Organized by the Dialog of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC RI) and the Tajik National University (TNU) with the support of the Volkswagen Stiftung, the three-day “Turning Brain Drain into Brain Gain in Central Asia” International Symposium was held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, from 25-27 November 2019.
The symposium commenced with greetings from the Vice-Rector of the TNU, who noted the relevance of the event’s topic and highlighted that the TNU is making systematic efforts to compensate for the qualified labor force’s deficit in the country.
In his introductory remarks, DOC RI Chief Researcher Alexey Malashenko spoke of the growing importance of the DOC in today’s complicated global constellation. He said that not only do countries in Central Asia suffer from brain drain, so too does Russia. Hence, a task of the symposium would be to try to suggest a response to this challenge. To do this, he said it is desirable to answer the question of how many qualified people leave, who are they exactly, where do they go, and do they plan to return? Another important question is what sort of changes, if any, occur in the respective identities of expatriates in their new countries.
The next speaker was Behrooz Gharleghi from DOC RI, who presented the Eurasian Regional Integration Index Project, explaining some parameters of a broader Eurasian integration and the growing role of China in the economic development of Central Asian countries.
Next up was DOC RI senior researcher Jürgen Grote, who shared his thoughts on the potential demand for such symposiums by governments from the region. The brain drain itself is not necessarily bad, he claimed, because in some cases it provides information exchange between the region and the outside world.
TNU Professor Muzaffar Olimov then drew attention to the fact that, according to some reports, Tajikistan is a world leader in the drain of medical professionals – a circumstance that is seriously affecting Tajikistan’s healthcare system.
In her address, a representative of the Ministry of Labor, Migration and Employment of Tajikistan stressed the fact that according to statistical data, up to 80 percent of Tajik students intend to continue their education abroad.
Jan-Peter Olters, the World Bank country manager for Tajikistan, emphasized that brain drain is a symptom, not a cause of an underperforming economy, while the main tools for brain re-gain are education and a better business climate. He reiterated the opinion that under certain circumstances, brain drain can have positive consequences: large diasporas abroad are able to create distribution networks, facilitate the influx of foreign direct investment into the country of origin and the return of national entrepreneurs to their homeland. It is important, he concluded, for the country not to lose touch with the professionals who left, to strive to benefit from what they do abroad.
Julien Thorez, Leading Researcher at CNRS, Sorbonne, France, expressed his regret over the fact that in the West, as well as in international organizations, the problem of brain drain does not attract enough attention. He also joined the opinion that many experts in the field believe that if the flow of professional migrants is not too large, the process can bring more positive results than negative ones.
Sergey Ryazantsev, Director of the Institute of Social and Political History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, delivered a report on the situation with brain drain in Russia. One often gets the feeling, he noted, that sometimes Russian professionals who left are replaced by representatives of the same professions from Central Asia. In the 1990s, the Russian Federation, according to some estimates, lost one-third of its scientific potential. Along these lines, attention should be paid to the phenomenon of discrepancies (sometimes very significant ones) between Russian and foreign statistical data on professionals who left.
The Russian diaspora as a phenomenon, Ryazantsev claimed, does not exist: there are Russian-speaking people representing a diversity of communities, not a diaspora.
Ryazantsev then turned his attention to Russian programs aimed at returning high-skilled professionals to the country. First of all, he stressed, it would be expedient to develop academic and professional mobility within the country and to work with those who are still there, and only after that invest in attracting those who already emigrated. One of the possible steps in the right direction could be introducing an academic visa for 10 years to attract foreign professionals in Russia.
Saodat Olimova, the Director of the Shark Research Center, shared her analysis of brain drain from Tajikistan. In the early 2000s, she said, labor migrants from the republic were mainly people with higher education, many of them with academic degrees. Nowadays, the shortage of high-skilled professionals in the country, among other things, often leads to situations where there are no specialists capable of working with the modern equipment that is at hand. Another serious problem is that many people (up to 60 percent) do not work within their specialty areas. Research results demonstrate that initially, the majority of people do not want to leave, but subsequently they are forced to do so. Brain drain and labor migration are not related to each other, Olimova mentioned, but both phenomena negatively affect education in Tajikistan. Olimova also posed a terminological question that has not yet been answered: how to clearly separate labor migration from brain drain? In the expert community there is no consensus on the respective criteria. In addition, there are notable methodological variations in the study of these issues, which stipulate the necessity to build at least a primary list of problems in the area and shape the agenda for young researchers.
Karolina Kluczewska, a TNU post-graduate student from Poland, contributed on the topic of young Tajik professionals living abroad. In the results of her studies, she concluded that almost all young professionals living abroad strive to maintain their national and cultural identity, even when they are planning to stay abroad.
Jamshed Kuddusov, a labor economist and Chairman of the Board of the Adult Education Association of Tajikistan, shared results from research conducted in 2018, according to which Tajik professionals currently emigrate less than earlier in the decade.
Jafar Usmanov from the University of Bonn marked two waves of brain drain from Tajikistan: one that resulted from the civil war, and one that started in the mid-2000s. The latter wave, he claimed, has not yet been studied. Usmanov supported the opinion that brain drain sometimes has positive ramifications. This is because, in addition to the acquired competencies of those who studied abroad and return home, they also bring non-financial benefits to their home country, such as intercultural communication skills, a global perspective, networks of their own contacts and innovative thinking – all aspects of a phenomenon known as best practice transfer. In addition, their success can be an example to follow for their young countrymen.
Ilkhom Abdulloev from the Open Society Institute in Tajikistan brought to the forefront another reason for brain drain in Tajikistan: unskilled Tajik migrants abroad (mainly in Russia) are usually better-paid than highly-qualified professionals inside the country.
According to Zulaykho Kadyrova, the Dean of the TNU International Economic Relations Department, over the period 2000-2015, the number of Central Asian students leaving their home countries increased almost five-fold.
Zufar Ashurov, Deputy Director of the Tashkent State Economic University, suggested a set of recommendations aimed at reducing the intensity of brain drain:
- increasing financial support for state research institutions;
- developing and adopting special programs for the return of highly-skilled professionals to their home countries;
- creating innovation zones and industrial parks;
- improving scientific infrastructure;
- stimulating foreign companies to create their subsidiaries in the countries of the region.
Aida Sharsheeva (Kyrgyzstan), the Deputy Director of the Center for Digital Technologies, presented her analysis of the digitalization impact on brain drain. While intensifying this process, digitalization, together with automation and the development of robotics will destroy the jobs of a significant portion of today’s Central Asian migrants, she claimed. Speaking of her native Kyrgyzstan, Sharsheeva said that 40 percent of emigrants from the country have higher education, while only 9 percent of people with higher education find jobs in Kyrgyzstan. Concluding her presentation, she suggested creating a common hub for digital skills and competencies for Central Asia.
Kairat Itibaev, Consultant to the Chamber of Commerce of Kyrgyzstan, proposed a provocative thesis that the required modernization of Central Asia is impossible without Westernization. He then presented his recommendations to mitigate the costs of brain drain in the region: abolish the work permit for foreign high-skilled professionals; create infrastructure for business incubators and, finally, develop a regional strategy for brain circulation.
On the sidelines of the symposium, several participants expressed the opinion that many of those who have acquired high skills abroad would like to come back, but often have difficulties with finding their place at home because during their absence they lose local social contacts.
Kamila Kilmakaeva from the German-Kazakh University drew attention to the fact that brain drain can be considered as one of the manifestations of neocolonialism. In this context, more effective civil society institutions could provide a positive response to the challenge.
On the third day of the symposium there was a discussion on the terminology issues. It was noted that a common definition of a highly-skilled professional is lacking. A suggestion was made by Antonio da Silva from IGOT Institute, Lisbon, Portugal, for the time being to accept the terminology used by international organizations (for example, the International Labor Organization). On the other hand, Karolina Kluczewska spoke out against using general terminology since it often constrains experts in their work by not allowing them to use a significant part of their research. Jürgen Grote emphasized the importance of the comparative element in this kind of study.
Based on the results of the symposium, it was decided that participants will compile and publish a list of recommendations on countering brain drain in Central Asia. The option of preparing a White paper for the meeting of the heads of Central Asian states in 2020 is also being considered.
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