The Brain Drain in Pakistan should be tackled holistically – Kulsum Abbasi

Low-income countries are short of technical and health workers. These highly skilled workers migrate to rich countries to pursue better living and working conditions. It becomes a challenge to the human capital and the economy of the affected countries. In this interview, Kulsum Abbassi is concerned about the massive shortage of skilled workers in her country Pakistan due to the rampant brain drain. She shares valuable answers to solving the brain drain challenge in Pakistan.

One of the biggest crisis in Pakistan is the issue of human resources. There is a low number of qualified professionals in the Pakistani labour market and the public sector. This issue is likely linked to the high flow of a tangible number of very skilled or intelligent Pakistanis to other countries for work. What do you think are the major reasons for the brain drain in Pakistan?

There are several reasons for the notorious ‘brain drain’ in Pakistan. Let me clarify that the ‘drain’ refers to a range of human capital – both skilled (such as doctors, engineers, academics who mostly migrate to the UK and US) and lower skills workers (such as construction labourers, who usually gain work permits in Middle Eastern countries).

This diaspora of Pakistani human capital across the world is a significant source of remittances for Pakistan’s economy – one that many successive recent governments actually take great pride in. There is an emphasis on the balance of payments benefit to the economy and the benefit to households from the income, and really no real political will to address the issue, or even see it as a problem. As you aptly hinted in your question.

Pakistan is the 5th most populous country in the world with about 210 million people. Do you think the population might have some weight on this problem?

Looking at the issue critically, however, we know that remittances come with both positive and negative effects. One effect is that it puts inflationary pressure on the economy. Another one is that of labour and human rights – lower-skilled labour employed in the Middle East (particularly Qatar) endures extraordinarily deplorable work conditions. A third problem is that of a population that lacks essential skills such as that of doctors, for example. Pakistan subsidises medical education – Pakistan is one of the cheap countries to become a doctor. However, Pakistani doctors largely end up in the UK and US, contributing to their society, rather than Pakistan’s.

What do you recommend the government should do to tackle this issue?

In order to tackle the problem, the government must first recognise this as a problem. Let me continue with doctors as an example: subsidies must instead be given to increase the wages of doctors and to invest in a health systems culture that contributes to further skills development, collaboration and research for doctors. In short, an effort towards truly amenable conditions for professionals to prefer to work in their own country rather than abroad.

Of course, like any problem, the ideal way to tackle this is holistically. The entire infrastructure, including schools, roads, security and pensions, for example, must be prioritised in order to entice people not to migrate. Of course, this is no easy task – but with recognising the problem, having the political will, and at least beginning to work in the right direction, there is hope.

This is an interview with Kulsum Abbasi on the challenges of the high rate of brain drain in Pakistan


Interview Series

Kulsum Abbasi is from Pakistan and has an academic background in Economics. She has previously worked as a translator and editor for social research organisations in Pakistan. She is interested in wicked problems, complexity theory, experiential learning and iterative approaches in development interventions.

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