Saturday, December 03, 2005

US Visa Lottery Drains Ghana

General News of Monday, 21 November 2005

A comparison of a few countries' populations
Ethiopia: 73 million
Nigeria: 129 million
Bangladesh: 144 million

and Ghana? population: 21 million. What do the countries above have in common? Those are just a few of the countries which (according to an article in Ghana's Daily Graphic) Ghana has surpassed in the number of profesionals leaving the country each year. Yes, the number of professionals, not the percentage of the population leaving. It is estimated that an average of 8,000 Ghanaians leave the country annually through the US diversity lottery. That is to say nothing of the people who leave and go to other countries, people who work in both the US and other countries illegally, and the students who leave to go to university and do not return. Whichever way you look at it, Ghana has a significant problem with the 'brain drain'.

Doctors and nurses emigrate at an alarming rate, making the health sector one of the most hard hit, but according to the article, accountants, engineers, lawyers and pharmacists are also among the people leaving in large numbers. Why are they leaving and where are they going? It is estimated that about 47% of Ghanaian college graduates live outside the country. This statistic is scary.

In my view, this can be looked at in several ways. First, on just the most basic level, who is left working in the country? The director of the Ghana Health Service, Dr. Akosa estimates that he has 'at least 9 hospitals which have no doctors at all.' This is to say nothing of the many other hospitals which are woefully understaffed. In Korle-Bu, the nation's 'premier' teaching hospital, many of the doctors still making the rounds on the wards taught people who in many other places would be close to retirement. Yes, their students would be close to retirement, to say nothing of them. The brain drain in the health sector puts an incredible strain on the remaining health workers, and the sector in general. A case in point is when the recent death of 3 Ghanaian urologists in a road accident cost the country 43% of its urologists. Yes, for a country with a population of over 21 millon, there were 7 urologists. How many Ghanaian urologists have been trained in even the past 20 years? The situation with nurses is no bettter. A 2003 report estimates that Ghana had about 10,000 nurses at the time, for a population of over 21 million, when nurses training colleges turn out over 600 nurses a year.

University lecturers, civil servants, technical professionals...different profession, same story. The Tema oil refinery recently closed its catalytic cracking plant shortly after the media had been full of stories of technical professionals from the plant leaving for more lucrative jobs in other countries.

The situation is admittedly bad, but why do they leave. That's not a hard question to answer. One just needs to compare the average salary of a nurse, doctor, univerity lecturer etc. in Ghana with one in a developed country, and the answer is clear. And it is not even a question of greed or wanting to maximize their earnings( for a lot of people), but a need to survive. It is easy enough from afar to talk about the need to sacrifice for the good of one's country, and give back etc. but when feeding your family from one day to the next, and paying your kids' school fees become aproblem, it is no wonder that sacrificing for your country slips down the priority list.

The more interesting question perhaps is what can be done? Many interesting suggestions have been promulgated, and several implementations of sorts have taken place. A lot of people place the burden of action on the developed countries, especially in the health sector, and there have been calls for a total ban on the employment of nurses ( read poaching) from certain countries. In Ghana for instance, it is currently very difficult for trained nurses to get visas to go to 1st world countries. Some people have talked about foreign countries paying governemnts directly for the professionals working in their countries, but that would be a messy undertaking by any estimation, and at any rate, is the money really what we need? Yet others say the emigration of Ghanain professionals is not as bad as it is made out to be, afterall, remittances from Ghanains living abroad are one of the single largest contributors to GDP of the country. Unfortunately, I don't think the remittances translate directly to a replacement of the skills lost with those who leave.

In a nutshell trained professionals are leaving largely because they can't make the money commensurate with teir skills in Ghana, and often have deplorable living conditions. A simplistic solution many people put out is to pay them better. That's easy enough to say, but where does the money come from? On some level, the government could probably cut spending in other areas ( read: how many ministers does a country of 21 million really need??), but that is not an entire answer. I would argue that the promotion of private enterprise would lead to wealth creation, and increased government revenue in terms of tax revenue and general consumer spending, and that could translate to more money to put into esssential services like education and healthcare. Ghana's 'golden age of business' is a step in the right direction, but with stories i've heard from people about the continued difficulty of sourcing capital and setting up a business, it seems more like a 'gold plated' ( and not reallly golden) age of business...

Another solution would be encouraging college graduates from Ghana ( and other African countries to return home). Of course there need to be increased opportunities for them, but to a large extent people need to be willing to go back for these opportunities to be expanded.

This has become a rather lengthy posting, but I think it is an important issue, and hopefully i practice what i preach :-)

File under: ghana, brain drain, diversity visa lottery


nii adom said...

Good post.

Maybe the National Service concept should be expanded to include graduates from foreign colleges.

For a country like the US this can be achieved by making it a pre-requisite for OPT.

Just my 2p.

Guido Sohne said...

I think it is also possible to look at this in the following way. Ghana can plan to train many more nurses, teachers and doctors than it needs. People shouldn't be restricted from travelling because of their having chosen a certain profession, or because they are able to find a better job market. Why should you force someone to earn $1 when they could go earn $100? That's just wrong.

If people go in that case, then by training excess, we can still have some basic skill level remaining. We should encourage those who have gone to work abroad to contribute back to the country.

Why swim against the current? If it's happening already and it is in large numbers, there's no sense in denying the situation but rather more pragmatic to work with it.

National Service could be for people outside the country, having a sort of tithe payment required for the first two years of work. (Then again, you may want to wait until they have paid their loans off, gotten bigger salaries, then hit them with the tithe ...)

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