07 March 2010

The Other Brain Drain

Guest post by one of my partners in crime: Sceptical Bandit.

There’s been a lot here recently about the gains from Africa’s Brain Drain to the developed world.

But here’s asking a different question: what of the brain drain within Africa by the UN and international agencies? Working here within the government, it’s now pretty much routine to see the most efficient staff, especially at junior levels, being picked up by the UN or the World Bank or the zillion other agencies in Juba. These staff typically enter the organization with no experience and few skills, use a year (or two’s) experience to beef up their employability, and then scoot – most often without notice and using paid leave to look for a job! When they go, they leave gaping holes because they haven’t arranged a proper hand-over or given any time to hunt for replacements (which are hard to find in the first place).

I’m not against people getting better jobs. My problem is with a) them sneaking off without warning and b) this ensuring that the government NEVER quite has adequate capacity. At least over the next 15 years, even if all goes well, the UN presence will remain. By which time the process of leaching away all the skilled employees will have set in place an institutional path based on only the least skilled remaining staff. That’s what the face of the government would be like for decades at least. And before you think of it, training people on-the-job in government is not a solution; the more you train them, the more employable they become elsewhere. The only equilibrium is to ensure the skills of your own staff are as mediocre as the general population!

I’m not asking for a ban on UN hiring GOSS employees. But perhaps if they could at least ensure that the government employer knows about the arrangement, and if the government and the UN could ensure that nobody is hired to start before the end of their notice period (3 months or 6 months), at least organizations could plan a bit better. And some institutional knowledge at least could survive - even though you can't stop the drain, you can minimize the damage it does. These aren’t harsh conditions of employment – similar conditions are pretty common-place in employment contracts worldwide. And just because contracts are difficult to enforce here is hardly a reason to destroy the public sector.

Roving Bandit’s conscience is troubled by this scheme. He doesn’t think the government has any business curtailing employment opportunities for individuals. I disagree (obviously). What do you think?

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