The emigration of skilled intellectuals and technical labour from the developing world to economically and professionally favourable places, usually Europe and North America, is an extensively observed trend over the last few decades, a phenomenon otherwise known as ‘brain drain’. Afghanistan, however, has experienced a different and possibly quite a unique form of brain drain over the last decade.
While emigration of skilled individuals from Afghanistan is a significantly frequent occurrence, especially in the last couple of years with the media scaremongering about the 2014 NATO withdrawal, it is not of relatively great concern; there is evidence that the professionals who migrate to economically more favourable countries still contribute, both economically and professionally, to the countries of their origin (see here and here). This is usually in the form of sending money and capital, or contributing professionally to academic and professional institutions in the country of origin. In fact, some countries have already started experiencing the benefits of the “reverse brain drain”.
What is most worrisome about Afghanistan is the unique form of intra-country brain drain, from professional and skilled occupations to the non-skilled and lucrative jobs. Many highly qualified doctors, engineers, and lawyers, for example, have to work with NATO and international NGOs as interpreters. The monthly salary paid by the Afghan government to a professional is negligible compared to what an interpreter, a driver or a cook is paid by international NGOs. A medical doctor who has spent 7 long and arduous years of their life at medical school, for example, can be paid as little as 50 USD per month, whereas an interpreter could be paid anything in the region of 1000 USD or more. This has resulted in many doctors working as interpreters with NGOs to make a living.
In the short term, of course, this benefits many households, since they make a decent and comfortable living. In the long term, however, the country is ending up with cohorts of expensively trained professionals that are now deskilled to practice the professions that they are trained for. Professional careers in Afghanistan are being actively discouraged by the current state of affairs.
The posts and vacancies that are meant to be filled by Afghan graduates are occupied by those who are expensively hired from regional or even Western countries. An increasing number of extravagantly paid professionals are running Afghan clinics, construction companies and even governmental institutions.
The negative implications of this may be less apparent at the moment while the state is able to pay for imported professionals to do the jobs that Afghan professionals should be doing. However, once the international aid shrinks and the country is forced to live the reality, there will be an abundance of de-skilled professionals who will be of little efficacy in running the state institutions.
Afghanistan has a proud history of providing free higher education for its citizens. It is necessary that the state should complete the loop by investing in post-graduate work-based training, and one way to do that is to pay its professionals the decent salaries that can fund the essential necessities of life. Afghan professionals need further financial and professional incentives in order to observe a complete transition from post-graduate status to serving and successful professionalism.