One of the main problems facing the Arab world today is the so-called brain drain. Such a movement of highly skilled, talented individuals is becoming so acute that many are worrying about its effects on the economic development of the region.

One study carried out by the London-based Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies in 2001 suggests that Arab countries will lose their experts if the brain drain continues at the current rate.

More and more educated professionals such as engineers, doctors and scientists are looking for greener pastures in western countries. Also more Arab students receiving an education in Britain, the US, or France stay after completing their studies.

Unesco defines the brain drain as an odd form of scientific exchange among states because it is characterised by a movement in one direction that inevitably flows to developed countries.

Brain drain has long become a worldwide phenomenon. UNCTAD suggests that between 1960 and 1987, 825,000 skilled immigrants entered the US and Canada from developing countries.

The movement of skilled labour increased in the 1990s as a result of the global marketplace and the introduction of new growth industries, such as the Information and communications technology.

In a paper presented at the 4th Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics in Oslo last year, Andreas Solimano says this movement resulted in 900,000 skilled professionals pouring into the US from the developing countries.

The movement of labour across the world became much more fluid in the 1990s, with the concept of globalisation, the tearing down of barriers and as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. This meant skilled and professional labour became more mobile which resulted in the flow to the west.

It is argued that between 500,000 and 800,000 Russian scientists migrated to Europe and America in the past 10 years, according to a BBC report. Today, there is also a brain drain from countries in Africa, Taiwan, New Zealand, China and India as well as Iran, Korea and the Philippines. And if there isn't a brain drain in Pakistan, professional people are also actively thinking about going abroad.

No different

The Arab world is no different, with the brain drain phenomenon occurring from the region, too. The latest Human Development Report of 2003, the second under the auspices of the United Nations Development Fund, UNDP, states that 25 per cent of the 300,000 graduates from Arab universities in 1995-1996 migrated, and that 15,000 doctors did likewise between 1998 and 2000.

At the 10th Afro-Arab Parliamentary Conference at Addis Ababa in January 2003, the Arab-African brain drain issue was discussed at length, with measures to be taken to reverse it. It was stated that 37 per cent of the world's migration of experts and specialists comes from African and Arab countries.

It is also suggested that 54 per cent of doctors, 26 per cent of engineers and 17 per cent of scientists graduating from Arab and African universities migrate to Europe, the US and Canada, and half of African and Arab students studying abroad never return.

One study published in Egypt and carried by backs up the UNDP report when it says that 50 per cent of medical doctors, 23 per cent of engineers and 15 per cent of Arab scientists are lost every year to Europe and North America.

This has resulted in significant material losses. Parliamentarians in Addis Ababa noted that a total of $13 billion was lost to the Arab world and African countries in the 1970s as a result of the brain drain.

Today, it is estimated that Arab states annually lose up to $1.5 billion as a result of the brain drain. Ashraf Khalil, writing in the Cairo Times in 1999, said that the loss to the Egyptian medical sector was incalculable.

Dr Venice Kamel Ghouda, former Egyptian Minister of Scientific Research, quoted in her article, suggests that at the end of the 1990s, there were at least 10,000 Egyptian experts in the medical and biotechnology sector working abroad. If these people came back it would be "enough to start a new technological revolution in Egypt".

But losses are measured in other ways. Experts suggest Arab and developing countries invest a lot in educating and training young men and women. This translates into a loss to their states when these people migrate, with the direct benefit accruing to the recipient states that do not need to fork out the cost of educating them.

Significant knowledge

Thus, this brain drain also creates a significant knowledge gap in the sender states, which no longer possess the technical knowhow because of the migration of labour.

One solution to the brain drain includes establishing a network between the home country and its immigrant community abroad. Through his Egyptian Expert Network Overseas, Dr. Ghouda has tried to create "an emigrant think-tank" of experts that will serve as a bridge with their country through the exchange of information, offering consultancies and coming on sabbaticals to their home countries.

However, the problem may be in creating real job opportunities and the right environment for making people stay in the Arab world, according to Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League. He told delegates at a conference on Information Technology and Telecommunications in the Arab world last September that the brain drain would be stemmed through progress made by Arab countries in the Information Technology field.

In the final analysis, however, it is clear that it is up to governments to act to stop the brain drain.