Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Brain Drain Gathers Pace

Employers can do little to keep skilled personnel when salaries constantly lag behind astronomic inflation rate.
By IWPR Srdan
Amid Zimbabwe's deepening economic and political crisis, the country's skills base is shrinking fast in the face of an exodus of hundreds of its nationals who leave the country each week in search of better working conditions.

Business analysts say the Great Trek to greener pastures is wrecking any chance of future economic recovery.

The mass departure, mostly to the West and to South Africa and Botswana, has rendered ineffective efforts by both the government and the private sector to prop up the sick economy. Both have sunk billions of Zimbabwe dollars into new skills training - but most who complete the course or re-training quickly depart for a better life elsewhere.

"Some 70 to 90 per cent of Zimbabwean university graduates are working outside the country," said Community Development and Women Affairs Minister Eunice Chitambira at a recent conference on labour migration. She said the heaviest losses were among teachers, doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Most health professionals head for the United Kingdom.

According to the Southern African Migration Project, funded by Canadian and British government aid, more than 50 per cent of skilled Zimbabweans surveyed said they intend emigrating either indefinitely or permanently.

More than four million Zimbabweans, just under a third of the population, have fled into exile since the country was plunged into deep economic and political crisis from 2000 onwards. Some 80 per cent of those who’ve remained are unemployed.

Figures obtained from the government's Central Statistical Office, CSO, suggest that among the general exodus, some 2600 highly skilled people left Zimbabwe between January and June this year. But employers and business analysts dispute the official figures, saying they are not a true reflection of the real situation. They note that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have streamed out of the country unofficially, especially into southern Africa, while others have left on the pretext of going on holiday never to return.

According to the CSO, 540,000 locals officially travelled abroad last year compared to 375,000 in 2004, and analysts say a sizeable number of these people never returned. Huge numbers of Zimbabweans fled the country illegally, mainly to South Africa.

John Mufukare, the executive director of the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe, said the country's economic and political crisis was the major force fuelling the brain drain. He said although it was difficult to quantify the latter in terms of losses to the economy, the human resource base is clearly shrinking at an alarming rate.

Mufukare said there is a high demand both regionally and internationally for Zimbabwe's skilled workers. Employers could do little to keep skilled personnel when salaries constantly lagged behind Zimbabwe's astronomic inflation rate, which surged to a record 1195 per cent in May and is predicted by the World Bank to hit the 2500 per cent mark next year. "The figures of the departing Zimbabweans, particularly the unofficial figures which are the real ones, are a barometer of the performance of the economy," said Mufukare.

The CSO figures show that in the first half of this year, 955 highly qualified Zimbabweans emigrated to Botswana, 532 to the United Kingdom, 324 to South Africa and 114 to New Zealand. Immigration of skilled people was minimal.

While the public health sector has been the hardest hit by the brain drain, private businesses have also been badly affected. "Zimbabwe's human capital is simply draining away," said one economist.

Emcoz's Mufukare said that until the government reined in runaway inflation there is nothing it can do to stop the brain drain. Spiralling price rises had somehow to be contained before any meaningful economic recovery plan could be implemented.

An official at international courier service Federal Express, now handling visa applications of all prospective travellers to Britain, said the company had been inundated by thousands of applications. It is believed that more than 3000 Zimbabweans who

entered Britain alone last year did not return to Zimbabwe, with most of them claiming to be attending schools there.

Harare economist John Robertson said that, with the local currency in a tailspin, working abroad had become highly attractive because exiled Zimbabweans repatriated their hard cash to trade it on the thriving parallel black market to support their families.

Rugare, not his real name, a 26-year-old nurse working in London, said he uses an informal network of friends to send money home, "I rely on them because I do not have proper documentation." He says he sends the equivalent of a minimum of 142 US dollars each month.

Rugare says he obtains three times the official rate on the black market, and there is no doubt that these remittances make the difference between extreme hunger and having food on the table for relatives still in Zimbabwe.

Robertson said while ordinary Zimbabweans are enjoying the benefits of money sent from abroad via the black market, the Central Bank, desperately in need of foreign currency to plug holes in a ruined economy, is not.

Zimbabwe is in dire need of any source of foreign exchange since the withdrawal of financial support by the International Monetary Fund, IMF, and the World Bank a few years ago because of the political crisis and economic mismanagement that have engulfed the country following a series of rigged elections since 2000.

Desperate to tap funds held by some four or five million of its citizens in the diaspora, the Central Bank two years ago launched the Homelink money transfer system, offering favourable interest rates to exiles to remit money home through official channels.

But interest in the scheme has been lukewarm because the "preferential" rate remains far below what can be obtained on the black market, which has almost become the official dealing medium. When Gideon Gono, the Reserve Bank governor, visited South Africa to explain to Zimbabwean exiles the Homelink system he was shouted down at meeting after meeting. One exile, Joshua Rusere, said, "To add salt to injury, Mugabe sends his messenger to ask me to send my money to bankroll his regime when its policies drove me into exile."

Zimbabwe has been in political turmoil since February 2000 when the people voted in a referendum against a government-sponsored constitution that would have widened and entrenched the powers of President Robert Mugabe. The head of state reacted by sanctioning violent invasions by his supporters of commercial farms, mostly white-owned. Mugabe's decree, dressed up as land reform, triggered a collapse of the economy as agriculture, the main source of foreign exchange earnings, went into a precipitous decline. There has been a mass exodus of white Zimbabweans, who once numbered nearly 300,000. According to the last census in 2002, there were just 46,743 remaining whites: 10,000 of these were aged 65 or more, and fewer than 9000 were under 15.

Mass deaths from AIDS and the exodus of both blacks and whites prompted Didymus Mutasa, a senior minister and head of the government's much-feared Central Intelligence Organisation, to say, "We would be better off with only six million people, with our own [ruling party] people who supported the liberation struggle. We don't want all these extra people."

Josphat Gumbo is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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