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Friday, 11 May 2007

World Bank on Zambia's brain drain

A new World Bank research paper on Migration from Zambia provides new contributions on Zambia's brain drain problem, noting that this is a big problem for Zambia as 10% of all tertiary educated Zambians live abroad, although this figure is much lower than other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The authors assert that the current "skill shortage and brain drain related problems in Zambia must go to the root of the problem". The root of the problem according to the paper is "primarily due to inadequate educational infrastructure". And they have facts to back it up: "Government expenditure is currently only 2% of GDP, the lowest in Africa and well below the 3.4% average of least developed countries. The problem of low education expenditure is compounded by the way it is allocated. Students in health and welfare constitute about 3% of all students at tertiary level - only 7 countries in the world have a lower percentage".

The solutions? The authors are clear : "The primary solution to the shortage [skills] lies in producing more skilled workers". I am not convinced. Yes skill shortages is down to poor investment in educational infrastructure, but as the paper itself admits, its down to emigration. What good is producing more skilled workers when these workers will emigrate? The authors have not shown enough evidence that more investment in educational infrastructure will necessary mean less of the brain drain problem. Their "primary solution" is the classic filling in a leaking bucket. At what rate of investment must we invest in these skills, to ensure the bucket is always full, when we are losing people abroad every second?

The central issue to my mind is that the problem of the brain drain will persist as long as the economic incentives for going abroad are there. We therefore need to focus solutions on the "economic incentives" . It's not the quantity of the educational investment that matters, it the quality of the investment. We need "right" investment. Investment that will incentivise people to create jobs and work for themselves. The pressing educational policy debate in Zambia that has so far been ignored by Government is a simple one - How do we shape our educational curriculum to ensure that it produces individuals who will create jobs for themselves and others, and will have less incentive to go and look for a job abroad?

I guess the authors were led down this route of "producing more skilled workers" because the other policy alternatives looked less attractive. For example, for sceptics who believe that Zambia can limit the brain drain through restricting skilled emigration, the authors have a telling response. No we can't, and the case in point is Zambian doctors. 300 Zambian doctors practice abroad while the estimated shortage to meet the basic WHO recommended standard stands at 1654. What about compensation by host countries? It does not work, says the authors, as Zambia has found out talking to the UK over the many nurses who have left Zambia and working in the NHS.

Alternatives policies aren't working either. Zambia has taken steps towards retention and voluntary return of those settled abroad but these schemes have only had limited success. The recent NELMP specifically addresses emigration and seeks to attract skilled Zambians home for example. We also launched a "bonding" system which requires all Zambians who are awarded a publicly funded scholarship to sign an agreement to return after completion of their studies. These schemes aren't working because they are not compelling enough. They rely on people to "honour" their word. As the authors rightly note, "the strong economic motives which propel much of the skilled emigration from Zambia tend to dominate the moral incentives to return".

All this leaves the authors haplessly championing temporary migration agreements between Zambia and western nations, and of course the need for larger educational infrastructural investment. The former as I say is not clearly stated, the latter relies on greater cooperation between host countries and Zambia. The idea of temporary migration is to get countries to allow temporary Zambian emigrants to stay in their countries for a brief period only and then once these people work their for a while they can come back with hopefully even better skills. It seems wise but as the authors note, it relies too much on goodwill of host countries to repatriate the "brains" back! So it is just as difficult as securing compensations.

As I argued in living with a leaking bucket, the real solution lies in the Government finding ways of leveraging Zambian expertise abroad back into Zambian development on a non-committal basis, and also ensuring the education curriculum is designed to lessen the incentives to leave Zambia once you finish school. In that sense, I share the authors conclusions that a commitment is needed on educational investment and external cooperation, we just disagree on the nature of this educational investment and who we should be seeking cooperation from. In my view let us give Zambian experts abroad an opportunity to contribute to development at home in a non-committal basis, and crucially let us realign the incentives to remain in Zambia by having an education policy that encourages people to create jobs for themselves and others.


  1. Cho,
    Thanks for your informative blog. Clearly you are great thinker. I agree with you on the issue of how we do education in zambia and in fact it calls for a revolution. We need to start educating people to be entrepreneurs rather than looking for formal employment as a means for surival.
    This however, also calls for a progressive change in the economic climate and policies to make it plausible for an average zambian to get a fair start. One of the issues that we have that discourages many people who are qualified to even start on their own is the non avalability of small financial loans. In fact a recent study has shown that Zambia is among the worst countries in southern Africa when it comes to micro lending. Either micro lending is not avalaible or the interests rates are too high.
    As long as we dont have an education revolution and right economic climate, many qualifiied Zambians will continue to seek greener pasture outside the country.

  2. Thanks for your kind words!
    I have seen your most interesting blog and will link it to is nice to see Zambians blogging...most of the blogs on the net about Zambia are from students spending a year or two in Zambia...nothing wrong with them, it is just nice reading blogs from Zambians about Zambia....
    Maravi's blog is another interesting one...[see the blog links side bar]..

    Back to the topic, do you have a reference/article for that "micro lending study"?

    I agree, we need to widen the choices available to those who may not wish to remain part of the educational system. The lack of finance is an issue not just for people starting small firms, but also for those engaged in informal businesses already. For these firms to grow and enter the formal system they need access to finance and lower regulatory and tax burdens. We have been discussing this issue here in the context of agricultural and land reform.

  3. Hello Cho
    sorry for the late response but I was trying to locate the source of my information and undfortunately I couldn't find it on the Times of Zambia Archieve log. It was a story carried by the paper in the business section highlighting a visit from a delegation that studied micro lending trends of southern Africa countries. If I locate it I will forward it to you.

  4. Hello cho
    Sorry for the delay in answering your question. Unfortunately I couldn't locate the story where i got my information but it was carried by the Times of Zambia in the business section highlighting a visit from a delegation that studied Micro Lending trends in Southyern African Countries.
    As soon as i locate it i will forward it to you.
    Oh dont be suprised if my comment posts twice; i've been having a problem with my computer.

  5. Cho,
    As always you provide an interesting and important topic for discourse! I tend to agree with your "leaking bucket" assessment and solutions to the problems associated with outmigration of highly skilled persons. Opening avenues for such persons to, if you will permit the analogy, "teach to fish", rather than "force to fish" is far more likely to produce a lasting culture of contributions to development. I have always found any form of indentured servitude distasteful to say the least. I am also mindful of the cautionary tales told to me by Soviet citizens during the glasnost period of the desire to avoid conspicuous achievement because the ensuing responsibilities would far outweigh any benefits.

    The proposed migration agreements pushed by the authors of the research paper do not enthuse me at all. The authors are trying to establish a bargain which goes like so: destination countries which have attracted and desire to keep highly skilled Zambian migrants can be convinced to force their return to Zambia if and only if the GRZ is willing to place a larger number of lesser skilled workers into a migratory labor pool for the use of industry at terms and only for as long as the destination country sees fit. As far as I know, there are not any such destination countries without enormous numbers of lesser skilled migrants already seeking entry, and in most cases being forcably discouraged from doing so. I think it is safe to assume therefore that the conditions offered to Zambian migrants (who, as the report claims, are not among those currently seeking entry in large numbers) would be less favorable than what current lesser skilled migrants are already getting if and when they arrive at their destination and find employment. Sounds like yet another variation on the old indentured servitude theme to me.

    That said, I find myself in the unenviable position of defending the report's authors on a couple, much narrower points:

    1) It is unfortunate that the authors chose to focus almost exclusively on health care workers instead of tertiary level graduates as a whole, however in doing so they did illuminate some important data with regard to Zambian higher education. The pie chart on page 18 is of particular interest, which indicates what sort of training students were getting (in 1998-99, one would think more recent data would be available. Anyone?). Granted that 10% of these graduates emigrate (and perhaps they are among the most talented as well), nine out of ten don't.

    32% were in education, which although not acknowledged by the authors actually bodes well for the future "[adequacacy of] educational infrastructure".

    32% were in social sciences, business, and law. This is less hopeful, not to say that such disciplines are not necessary to the advancement of the nation as a whole, but the percentage appears disproportionately high given the employment market the graduates are (were) entering.

    22% went for engineering, manufacture, and construction, which seems appropriate given the development goals of the nation and in particular the desire to use FDI to increase local skilled employment.

    8% were in the sciences, no argument from me.

    3% went into health and welfare, and as stated this was the group which the report paid attention to in any detail. I would be shocked if anyone objected to me saying this was low in comparison to the nation's need. To quote the research, "the estimated shortage of doctors to meet the WHO recommendations is about 1654 which is approximately 5.5 times the estimated number of Zambian doctors practicing abroad." In other words if every single trained Zambian doctor were to return, there would still be a shortage of about 1350 doctors to meet the meagre WHO benchmark. With only 50-odd doctors being trained annually in the whole country, that is decades to catch up whether or not 5 docs find employment overseas each year. The situation in nursing is only marginally better.

    2% went into agriculture, which as the backbone of the domestic economy for quite some time to come under even the rosiest of scenarios just doesn't add up to prosperity from where I sit.

    1% rounds out the pie in humanities and the arts. Well what can I say? No-one really expects such graduates to make much money, but it is good to have some around to add colour and tone, and education systems which ignore or exclude such students tend to suffer in other disciplines (some sort of ubuntu osmosis perhaps).

    In conclusion the data indicates Zambia needs to train fewer lawyers and bureaucrats in favor of more doctors, nurses and agronomists. To increase tertiary educational spending without addressing this imbalance would not have much positive effect.

    2) Buried at the back of the report on page 31 is a modest table describing remittances by Zambians living abroad (once again the figures are older than I would like, covering the period from 1994-2001). The data indicates that Zambians working abroad sent home less than half the per capita average for sub-Saharan Africa, less than one-sixth as much as Mozambique, and slightly more than one-fifth the worldwide average. It amounts (amounted) to a meagre 0.66% of GDP, and while I would rather see people participating in "accomodating the leakage [in the bucket]" in more interactive and ultimately rewarding ways, if they cannot or will not then the least they could do is send a bit more money home than they have been.

    Once again you have my admiration for providing such a challenging and informative forum for the exploration and exchange of ideas. Thanks!

  6. Yakima,

    Very important assessment!
    You have opened my eyes to the importance of reading the appendix and most importantly the interaction of educational policies with other policies (e.g. agriculture).

    1. On data, it would be certainly interesting to see whether more recent data is available. I have e-mailed the authors to find out and for them to provide the source for the chat. I noticed was not sourced. Presumably the Ministry of Education should have this information. I have checked the CSO to no avail!

    2. You absolutely right on the agriculture point. I doubt the trend has changed in the last 10 years. It does seem to me that although there has been a recent drive to improve the agricultural sector, we are not pursuing a holistic approach. Educational policy needs to reflect the importance of agriculture. This brings us back to MrK’s idea of farming colleges! I have not heard this link between agricultural policy and education mentioned in policy debates before. It’s clearly a missing piece.

    3. In short I agree with you that “Zambia needs to train fewer lawyers and bureaucrats in favor of more doctors, nurses and agronomists.” What worries me is that a quick scan of all the parties manifestos on education, what you find are proposals for more universities and more colleges. When in fact we need to be looking at our resources (land) and try and match our educational policy towards that. [Is there an educational White Paper by the way?]

    4. Your remittances point is humorous, but still cogent! We do indeed appear to be doing poorly compared to others. The least we can all do is send money lol!!! Its way below the sub-Saharan average. Why do you think this might be case? Are most Zambians abroad simply stingy? Or do we simply prefer to send things as opposed to money? Or may be it is the jobs we are doing abroad? It does raise some questions. (I wander if Zambians abroad realise that we perform poorly in terms of remittances?)

  7. Hello,

    I know that this article was posted a while ago, but I have just come across it and would like to get in touch. I have lived in Zambia for 3 years (Eastern and Northern Provinces) and now back in the States am founding a non profit to support community development in Zambia through micro-loans. If any of you are available to talk, I would love to learn more about your opinions on the best way to support capacity building and the creation of small businesses in the rural areas. I lived in the villages and know how difficult it can be to implement sustainable change while battling the dependancy syndrome. my email is and I would love to hear from anyone!


  8. Welcome Sarah,

    In my opinion you are already taking important strides towards building capacity for your organization by opening yourself up to the community like this, soliciting opinion and sparking discourse. Thank you.

    If you are not already aware of it, I recommend exploring the site for a wealth of information and experience. I also highly recommend the experience of Hammer Simwinga and others at NLWCCDP over the last decade.

    In my personal opinion, one of the best ways to distinguish between habitual aid inflows and small business loans is to make several (4 or 5 usually) borrowers mutually dependent. Even though each person is responsible for their own loan repayment, if any one loan in the group enters default, all the group's loans are called due at the same time. The same small group can also be required to take financial education courses together, further transferring dependence on outsiders into dependence on one another.

    The education component seems to be a crucial factor in determining success or failure of MFIs, it is important to charge borrowers sufficient interest to cover the costs of effective credit courses from competent teachers. While ignorant about the world of finance, your borrowers have an abundant expertise in their own, and that is what you are investing in. Accordingly, target your initial lending to very small projects which enhance existing cottage industries and farm improvements.

    Larger and longer term projects like collective granaries or orchard cultivation can wait until after the community has had a chance to digest the implications of individual success using credit and investment to improve their own livelihoods.

    Good luck with your project, I am sure that many of the other readers here would also like to help you, and the questions surrounding MFI development are so interesting and relevant, please ask as many as you can think of!

  9. Hello Yakima! Thank you for the references and I will certainly spend some time today checking them out and learning from what other have to offer who are working in the same field.

    I agree with you on the incredibly important role of finance and small business education for village-based entrepreneurers. To fully support sustainablility I want to help to provide capacity building trainings in both of these areas along with any skills sets needed related to thier individual project......farmer to farmer exchange visits have worked well in my experience and I know that often the forestry and agricultural officers whom I worked with in Zambia were always willing to travel to meet with my farming groups if dielsel could be supplied for their motorbikes. (Note: I say "my" but of course only aim to indicate my association rather than leadership of them)

    Ideally, I look forward to the time when we have the funds to support our own skilled Zambian staff operating in country to provide oversite for monitoring and evaluation purposes as well as support for on-going projects and skills trainings. But, right now in our start-up phases (it was only 2 months ago that after my second return from Zambia I decided to dive into founding a non profit) we will be relying on the partnership of current extension agents in the field over there who can help to identify beneficiaries and can commit to mentoring/overseeing the groups as they make their way through the application process and project implementation. Current Peace Corps Volunteers are some of the contacts that I currently have in country and they are in each village area for 2 years and easy to communicate with so to begin we will be working with them. One of my favorite things however about this new found blog site are the links to other non profits and NGO's operating within Zambia so I have some hope of now contacting fellow extension agents and aid groups to partner up and benefit from one anothers strengths in reaching the rural areas. I worked with many district and provincial NGO's and women's grops as a volunteer whom I would love to contact for partnership, but of course I do not have thier information anymore (ha ha.....after my 2 1/2 years in Eastern and Northern I was not expecting to feel compelled later to make this my life ambition). We are, however, planning a business trip to Zambia after the rains have stopped and harvest season has died down to visit current project sites and hopefully form working partnerships with extension professionals who can help us to carry out our mission.

    I realize that my thoughts are somewhat scattered right now, but with the skills trainings I also feel it incredibly important to empower both genders to control and understand the money that they make, since I know that it can often be the case where a female engages in an IGA only to have the husband at home dictate it's use. In all of our work, gender and HIV and AIDS awareness are/will be incorporated into every skills training and the beneficiaries encouraged to take into account the effects of these issues on thier success.

    One idea that I have had and would welcome opinion on, is the concept of partial loan forgiveness through a tree-planting project. I know how much deforestation is an issue in Zambia and from my experience, most do not make the connection between the violent environmental destruction and the very issues that they are trying to address by applying for a loan. Almost everyone is dying for more fertilizer for their fields and would form micro-lending groups to recieve the money to buy it, but I am willing to bet that we won't receive many peoject ideas from people who are jazzed about planting local or nitrogen fixing trees in the area to raise the water table, quell eroision and improve the microbiotic content of the soil. What I want to do is to allow groups to receive one dollar of loan forgiveness for every tree that they successfully grow from seed in a nursary and transplant at the beginning of the rainy season. The local seeds are free to collect and aside from shared labor for watering and garden space, which is usually plenty, there are no needed inputs. I want to get the local forestry officers engaged in eduacation about the value of and various uses of the trees in their local, including many of the medicinal properties which can be used to ease the side effects of sicknesses caused by disease or HIV and AIDS. One of my friends whom I was in Zambia with has also heard of a process whereby you can sell newly planted trees to larger companies for carbon credits and we could generate income as a non profit to become self-sustaining rather than rely solely on donors. What do you think? The floow is open to anyone here. I realize that there are a lot of things to be worked out and it might realistically be a while before we have a tried and tested system down for success with our applicants, but I am committed to this more than anything right now and have a day job to keep clothes on my back until we have the capacity to support staff.

    One question that I have about the micro-loans is, what do we do when people just don't pay them back?? No one that I met in the village had a bank account and to begin with we will transfer the money to the account of the trusted extension agent who is associated with the project. Ideally, I would like for people to set one up for their group at the closest local, but thre comes the issue of monitoring payments and accountability for when they are late or do not come at all. Hardly anyone owns their land so we cann't secure collateral and to be honest, given the poverty I am not interested in making sure that we get back every cent of a $3,000 loan (one reason why I like the tree-for-kwatca program) but I value the sense of responsibility that comes with haveing to pay something back.....avoiding the dependancy syndrome at all costs. I have to admit that i am stuck on what policies to institute if a group does not live up to its commitment and the money on our end has already been transferred and put to use as designed. Any thoughts?

    If anyone reading this blog has suggestions for program design or references, please post them. Our mission is to support community led development and build the capacity of individuals to change their own living situations as opposed to coming in and telling them what they should do. I have access to some fundraising sources with a lot of potential so I am confident in our ability to work up the resources that we need, but it will take a lot of work and I want to design an outreach program that will best utilize the donors funds and successfully help people.

    I realize that this posting is already close to a novel, so I will sign off for now, but look forward to continuing the dialogue.

    Zikomo kwanbili ndi khalani bwino!



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