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Plug that leak March 15, 2007

Posted by R.S in Pakistan.

brain drain in Pakistan can be stemmed through incentives, not coercion

The increased need and portability of highly skilled individuals from developing countries to developed ones is perhaps one of the less noticeable consequences of globalisation and economic development. This migration or international transfer of human capital from poor countries to thriving economies is referred to as the ‘brain drain’. Persisting brain drain deprives a country of the expertise and skills of its most talented men and women, who may choose to settle or work abroad. Ironically, these educated, skilled migrants happen to be the very people that a poor nation can least afford to lose. While the remittances and foreign exchange transactions generated by these individuals may be considered a valuable resource for the national economy, the outflow of skilled manpower can stunt local economic progress in the long run. It also entails loss of investment in education and training, especially when trained and skilled people are a scarce resource for a poor country.

Like any typical developing country, Pakistan has been facing the challenge of losing its human resources to the more prosperous and developed countries. The onset of the Information Technology (IT) boom in the West in the late 1990s drew many young Pakistanis to this field. Driven by the lure of H-1B visas, many aspiring young IT professionals enrolled in computer science degrees and certificate programmes. However, post-9/11, many found their American dreams dashed, following the strict visa policies and increased security checks for people moving to the US. The economy slump following global developments in the initial years of the millennium and the layoffs after the dot-com crash in 2001, underscored the fact that IT education was no longer a ticket to the United States.

Undoubtedly these were testing times for the local as well as the global IT industry. The closure of software houses following the cancellation of outsourced IT projects and contracts led many to believe that IT was no longer a viable career option. This in turn served to prevent every Tom, Dick and Harry from hastily jumping on the IT bandwagon. There was reduced enrolment in IT education programmes as well. Hate crimes, clandestine persecutions and an overall environment of fear and awe as part of the post-9/11 syndrome have made some professionals rethink their decisions to purse employment abroad. The changed global economic situation may have served to stem the brain drain of IT professionals from the country for now, but should the imposed limitation on the mobility of these individuals be considered adequate to retain local skilled IT manpower?

Such questions call for an examination of the incentives that serve to attract these professionals abroad. Syed Raza Abbas Naqvi, software test developer at Microsoft, was selected by the software firm as part of its international recruitment programme in 2001. Naqvi cites better earning prospects, the chance to work with a prestigious organisation, flexibility to travel and interact and the overall capacity for professional growth as some of the reasons behind his decision to opt for a US based job. “I think there wasn’t an option in Pakistan that matched with the first two factors at least,” says Naqvi. Other important determinants for international migration of technology experts tend to be the availability of resources and access to developed and sophisticated types of infrastructure for carrying out research; relatively liberal environment to work and survive; anticipated long-term benefits during the phase of retired life; secure and stable surroundings; and bright prospects for family members, especially with respect to health care. On the other hand, political instability, poor law and order conditions, bureaucratic red tape in the work domain and a general social disregard towards academics also serve to force the highly educated to leave the country.

Indemnification of these shortcomings in the local IT job market calls for a drastic makeover that encompasses everything from working conditions and monetary benefits to the general outlook of the society towards technology and a knowledge-based economy. The timing for such measures could not be more appropriate. The emergence of higher-education institutions and private universities in the large and medium urban centres do offer a chance for gainful employment. Additionally, the growth of telecoms, banks and other commercial enterprises, supplemented by their need to migrate to IT based enterprise solutions, can serve as a parallel for those aspiring professionals who choose to stay. A suitable environment for optimum working conditions in various sectors needs to be created through policy options by the government. Whether it is science and technology or businesses and trade, the government must ensure its support to society. Taxation relief, facilitating the export and import of equipment and providing hassle-free administrative assistance are just a few examples. Linkages and networks between educational institutes, employers and highly skilled manpower also need to be further streamlined.

Research undertaken both in developed and developing countries reveals that for an increase in output, the quality of labour is more important than the quantity. No country with an educated and technically trained human resource is poor and no country with a predominantly illiterate, untrained human resource is rich

First published:

SPIDER Magazine

Written by Reba Shahid

March 2007