently key stakeholders from the public and private sector gathered in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, bringing together experts to strategize on how best to address the debilitating problem of 'brain drain.'
Under the focus, exploring the potential of intellectual diaspora knowledge networks as a source of human capital for development – giving consideration to the specific needs of Malawi, the gathering produced initial conclusions and recommendations on mechanisms and strategies for the effective engagement of the diaspora.
Will Halkett, a representative from the University of Dundee of Scotland, who organised the workshop in partnership with Malawi's Bunda College of Agriculture observed that though it is a difficult venture to woo the intellectuals back to Malawi, he acknowledged that it was possible. "With good policies coupled with the right conditions, I am sure these people can come back and contribute to their native country," he said.
"Actually we want to initiate dialogue with the health personnel working in foreign countries to re-consider their stand. There are various interventions that could be used to inspire them (health personnel) back," he emphasised.
Mr Halkett announced during the meeting to have already approached and spoken to about 50 Malawians working in foreign countries who all expressed willingness to come back home. He also observed that a recent move by foreign governments to reject extensions of working visas for nurses could also work to the initiative's favour.
The million-dollar-question however is, does the country have enough financial muscles to put in place attractive infrastructures, competitive salaries, working conditions and opportunities to match the developed countries?
"This is a challenge for all of us and I am sure funding could come if this programme seems to work for the benefit of Malawians," Mr Halkett said.
Director of Management Services in the Department of Human Resource Management and Development at Bunda College of Agriculture Isaac Zimba Bondo hailed the idea saying the 'diaspora option' which involves making use of the skilled and highly skilled expatriate pool could contribute to capacity building in the country.
"The 'diaspora option' is a policy alternative to repatriation schemes, which have been adopted successfully by a number of newly industrialised countries, or big countries like China and India, where enormous efforts and massive investments in science and technology infrastructure and other facilities have been made to tempt skilled expatriates back home," he said.
Mr Bondo said that though some informal collaboration and exchange of knowledge between the intellectual diasporas and their home countries may have already taken place with more or less success, "these efforts are likely to continue whether or not formal arrangements are put in place."
The question however, continued Mr Bondo, is how to harness diasporas systematically as significant and valued partners in development cooperation and create the opportunity structures which link them effectively and productively either through temporary, perhaps repeated return or without any physical return through distant cooperative work.
He explained, "the latter may include research partnerships, knowledge brokerage activities, business initiatives and other links which do not only utilise the professional abilities of individual expatriates but tap into the social capital or networks upon which they can draw in their adopted countries which may be expensive. This may afford access to state of the art class medical research facilities, for example with relatively low investment."
"The building of capacity for development is typically a long term process which of course begins in the schools and whether or not knowledge repatriation involves physical return and many expatriates may wish to return temporarily, the diaspora may provide both the type of resources and the enduring commitment to the home country that is required."
According to Mr Bondo, other measures could include promotion of dual citizenship and foreign denomination bank accounts for expatriates, the creation of ministries for nationals living overseas, visiting research scientist programs and forgiving outstanding student loans.
The fruits are yet to be seen as Malawi curiously awaits the coming back of the cream of its skilled professionals to fulfil their aspirations in their country of origin.
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