Dominica's ever-flowing brain drain
If education in a knowledge-based economy is the key to the development of a country, why then is Dominica behaving so lukewarm about the loss of so much of its human capital? Maybe the choices are so few.
Dominicans become critically aware of the flow of our brains down the drain especially during the annual graduation of students from Dominica's secondary schools and the Dominica State College. Over the next few weeks the graduation season will intensify and former students will be given well-meaning advice on the value of an education and the need to build on whatever they have learnt as they continue the journey of life. But few of these advisers will address the fact that only a small percentage of the graduating students will enter the job market; a large number will join the unemployed on the street corners and dozens more will go overseas to graze on so-called greener pastures.
The ministry of education has circulated a list of 15 secondary schools that will hold graduation ceremonies from May 8 (Dominica Community High School) to July 7 (St. John's Academy). That's an estimated 1000 young people who will join the work force in two months and eventually flow down the brain drain.
But 2017 is not unique; the out-ward flow of the country's best brains has been so steady over the years that it appears that Dominica's education system has been commissioned to train persons for the job market of the United States, Canada, Antigua, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, Tortola and other countries in the region. Hundreds of thousands of trained Dominicans now live overseas. The problem is that the emigrants have been educated to secondary and tertiary level in Dominica and are therefore the country's most productive and enterprising workers particularly in this age when knowledge is a wealth-creating asset. Detailed migration data from Dominica is not available but we can assume that the situation here is similar to the other Caribbean countries. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper titled: Emigration and the Brain Drain: Evidence in the Caribbean published a few years ago estimates that seventy percent of the secondary school-educated labour force has migrated from the Caribbean. With respect to the tertiary educated, countries such as Guyana, Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have migration rates of more than eighty percent.
Educated people who leave the shores of the Caribbean are the entrepreneurs who are most likely to create jobs for others, form the basis of our organizations such as sports clubs and voluntary institutions and pay the highest levels of taxes to the government. These taxes and contributions keep the social security system alive and help government pay for the implementation of social programmes.
But the brain drain is not all negative. Over the past decade remittance flows to the island have increased and may have outstripped both foreign direct investment as well as official development assistance. But the paucity of timely and reliable data on the level of remittances that Dominicans send back home somehow weakens that argument that the brain drain may be a good thing. The IMF paper mentioned earlier contends that remittances may never be able to compensate for the economic and social cost of migration.
The IMF, other institutions and individuals have also argued that though it is not possible to reverse the country's brain drain, a lot more can be done to reduce its impact on the country's development. One suggestion to reduce the cost of migration is that countries must try to retain highly trained persons in their labour force by improving promotion and appointment procedures, enhancing working conditions, and offering better remuneration packages.
It seems, therefore, that Dominica has to move quickly to recover some of the skilled workers that it loses to migration. Other countries are making an effort. Cuba, for instance, exports thousands of doctors to countries all over the world, yet it maintains the highest ratio of doctors to population in the hemisphere. Cuba is able to achieve that standard because most of the money paid by the receiving countries goes directly to the government and that money is reinvested into the education system. In Taiwan, as well, workers who are sent overseas must deposit thirty percent of their wages in a government- controlled account which is not available to the worker until the termination of his contract.
We are of the view that government needs to make a stronger case to the United States, in particular, to pay for the education of the migrants because the US has benefited tremendously by the utilization of the country's trained workers. Alternatively, the US government must be influenced to increase its financial aid to the region, which, by the way, has dwindled to a mere trickle in the last few years. And under the Donald Trump administration is likely to dry up completely.
To recover its investment in education, government may require educated persons, who intend to leave the country to seek employment overseas, to repay the value of their education up to the secondary school level. Alternatively, those trained persons should agree to return to Dominica at some point as volunteers in the public service. But some persons may argue that these measures are too difficult to implement.
But the point we need to stress is that government must develop policies and programmes to reduce the flow of the nation's human resources to developed countries. The brain drain is now so serious that the government must give the issue its undivided attention.
Additionally, Dominica must adopt mechanisms to harness the potential benefits of its Diaspora. One of the suggestions is the provision of incentives to nationals who live abroad and who wish to invest in local development projects. For example, over the past year Government has issued a number of contracts to non-national construction firms to build bridges, roads, sea defense walls and to explore the country's geothermal energy potential. One of the most controversial projects was the Roseau West Bridge that was constructed by a Barbados-based company.
When questioned on the issue these officials say Dominican firms neither have the money nor the numbers of trained personnel to compete effectively in the bidding process. This may be true but government has the responsibility to ensure that Dominicans who live overseas, and who have the wherewithal to take advantage of these opportunities, are mobilized to form companies that can compete with the best in the region.