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A Closer Look at the Afghan “Brain Drain”


By Sayed Aziz Azimi

July 19, 2012


A June 26, 2012 news feature on National Public Radio (NPR) warned of an impending “brain drain” in Afghanistan that threatens the country’s future development. Hundreds of thousands of skilled Afghans, the NPR reporter said, risk losing their high-paying jobs with international aid organizations and government ministries as the foreign donors who pay their salaries scale back operations or leave the country. Many workers have already had to accept lower-level jobs at reduced salaries or have lost employment altogether. Some highly qualified Afghans have already emigrated, or plan to do so as the pool of desirable positions dries up. If the current trickle of departures turns into a mass exodus, Afghanistan will lose what the NPR report terms a “critical building block” of civil society.


There is no doubt that the comings and goings of foreign donors affect—one could even say distort—labor markets in developing countries like Afghanistan. I would be the last person to criticize anyone for pursuing the best job he or she can find, whether in Afghanistan or abroad. But I do take issue with the implication that Afghanistan’s collective brain power is already packing its bags and following big donors out the door. Moreover, any balanced discussion of an impending brain drain would also have to acknowledge the tremendous progress in education and technical training of the past decade—something we might call the Afghan “brain gain.”


Back to School

Under the Taliban, most Afghan boys received only limited schooling, and girls were denied access to education altogether. In 2002 the Afghan ministry of education, with major support from the world community, launched a Back to School program whose goal is to provide a full course of primary schooling to all young Afghans, boys and girls alike, by 2020. The country is well on its way toward meeting that goal: by 2011 as many as 6.2 million students—including 2.2 million girls—were enrolled in primary education. Thousands of new schools have been built, and thousands of new teachers have been trained. In some of the safer provinces, girls constitute close to 50 percent of all students enrolled. To be sure, the security situation in other provinces keeps many girls—but also some boys—out of the classroom. Even so, the unprecedented provision of primary education to millions of students surely counts as a major contributor to Afghanistan’s recent brain gain.


This tremendous growth in the number of state schools has been accompanied by another unprecedented development for Afghanistan: the creation of hundreds of excellent private schools offering high-quality, mainstream education. You cannot spend any time in Kabul these days without seeing hundreds of uniformed young pupils walking to and from school. In the many places where the demand for education exceeds seating capacity, schools offer two and even three staggered shifts a day. I would also stress that the incredible thirst for knowledge is by no means limited to the wealthy. Hundreds of ordinary Afghan families sacrifice financially to send their sons—and daughters—to school because they know how important education is to a child’s future success in life.


The achievements of the past decade in higher education are equally impressive. Afghanistan now has a small but growing number of high-quality public and private universities that provide advanced training in the skills Afghans need to govern their own country and manage its business sector. The creation of private universities—and their ability to fill classrooms with students eager to learn and willing to pay—are still more unprecedented developments that add to the nation»s collective brain power. The American University of Afghanistan, which held its first commencement ceremony in May 2011, awards undergraduate degrees in business, information technology, computer science, political science, and public administration. Other public and private universities award degrees in a myriad of other disciplines. Numerous programs match Afghan universities with U.S. and European counterparts for academic exchanges and study abroad opportunities. Never before in history have Afghans had so many opportunities to pursue higher education and to put their skills to work for the benefit of the homeland.


Workforce Capacity Building

Another major contributor to the Afghan brain gain has been the capacity building and skills-development training provided by employers in the private sector. When Technologists, Inc. (Ti) began operations in Afghanistan in 2004, we had a hard time finding qualified local workers in many engineering and construction trades. Rather than importing thousands of foreign workers, however, we decided to create our own in-house training program. Ti’s Capacity Building Department has since offered dozens of courses to thousands of workers, not only in engineering and construction specialties, but in business management, finance, information technologies, foreign languages, and writing. The training we provide our workers makes them more productive and valuable to us, but the advanced skills they acquire will stay with those workers for the rest of their careers, wherever they work. And the overwhelming majority of these workers will stay in Afghanistan.


Ti is not the only engineering and construction company that adds to Afghanistan’s brain power as a matter of company policy. Moreover, numerous industries, from banking, shipping, and insurance to medicine, science, communications, and the mass media, employ thousands of Afghan brain workers. Connected by the Internet to colleagues around the globe, these workers spread new ideas throughout the local economy and contribute tremendously to Afghanistan's modernization.


Keep in Touch

I am also not convinced that the emigration of skilled Afghans to more developed countries is entirely a bad thing. Many Afghans working abroad keep in touch with family members back home and support them with hard-currency remittances. Some create businesses that trade with Afghan companies or employ Afghan workers. Successful and articulate Afghans in the United States and Europe often become unofficial ambassadors and advocates for Afghanistan in their new home countries. Many will return home permanently after some period of foreign residency, while others will seek careers that take them back and forth to Afghanistan on a regular basis. One could argue that some Afghan emigrees actually contribute more to Afghanistan’s social and economic development by working abroad than they could do at home.


Foreign donors have been extremely generous to Afghanistan over the past decade. The recent Tokyo summit brought welcome news of an additional $16 billion in pledges of development aid over the next decade. Nonetheless, and with all due respect to the nongovernmental and nonprofit sectors, I firmly believe the key to Afghanistan’s long-term prosperity is the private sector. If the Afghan security forces can manage the post-2014 transition, I fully expect the private sector to continue to grow, thereby creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for skilled and ambitious Afghans right at home. The increased demand for literate and skilled workers will encourage young people to remain in school and then to pursue higher education. In the process, Afghanistan will experience a brain gain unlike any in its long history.


Sayed Aziz Azimi is president and chief executive officer of Technologists, Inc., an international engineering and management consulting company that works primarily in challenging and remote environments.

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