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Friday, March 31, 2023

Managing Nigeria’s Wave of Skilled Migrants

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Nigerian nationals emerged as the second-highest recipients of United Kingdom’s worker visas between December 2019 and June 2022, with Indian nationals coming first.

The UK Home Office disclosed this in its National Statistics report titled, “Why do people come to the UK? To work”, published on 25 August.

The report revealed that Nigerian approvals had increased by 11,854, a 303% level change from 3,918 in December 2019 to 15,772 in June 2022.

This report came as the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), complained that the persistent brain drain of doctors is depleting the country’s medical care expertise and taking the country farther away from the recommended number of doctors per population, contradicting health minister, Dr Osagie Ehanire’s claim, that Nigeria has enough medical doctors, and that the number of doctors produced annually exceeds the number leaving the country.

The NMA insisted that just about 30,000 medical doctors were currently practicing in Nigeria out of the about 80,000 registered with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN) from 1960 to date and that the country currently has a doctor-to-patient ratio of one doctor to 4000-5000 patients instead of the one doctor to 600 patient’s ratio recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The spate of brain drain in the health sector has led to a shortage of manpower with attendant burnout and the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) issued a two-week ultimatum to the federal government to address the issues or embark on industrial action.

Migration is as old as man, and forms a critical part of human history. It becomes a nightmare for governments when they lose control of not only immigration into their countries but also emigration. Nigeria’s post-independence history is coloured by waves of outward migration.

The first big wave happened at the end of the oil boom decade of the 1970s. The economic downturn saw the exodus of skilled professionals in the academic sector mostly. The trend continued well into the 1980s. Most of the people who left belonged to the middle class who could afford to.

The next wave, in the 1990s, is almost indistinguishable from the previous, as military rule ruined not only the economy but also civil liberties. The return to civilian rule eventually created conditions that saw a return of a sizable number of people–caused by liberal economic reforms that created more opportunities. However, the past seven years have seen an accelerated reversal of that trend. We are now in a mass emigration informally known as “japa”, the Yoruba word for “escape”.

Many emigres are young students seeking academic and professional experience elsewhere. Medical professionals are also a part of this bunch and it is not hard to see how government policy mishaps and insensitivity have fueled the exodus.

University lecturers are currently in the sixth month of a strike action that has become an annual, recurring theme.

The even bigger downside to this problem is that while conventionally, it is expected that the exit of skilled professionals will open up the space for the upcoming generation, in Nigeria’s case, the country is equally losing the (very experienced) people who are supposed to train the next generation to countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada.

The challenge is not just that Nigerians are leaving in increasing numbers – it is that those leaving are the skilled middle class who can afford to. In particular, medical professionals including doctors, nurses and other ancillary experts in the sector have taken the migration route.

This wave is hastened, not just by the worsening economic conditions in the country, but also by the limited opportunities for career growth.

In the case of doctors, a consistent complaint has been the dearth of equipment and tools to aid their work and the very limited spots in residency programmes in tertiary hospitals across the country.

These programmes which are designed to train doctors to become specialists in their chosen fields of medicine have become increasingly hard to come by.

As a result, younger doctors are moving abroad rather than keep waiting in perpetuity for openings. But even worse is the government’s response to this crisis – rather than address this issue, the government continues to parrot the lie that Nigeria has enough medical doctors, contrary to the doctor-patient ratios that exist.

If the situation is not arrested, there will not just be fewer doctors but especially fewer specialists or consultants, especially as the older consultants who are less likely to emigrate approach retirement.

Even worse, there will be no senior consultants to train new doctors in their desired fields of specialisation. In a country with a dearth of skilled people like Nigeria, and in a world where the competition for skilled people is now globalised, the inevitability of the acceleration of this brain drain, while evident, is still worrisome.

There are pull and push forces to this effect; an ageing population in Europe, and the high cost of Western tertiary education that a growing portion cannot afford.

On the other hand, places like Nigeria, home to a youth bulge, had heavily subsidised university education supplemented by an employer or development-funded training in many areas, such as health, technology and services.

As the workplace becomes increasingly globalised, the allure of global opportunities will persist. As the macro-economic and socio-political situation continues to deteriorate, and the world opens up further, it will accelerate further. Nigerian companies will need to find innovative ways to tap into this global pool of skills even as the people leave, including facilitating remote work.

But there are some aspects of work that simply cannot be done remotely – hence the need to begin to reverse the tide. Tertiary education reforms to decouple the sector from federal funding (which has led to repeated run-ins with university unions) and unleash the entrepreneurial energies of institutions are badly needed.

Those freed-up resources can be plugged into an aggressive basic education investment program to reverse the collapse in access and standards that have left Nigeria near the bottom of literacy and numeracy achievement outcomes.

Finally, a wider economic reform to remove slack and waste, and a massive infrastructure programme to simultaneously employ millions of Nigerians while addressing the yawning deficit are needed. Nigerians have returned en-masse before when the economy was improving. It can, and will happen again if conditions improve.

For more insightful analysis check out sbmintel.com

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