Brain Drain and Global South’s right to compensation

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During his speech to the G77 summit themed ‘The Role of Science, Technology and Innovation’, the President followed on the host Cuban President’s reference to the ‘Brain Drain’ from the economically developing Global South to the affluent Global North and went one step further to call for compensation for the loss of “educated manpower”. He said the poorer countries needed to meet the needs and challenges of the modern world, but are faced with the disconcerting trend of the migration of youth and experts alike.

Implementation of development agendas is naturally exacerbated when there is a shortage of a skilled workforce whose primary and secondary education was funded by the domestic direct and indirect taxpayer, eventually benefiting better-off countries with no reparation for depriving the original provider of such skilled workers.

The ‘Brain Drain’ in Sri Lanka is not new. Even before independence, the British recruited many northern Sri Lankans to serve their administration in Singapore, Malaysia and other colonial outposts. Most became citizens of those countries and were lost to their motherland forever. Within a decade of independence, short-sighted policies and politics contributed to a regular cycle of citizens leaving the country, many for good. They ranged from those who felt they couldn’t fit into the 1956 language policy to those who left in the 1970s due to stringent economic restrictions. Then the trickle turned into a flood with the 1983 race riots. And now, once again, economic factors have triggered another exodus.

Many Sri Lankans made adjustments along all these trials and tribulations. For instance, it was not only the minorities who suffered from the official language policy. Many public servants from all communities of that era, trained by the English in English, had to learn Sinhala and sit for proficiency tests in local languages. Millions also stuck it out during the economic crisis of the early 1970s.

At the 20th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Colombo in 1974, the Acting Prime Minister Maithripala Senanayeke in his keynote address spoke of the “urgency of the problem of the Brain Drain”. He mentioned the skilled manpower going mostly to the English-speaking Commonwealth countries and asked if the Commonwealth Secretariat could consider the establishment of a broad framework for the transfer of personnel among Commonwealth countries.

The Commonwealth Secretariat considered nothing of the sort for the simple reason that the richer Commonwealth countries that dominated the group of former British colonies preferred the status quo that was to their benefit.

And nearly 50 years later, Sri Lanka’s President is echoing the same plea – calling on the international community to plug this leak of the ‘Brain Drain’.

Last week, this newspaper had two separate news features side-by-side on the exodus of qualified personnel: the dearth of 40 Consultant Anaesthetists in state hospitals – and how, at the Norochcholai power plant, a large outflow of engineers in the electrical discipline has resulted in a request for foreign engineers to tide over the shortage. Today, the newspaper refers to the shortage of surgeons. This migration of professionals is seemingly endless.

There are various methods to stem the tide of the ‘Brain Drain’ and the related issue of the drain on foreign exchange. The Parliamentary Ways and Means Committee is looking into these questions to advise the Government. Take the case of the huge amount of dollars going out of the country for educational purposes as one example. Should not the Government set up a ranking system to provide forex only for courses in the top 100 universities abroad and not each and every degree- or doctorate-granting institution solely catering to the influx of foreign students, and their money? Some locals utilise foreign exchange under the guise of pursuing further studies solely to obtain residency abroad. Mediocre overseas universities set up campuses in Sri Lanka only to produce graduates who seek to migrate.

In post-independence India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru started tech universities from scratch. Their first batches of graduates migrated to the West, but are now returning to these universities that are attracting students from around the world.

In the post-1977 period, with the opening of the economy, some Sri Lankan professionals who had gone abroad returned. Even today, a few IT companies abroad set up by Sri Lankans see potential here and have returned for start-ups. The economic climate is key to reversing the ‘Brain Drain’. But there is a contradiction in Government policy. Last year, it allowed public servants to go abroad for five years and not lose their seniority if they returned. This was unfair by those who remained in tough times. Then, the decision was reversed.

The Foreign Employment Ministry and Bureau are actively pursuing employment opportunities abroad not just for construction workers and housemaids, but also for professionals. They have set targets and are canvassing foreign embassies in Colombo for quotas with the hope of getting brownie points for the numbers they send abroad, hopefully, to swell the national budget from remittances. Reliance on this strategy, however, is fraught with danger as the Covid pandemic proved when remittances plummeted.

Additionally, there are international covenants monitored by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to protect the Rights of Movement of people around the world (but not the ‘boat people’ entering Europe). Unfortunately, the ILO is wearing blinkers when it comes to seeing how this one-way traffic of skilled manpower to the Global North is causing irreparable damage to those living in the Global South.

President Wickremesinghe’s call for compensation may not fly at the end of the day, but the UN General Assembly next week is also expected to touch on this subject. The agenda for this year’s sessions will revolve around the plight of developing countries navigating global economic headwinds. Such calls from the Global South are certain to fall on the deaf ears of the Global North.

Conversely, to expect a sense of patriotism from their own citizens is also expecting too much when the political leadership is corrupt. Half the crowd at ongoing cricket matches with the Lion flag wrapped around them, must be having a passport in their pocket to leave the country at the first opportunity.



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