Tackling Pakistan’s Brain Drain – OpEd
By Ujala Siddiq
The last few years have witnessed a sharp rise in brain drain in Pakistan. According to the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment, over 765,000 Pakistanis headed abroad for employment in 2022. The Tribune broke down the composition of those leaving; over 900 teachers, 2,500 doctors, 1,600 nurses, about 5,500 engineers, 2,000 computer/IT experts, 2,600 agricultural experts and 6,500 accountants left Pakistan. The remaining were labourers travelling to Gulf States for earning their livelihood — and are invaluable sources of remittances for the country — but it is the high number of skilled individuals departing that is cause for concern.
Furthermore, highly skilled talent usually finds an easy migration path. Although there are multiple factors at play, the core reasons — especially for the currently escalated pace and scale of brain drain — are dwindling economic opportunities, growing pessimism, and the possibility of long-term economic hardship; whereas a life abroad offers a guaranteed improvement to the quality of life and a better return on investment of time and labour, as well as a “secure” future for offspring.
The issue is currently being further exacerbated by political instability, unequal opportunities, a challenging law and order situation, unhealthy workplace cultures, and an overwhelmed healthcare and education system falling apart at the seams due to a number of systemic issues resulting in rampant price gouging by a predatory private sector. The highly educated in particular, are confronted by a lack of growth opportunities and fluctuating economic stability.
To stem the alarming problem of brain drain and to retain valuable talent in the country, a multifaceted approach needs to be taken. Political instability and economic growth are deeply intertwined. According to a report by the World Bank, political instability gives rise to social turmoil and governance issues. The government should work in a concerted way to tackle the current crisis and implement long-term economic restructuring and social reforms that acknowledge the reality that Pakistan’s population has a significant youth portion of 65 percent which can either turn out to be a massive liability or an incredible asset.
The establishment of comprehensive economic restructuring and reforms for economic growth are optimal paths to retain, and to some limited extent, attract highly skilled talent. It must be ensured that the country has a conducive environment which can only be achieved by ensuring good governance, stability, progress and an equitable system that rewards talent and hard work, and access to affordable housing in particular. The skyrocketing prices of real estate have pushed the salaried class out of the housing market unless they have access to hefty savings, which in turn makes migration more alluring.
It is undeniable that skilled Pakistani professionals who are already working in developed countries will prefer to remain where they will be retained by easy paths to permanent migration. Since Pakistan’s economy is at a developmental stage and society is mired in a wide range of issues, the heavy subsidisation of advanced degrees should instead be shifted to enhance primary and secondary education, and encouragement of entrepreneurial activities and practical, certified skill development programmes that can function within the current constraints and needs of the domestic economy.
The Express Tribune stated that Pakistani start-ups saw an influx of US $350 million in investment in 2022 and have the potential to garner even greater amounts as well as create employment within the country. The Pakistani e-commerce market has also seen impressive growth figures. In 2022, the e-commerce market generated nearly US $7.7 billion in revenue. Statista, a German data aggregator predicted that by the year 2023-2025, there will be an increase in the annual revenue by 6.09 percent and a projected market volume of US $9.1 billion by 2025. With the rise of the digital economy and digitisation of the economy and services, Pakistani youth can tap better employment and business opportunities, especially if digital and financial literacy and skills are enhanced along with robust digital infrastructure and access to financing. This modernisation effort will help generate revenue streams domestically and from remittances, as well as utilise and retain talent locally.
Additionally, indigenously developed solutions, innovation, and value addition are required in the fields of industry, agriculture, manufacturing and finance to enhance productivity, encourage growth, and absorb trained human resource. The government, relevant stakeholders, and potential investors will need to strategically collaborate to incentivise and facilitate highly skilled professionals to remain in Pakistan by ensuring that they can lead productive, healthy, and rewarding lives within Pakistan.
Ujala Siddiq is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan. She may be reached at [email protected]