Angela Balakrishnan and Pui-Guan Man

The U.N. has identified a development trap. Uganda’s fish may point the way out.

Seeking health care in Ethiopia can be a difficult task. For every hundred thousand people, only two doctors are available as the country’s physicians flock to the west.

Many of the world’s least developed countries are losing large parts of their already shallow pool of skilled professionals — hindering their ability to pull themselves out of poverty, a report by the United Nations said on Thursday.

The U.N.’s development arm warned that countries such as Ethiopia could see their long-term growth prospects damaged if the “brain drain” is not addressed. The study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development added that foreign aid has been largely ineffective because it has failed to recognise the importance of knowledge and innovation in driving development.

“The problem of brain drain highlights the bigger issue of knowledge,” said Charles Gore, one of the report’s authors. “We need to adopt new policies which should be orientated to reducing the technology gap and diversifying the economy. The least developed countries have a huge problem when it comes to expanding their productive employment. It is no use just investing in human capital without policies which develop employment opportunities to encourage workers to stay.”

The report showed that in 2004, 1 million educated people emigrated from LDCs out of a total skilled pool of 6.6 million — a loss of 15 per cent. Haiti, Samoa, Gambia, and Somalia are among the LDCs that have lost more than half of their university-educated professionals in recent years. The health sector, in particular, has suffered. In Bangladesh, 65 per cent of all newly graduated doctors seek jobs abroad.

The problem is heightened by many developed countries gearing their employment policies to welcome more migrant workers in an attempt to make up for labour shortages. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently reported that in 2005, between a quarter and a third of all practising doctors in countries such as the U.K., U.S., Canada, and Australia were trained in another country. Whereas sub-Saharan Africa on average has only 13 doctors for 100,000 people, the U.S. level is close to 300, UNCTAD said.

Africa, in particular, suffers from large outflows of labour due to political conflict, unstable economic conditions, and low wages. Without this workforce, innovation, technological change, and, in turn, progress in overcoming the factors that drive away skilled labour are limited, UNCTAD said.

“Trying to match the pay and working conditions of the developed countries can be difficult to achieve in the short term,” said Mr. Gore. “The focus of poverty reduction and sustained economic growth in LDCs is dependent on building a productive base to attract migrants back. The two key ingredients are finance and knowledge. Without enough trained engineers, doctors, and IT professionals, it is impossible for the firms of LDCs to use technology to upgrade their efficiency. And that makes it difficult for them to face foreign competitors.”

Mr. Gore said that though aid to poor countries was steady, the money was not being targeted to areas such as science and research. Payments to these areas in 2003-2005 formed only 3.6 per cent of overall aid to LDCs.

“Most LDCs have opened up their economies,” he said. “But even where they are attracting foreign investments, most LDCs are not climbing the economic and technological ladder. Their economies remain locked into low value-added commodity production and low-skill manufacturing. Science, technology and innovation are necessities, not luxuries, for the poorest countries.”

Only 95 people in every million are scientific researchers in LDCs compared to 3,728 in high-income countries. Enrolment at university-level institutions is only 3.5 per cent in LDCs against up to 69 per cent in rich nations.

The report pointed to developments in the Ugandan fish industry, which was transformed by a surge of investment in technology and knowledge. A decade ago, Uganda lost nearly $10 million after the European Union banned the import of its fish due to poor sanitation facilities and a lack of basic infrastructure. A large injection of funds to educate businesses and new facilities to meet health and safety standards saw the ban lifted, and Uganda’s fish exports surged to $86 million in 2003 from $28 million in 1997.

Though the report stressed the importance of expanding job opportunities outside of agriculture, it added that productivity in this sector through science-based development needed to be boosted. Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the workforce yet donor commitments to agricultural research, education, and training in LDCs halved between 1998-2000 and 2003-2005.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007