Highly Skilled Afghan Diaspora Contributes to Innovation and Change

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  • 2012•04•12

    Melissa Siegel and Katie Kuschminder

    Currently, an estimated 215 million migrants around the world are living outside of their home countries. A substantial number of these are educated and can be considered “highly skilled”.

    Highly skilled emigration is often associated with the idea of “brain drain”, with the loss of knowledgeable and trained members of society being historically viewed as having a negative impact on countries of origin. Since the late 1990s, however, a new rhetoric of “brain gain” has emerged, by which highly skilled members of the diaspora can play a substantial role in capacity building in the origin country through knowledge transfer, innovation and technological change.

    In order to maximize the potential of the “brain gain”, an increasing focus is being placed on what can be termed as the “scientific diaspora”: a self-organized community of immigrant scientists and engineers who live in developed countries and who organize to have an impact on the development of their homelands, especially in the fields of science, technology and education.

    Because of their familiarity with local customs, culture and language, highly skilled migrants can be in an advantageous position to transfer skills and knowledge back home. One method for facilitating this transfer is through the temporary return migration of members of the scientific diaspora.

    The Temporary Return of Qualified Nationals (TRQN) project of the International Organization for Migration in the Netherlands, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, aims to contribute to capacity building and knowledge transfer to countries of origin. The TQRN programme in Afghanistan was implemented in two waves: TRQN 1 and TRQN 2. The objective of both waves was to contribute to capacity building and knowledge transfer in Afghanistan.

    UNU-MERIT researchers have analyzed the TRQN program in Afghanistan, focusing on the second wave, and conducted a series of interviews with the participants.

    The brain drain in Afghanistan

    After three decades of conflict, Afghanistan has seen a marked drain of skilled workers. In the 1980s and 1990s, educated and highly skilled migrants left the country for Europe, North America and Australia. According to the World Bank, the emigration rate of the tertiary educated was 23.3 percent in 2000. The continued conflict has led to the continued emigration of the highly skilled.

    Although the country is officially in a stage of post-conflict reconstruction, Afghanistan still faces the challenge of attracting and retaining the highly skilled.

    Because of a mix of factors over the past 30 years, the education system in the country is in a dire state and is clearly out of date. Additionally, Kabul has been experiencing extremely rapid urbanization over the past decade, and the population has grown at least tenfold. The processes of urbanization, combined with an increased international presence in Kabul, have led to steady inflation in the city. The increase in prices along with the prospect of better job conditions has attracted many remaining highly skilled Afghans to work for international organizations. The distortions in the labour market due to international organizations and companies have caused a drain of the highly skilled from both local firms and the public sector.

    Furthermore, there has been a low level of permanent return of highly skilled members of the Afghan diaspora living abroad.

    TRQN Netherlands-Afghanistan project

    The second wave of the TRQN  project, TRQN 2, focused on three specific sectors: health, education and infrastructure development. TRQN 2 also focused on a “train the trainer” component, and all assignments were developed to act as training positions to further knowledge transfer and build capacity.

    Participants are volunteers and received a living allowance and insurance for the duration of their placement, which lasted for three months.

    A total of 42 interviews were conducted in the project, of which UNU-MERIT researchers further studied ten cases representing 15 interviews between September and November 2010. Participants were involved in various projects ranging from curriculum development, road building and infrastructure projects, and IT and technical assistance to medical training.

    Health and education

    One sector in which Afghanistan is particularly deficient is the health sector. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the skills deficiency has resulted in a severe under-supply of doctors, with a ratio of only one physician for every 5,000 people.

    Hence, the contribution of TQRN participants to the health sector has great potential.

    One physician discussed his experience as follows, emphasizing the Internet as a useful tool to aid in teaching that had rarely been utilized before: “The most successful… was the transferring of new methods of treatment which I learned in the Netherlands, transfer to doctors and also some lessons, some teaching through the Internet I made for them. And also use of good medicine, good quality, it was my success and also using of some equipment…”

    In the education sector, the curriculums often needed to be updated. One participant noted this necessity: “They had a curriculum, but it was old system. But I revised it… a new system curriculum with a new technology.”

    The changing, adding-to and updating of the curriculums were then transferred to other teachers so that their use could be expanded and continued. The language knowledge that participant teachers brought with them also helped to expand the horizons and the learning possibilities of the students. As the colleague of a participant explained in the host institution: “Translation of some books from abroad for the students; he is able to translate for them, for the students. We have a lot of books, useful books, but in Dutch and German language, so our students cannot use this. By the help of [the participant], we could translate them and they will use them.”

    Infrastructure and engineering

    Infrastructure and engineering were clear areas of focus for the TRQN project. These are areas in dire need of development in Afghanistan, as much of the infrastructure of the country had been destroyed during the years of war.

    In one TRQN case the participant taught teachers how to utilize computers. This particular community, located in northern Afghanistan, had had the computers for over five years, but no one knew how to use them. The technological knowledge of the TRQN participant allowed the community members to utilize the computers and also explore the Internet for the first time.

    One of the trainee teachers highlighted the impact of this experience:“Before we were writing by hand, but now we can able to type and read everything with a computer. That is the most important thing that we learned… Also using the Internet for work — that is a new thing here… We learn more things and new technology, and have a new view.”

    Transfer of “soft skills”

    “Soft skills” were transferred to improve management and professionalism within the work environment. Engineers were trained in how to function in the global marketplace so that they would not only be able to work in a specifically Afghan setting, but also with international organizations in an international setting.

    “There was a great gap between [our skills in] office management, engineering documentation, technical documentation and site management,“ said one participant. ”I have trained them how to combine those things, and also some programs… I worked to bring them up to the level of international organizations, and in how to deal with those organizations, how to be a global engineer.”

    Small innovations in working habits and norms can be brought back to Afghanistan from abroad and can lead to increases in the efficiency of work. “I have tried to teach them how they should proceed, how they should be honest, how they should be at work, how they should be punctual. For instance, ‘in Europe, they are starting at 8 o’clock, and finishing at 4 o’clock; they come to do their work, and there is a clear outcome… You should do it like this.’”

    An ongoing impact

    An important feature of innovation is that information stays in the country. In this way, participants tried not to just do the new work for the locals, but to oversee the process while the locals helped to create innovative change. In many cases, a “training of the trainer” concept was implemented so that the innovation could be spread to more people in less time. One participant moved all over Afghanistan to train 30 women and 30 men to train others.

    While the long-term effects of the project can’t be known at this time, and several restraints have been identified, it appears that the TQRN project has made many contributions to Afghanistan and is highly regarded by participants, host institutions and the colleagues of the participants.

    The motivation for most of the participants to return was simple. They felt that Afghanistan was still their home, and had a deep love and respect for their country. They also felt an obligation to help in its rebuilding. The TRQN project facilitated the conditions required to allow them to work in the country, such as a living allowance and insurance. Without these components, many of the participants would have not been able to return and contribute to innovation and change.

    As we have seen, some of the smallest innovative changes can make the biggest difference. In most of the cases stated above, the innovation was not large and complicated, but it was indeed transformative.

    In the words of one participant, “you can make a lot of impact there with just a small effort”.

    More information about this study, in the form of a UNU-MERIT Working Paper and an IS Academy Migration Policy Report, can be downloaded in the sidebar at the right.