Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mitigating the Somali "Brain Drain"

By: Theresa Warcheza
Edited by: Aisha Mohammed

Somalia's plight is dire. For 19 years it has ravaged by civil war, which has devastated and left half of its population in need of humanitarian aid. Between January and March 2010, over 60,000 people were displaced because of ongoing warfare. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somali is struggling to stabilize the country. Although it is allied with the African Union, which supports its armed forces, the TFG has not been able to gain control of the country. It is challenged daily by armed opposition groups who have the upper hand in most parts of the country.

“The very regular fighting for control forces people to flee, so there are massive movements of population,” says Benedicte Godrieaux, a researcher for Amnesty International (London) who focuses on armed conflict in Africa. People are desperate to leave the country. The majority migrate to one of Somalia's neighboring states, she explained.

The Somali Diaspora has spread all over the world, settling, for example, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. This movement has caused another serious problem for Somalia: “brain drain.” Somalia is losing its most precious resource with regard to reconstruction–knowledge and skills. Niurka Pineiro, regional media and external relations officers with the International Organization for Migration explains what drives this phenomenon: “These professionals are looking for not only better salaries, but better working conditions, and also the opportunity to increase and continue learning new things. […] So many times, they take jobs overseas because they know they will get better training and stay up to date in whatever profession they work in.”

It's hard to estimate the magnitude of this “brain drain,” but the loss of skilled labor is significant. “I don't have the statistics, but I read a paper from the World Bank saying that in 2004 almost half of the educated Somalis had left the country,” says Saed Guled, Diaspora Liaison Assistant (DLA) with the QUESTS-MIDA program (Helsinki) for the northern European region and a Somali refugee himself.

He adds: “This is the reason why we and the UNDP are now developing this project.” The project Guled is talking about is the Qualified Expatriate Somali Technical Service–Migration for development in Africa (QUESTS-MIDA), a joint initiative of IOM and the United Nations Developmental Program (UNDP) located in Nairobi, Kenya. Both organizations teamed up in June 2009 to create an effective developmental project, building on previous efforts by the UNDP and implementing them within IOM's established MIDA program. Organizers utilize IOM's existing structures and expertise to send educated and skilled professionals to countries in need. Whereas UNDP's prior work concentrated on Somaliland, which split from Somalia and declared its independence in 1991, and Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in the north of Somalia, the new QUESTS-MIDA project also tries to incorporate south and central Somalia. This objective, of course, is complicated by the ongoing conflict and insecurity in Somalia. Nonetheless, the program tries to find a way to send help to this region, as well.

The project first identifies the sectors in Somalia where progress is most urgent, followed by the creation of short-term, professional assignments guided by the screening. These vacancies are then promoted among the Somali diaspora. “The project is basically a bridge between the diaspora, which is a pool of knowledge, and the Somali institutions, which have a need for expertise,” explains Catherine Wangamati, DLA with the QUESTS-MIDA program (Washington) for North America.

IOM and UNDP cooperate with local governmental and community officials to assess which areas must become the top priority of their efforts. They determined three key fields that are supposed to build a foundation for future development. Policy and legislation development is one of these key areas, which involves assisting the local governments in policy development and analysis, the training of leadership skills and ethics, and the generation of adequate institutional structures. Also carrying precedence is the management of human resources. That is, the training of staff members in governmental and public positions, i.e. in terms of professional procedures such as properly keeping records of their work or preparing publishable reports. The last sector that is considered to be important for any future development is public financial management. According to IOM, accounting skills, such as budgeting and financial planning, will become indispensable for initiating development.

For Somaliland and Puntland, pertinent vacancies are posted and promoted via the project's homepage and Web sites that are frequently visited by Somalis living in the diaspora. These include, an online news and information service about Somalia. However, various other strategies besides online promotion are utilized to spread the word about QUESTS-MIDA. In numerous information sessions, interested Somali expatriates can receive in-depth information about the project and its activities, as well as make personal suggestions or share experiences.

Candidates who applied online via the program's homepage are then selected according to a specific profile. The requirements include a relevant university degree and sufficient work experience. Participants also have to be fluent in both Somali and English and must be at least 25 years of age. Furthermore, Guled explains, “there is one thing that is most important, that is that the person has training skills! […] We are hoping that everybody who participates in this project will teach somebody back home some skills.” Regarding the difficult situation in Somalia, it is also crucial that participants acknowledge that they cannot expect the same working and living conditions as that of living abroad, particularly in the U.S. or Europe. In prior briefings, the organizers attempt to familiarize participants with the standard of living and the limited facilities available, as well as with the security conditions that participants will face on the ground.

So far, the interest of Somali expatriates has been overwhelming. As of March 5, 2010, “we have 50,301 visits from 165 countries,” reports Wangamati. It seems like the Somali Diaspora scattered all over the world has just been waiting for an opportunity like the one offered by the QUESTS-MIDA program. “They are interested because they want to help their own country, their own people. I think that is the only reason. They don't have any other reason to get back home because often they have good jobs here. […] They want to contribute to the construction of Somalia,” says Guled.

The organizers are especially pleased by the high number of Somali women who are eager to participate. Wangamati experienced their strong interest first-hand: “I have talked to Somali women who said 'It's time for Somali women to give back!” Of the three applicants that have been selected in the northern American region so far, two are women.

In addition to organizing the first participants' trips and assignments, QUESTS-MIDA's main concern is to encourage Somali institutions to continue identifying areas where professional help is needed. The organizers strive to increase the range of vacancies. They are driven by the same motivation as the applicants, which Wangamati describes as follows: “They want to see Somalia stand up again.”

Photos from Haringey Council and Columbia Pike Documentary Project

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