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Irony of Kenya’s brain drain: Taking jobs abroad, suffering at home

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The government has been on an overdrive, hunting for jobs for Kenyans abroad.

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Dr Aggrey Awajo, a medical graduate, feels as though his life has stagnated for seven years. His peers in high school in 2014, he explains, have long graduated and are employed.

He studied MbCHb at Moi University and has for the last eight months, been waiting for posting by the Ministry of Health which is a critical juncture to get a practicing license.

“I’m yet to be posted for a mandatory 12 months’ internship,” Dr Awajo explains.

He is among over 1,200 who are yet to be posted, despite the internship policy stating that they should be posted 30 days after graduation. Their patience waned and they – with the blessings of the medics’ union – took to the streets to force the government to expedite the posting.

While the situation is highly evolving even as medics are embarking on a national go-slow, nothing has yielded yet.

Despite the intern medics’ fate pointing to a bleak future, the government has been on an overdrive, hunting for jobs for Kenyans abroad. From Europe to the Middle East, perhaps for a good cause of reducing the rate of jobless graduates in the country.

In 2016 and 2017 alone, 173, 016 graduated into an already shrinking job market, according to Commission of University Education statistics. In the subsequent years, hundreds of thousands of graduates left colleges for the very slimming employment arena.

And, with a bulging number of jobless graduates, the government has been on a hunting spree for jobs in the diaspora. At home, they are left to suffer, it appears.

In May last year, President William Ruto announced that he had inked a deal with Germany that would see Berlin open its doors for Kenyans to take up some of the 250,000 jobs in the European nation.

Nairobi urged Berlin to review and ease immigration laws to enable more skilled Kenyans find employment in Germany. The two nations also agreed to establish twin institutions’ framework for pairing Kenyan technical and vocational training (TVET) colleges with selected TVET colleges in Germany. The aim was to facilitate the labour migration from Kenya to Germany upon graduation.

“Technical negotiations have commenced with the two countries seeking to sign the agreement by mid-June. The agreement will address the various pathways of regular migration to Germany,” an official in the Labour Ministry told the Nation, adding that Kenya is pushing to be second country in the sub-Saharan region after Morocco, to sign such an agreement with Germany.

At the end of last year, again, the government announced that it had further secured 2,500 slots for nurses in the Riyadh. However, until this year, only 500 nurses had applied against the target of 2,500, President Ruto decried during a meeting with lawmakers, much to the shock of the legislatures.

The Labour Ministry told the Nation that “applications in regards to the job order have been made through the National Employment Authority. It just awaits interviews to allow successful candidates take up the employment opportunities.”

Already, the ministry said, 16 nurses have been sent to various government hospitals in Saudi-Arabia.

“The nurses love it there,” says the ministry. “We want to get the testimonies of these nurses to show Kenyan that Saudi-Arabia has successful stories and it’s a beautiful country to also work in.”

As of December last, over 200,000 Kenyans took up employment in various countries. This number could be higher, “that’s why the need for an integrated system to ensure that the numbers of those outside is known,” acknowledged the ministry.

The overdrive by the government, however, to seek jobs abroad for Kenyans does not sit well with some technocrats. In the context of renewed push for jobs abroad by the state, Dr Chao Mbogho lamented on X (formerly Twitter) that “Kenya's foreign policy [in itself] is brain drain.”

The founder of Kamilimu, a non-profit organisation that mentors and upskills tertiary-level tech students, was of the opinion that “if local public hospitals would be better equipped or upgraded, existing employees would gain new skills” and even enjoy their jobs more. But most importantly, Dr Mbogho observed, more people could access care, and more employment opportunities would be created in the country.

“Security services across all sectors are dismally paid, with little or no benefits. But no, export youth to work in Germany and Japan as watchmen to earn ‘Sh100,000’ And on it goes,” added Dr Mbogho.

With the blessing of the State, when a country’s workforce continues to take up roles abroad, it eventually leaves the home country deprived of professionals.

Even as bulging and worrisomely rising number of jobless graduates continues to play, there are many reasons why skilled Kenyans are likely to take up these roles. A higher salary, improved standards of living and increased perceived quality of life, particularly draw professionals from their home countries, and often, to first and second world nations.

Mark Shrime the chairman of Global Surgery at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences says in the Conversation that brain drain is a form of taxation. He explained that not only do the countries to which doctors migrate benefit from an influx of trained and experienced professionals, they also inflict what is essentially a tax on the economies of source countries.

“The brain drain of healthcare workers from countries that can scarcely afford to lose them is not an emotionless, economic discussion. When we actively entice doctors not just to come and help, but to come and stay, the effect is more than temporary. It is more than monetary. It undermines the entire health systems of the countries these doctors leave behind” Mr Shrime argued.