Brain drain is perhaps one of the more overlooked occurrences over Zimbabwe’s peculiar economic history. Granted that it is spoken about, we may, however, discount an interesting context of deficit versus surplus.
Take a moment to perceive professional migration in a similar manner that we do trade balances; say gaining a qualified professional adds to the balance, and losing a qualified professional reduces the balance.
Over a long enough trend, say 37 years, it is not far-fetched a hypothesis that Zimbabwe has historically sustained a deficit professional migration balance. We can consider this from globalisation, and then from geopolitical events.
Just before the turn of the millennium, a lot of experienced professionals capitalised on the opportunities presented by a liberal era in globalisation. Professional migration standards used to be lax in the 1990s. A first tertiary degree or a vocational certificate would almost certainly guarantee a really good mid-level job anywhere in the world.
The Western developed world needed these professionals and an emerging East was firmly settling into its own growing prominence within globalisation, so it found an appreciation for diverse professional demographics.
Well-educated and professionally trained Zimbabweans were active in this workforce mobility, in both hemispheres.
Geopolitical events, internal and external, also opened windows for numerous professionals, particularly to utilise bi-lateral structures to migrate.
Externally for example, many Zimbabweans ventured into a newly democratic South Africa in the early 1990s to take advantage of the fresh economic optimism and a workforce vacuum for black professionals.
Consider the strategic shift by western non-governmental and developmental agencies to reduce professionals of western descent and integrate African professionals into their structures.
Many educated and experienced Zimbabweans took on these jobs which were high paying nominally, but even more lucrative in consideration of the sharply depreciating Zimbabwe dollar in the 1990s and 2000s.
Internally, since the economic and political shocks subsequent to 1997 migration number sky-rocketed. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, since 2000, Zimbabwe has been in the UK’s top ten asylum receiving nations.
One can casually assume then that since the 1990s, professional migration has been tilted towards a deficit for Zimbabwe.
Concededly, deficit trends are more eased over the last several years. Anti-migrant sentiment significantly derived from stunted economic mobility for locals in the developed world has caused more restrictive immigration policies.
In South Africa, as locals have continuously benefited from improving education and population growth, Zimbabwean professionals do not stream in as easily as before. Notwithstanding, over a 37-year period, professional migration trends suggest a deficit.
Indeed the notion is not to proffer that lost human capital must all come back. There is value in a professional base outside of our borders. Zimbabweans in the diaspora are significant economic contributors; this is best represented in the inflow of remittances.
However, if Zimbabwe is to initiate a growth and developmental offensive, there is perhaps greater value to be derived from the professional experience that is lingering outside.
This is not to discount the potential contribution of the local workforce, but there is a significant experience shortage in terms of high level developmental economic experience and global best practices. This is the case across various sectors in the economy. Consider that while theoretically sound, many professionals in the country have not been engaged in large scale construction and infrastructure projects.
This means that realistically many engineers, surveyors, town planners, and other professionals in this sector have not been hands on in cutting edge projects; at least not as frequently as their foreign-based counterparts. We have not engaged a local workforce on dam, highways, water and sanitation, and other urban development projects at a significant level of competence.
Similar can be said of the financial sector. While global rules and standards have sustained convergence in finance and accounting, the frequency and technicality of engagements is not comparable.
For instance, the number of merger and acquisition of certain valuations is minute in Zimbabwe as compared to larger global markets. We have had less than a handful of IPOs on capital markets, and the private equity field revolves around a small grouping of sub $100 million entities. The complexity and engineering of transactions has not been the same.
Practices in agriculture are not as cutting edge as other agrarian economies in America and Asia; this is from the seed germination of crop varieties to the cultivating techniques in terms of yield and environmental consciousness. All these reflect in our somewhat archaic agro-financing and investment models.
The narrative of 99-year leases and security in agricultural lending are worries of Grandpa financing models. The world has since moved on.
It should be emphasised that by no means is this discussion condescending of the professional workforce presently in Zimbabwe. That is not explicitly accurate. The fact is many professionals in Zimbabwe have not had the same level of exposure that remains at global forefronts. Yet, we need such experience to contribute moving ahead.
Thus, there should be intentional targeted policy to attract experienced professionals in crucial sectors to the economy. Just like the trade balance, foreign currency availability, debt outlook, and other metrics, a key economic indicator that we should see improving over time is the deficit in professional migration.