Exodus of highly skilled labour could cripple Tunisia’s development prospects

Sunday 19/11/2017
Better options. Tunisians living in France wait outside the Tunisian consulate in Paris. (AFP)

Tunis - A growing number of highly skilled workers is leaving Tunisia to work abroad, experts said, a trend that could hinder the country’s prospects for eco­nomic recovery.

Attracted by higher wages and better career options, 94,000 high­ly skilled Tunisians have left the country in the last six years, the Or­ganisation for Economic Co-opera­tion and Development (OECD) said. Those leaving include doctors, engineers, architects, academics, businessmen and doctoral stu­dents. Their primary destinations are Europe, Canada and the Gulf.

The trend has resulted in Tu­nisia’s expatriate community be­ing dominated by highly skilled workers with university degrees, a report released by Tunisian press agency Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) said.

European countries, especially France, are developing specific visa programmes to attract talented young professionals from Tunisia and the rest of North Africa.

“The majority of Tunisians leav­ing the country are young people, mostly 25 to 35 years old,” said Messaoud Romdhani, president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

“The sense of despair, which is exasperated by the absence of a real change and a lack of a perceived improvement, is a push factor. Some of these young people were not able to find a job or to achieve some sort of stability at home.”

This brain drain has had a par­ticularly adverse effect on Tunisia’s health sector, which has deterio­rated in recent years, experts said.

Dr Riadh Ben Slama, head of nephrology at Charles Nicolle Hos­pital in Tunis, said approximately 850 Tunisian health profession­als have left the country since the beginning of 2017. This trend was exacerbated by structural and fi­nancial deficiencies in the health sector, Ben Slama said.

In September, hundreds of Tu­nisian doctors and health profes­sors addressed an open letter to Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed demanding urgent inter­vention to save the health sector.

Tunisia’s loss of highly skilled workers to the developed world is troubling in many ways. Not only does it lead to the sudden expa­triation of much-needed cadres, it means depriving the country of the fruits of its investment in human resources. In a country where uni­versity education is heavily subsi­dised by the government — about $2,000-$4,000 is spent on each student, depending on the field — the net loss of the country of its most skilled professionals can be estimated in the billions of dollars.

The problem shows no signs of slowing. A survey conducted by the government-funded Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies last June stated that 78% of highly skilled Tunisians asked said they wanted to emigrate.

The brightest students, as well, generally choose to finish their studies abroad, with only 7% re­turning to Tunisia.

The push factors are many: In the six years after the overthrow of for­mer President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, unemployment has skyrocket­ed, particularly among young uni­versity graduates. Regional devel­opment disparities also persisted, with many from the interior mov­ing to urban coastal areas in search of work.

“There (is) a sense of despair and frustration among the young­er generation,” said Sarra Fazaa, a senior consultant at Ernst & Young in Tunisia. “For example, Tuni­sia devotes a very low budget to research centres, which prevents many young Tunisians from devel­oping their skills. They, hence, end up heading to developed countries where their knowledge and capa­bilities are valued.”

Rym Felhi, a young Tunisian ar­chitect, left for France in 2015 to look for an internship. After being offered a contract, she decided to settle there permanently.

“I did not think much before choosing France as a destination. First, because I have the language skills, then I have friends in Lyon and Paris and they have been very helpful,” Felhi said.

“Internships in Tunisia rarely offer a real opportunity to learn. The tasks are not particularly re­warding and do not add to existing skills,” she explained.

A junior architect in Tunisia gen­erally makes around $320 a month. Felhi, a top student at Tunis’s Na­tional School of Architecture and Urbanism, found that her skills were more valued elsewhere.

Beyond the problems of unem­ployment and lack of research funds, however, is the workplace environment in Tunisia.

“The living and working condi­tions of the highly skilled as well as the number of hours at work reflect some form of exploitation that has resulted in the current brain waste. Some conditions are unaccepta­ble in terms of remuneration, the recognition of qualifications and the professional standing of some highly skilled workers,” Felhi said.

While some experts argue that skilled workers living abroad can contribute to Tunisia’s develop­ment through remittances and knowledge sharing, the reality has shown the opposite.

“Once settled, the Tunisian brains will not come back and the majority of them prefer investing in their host countries rather than in Tunisia, where they can face a variety of challenges, including a limited domestic market, a lack of incentives and lingering corrup­tion, which has acted as a destabi­lising force, infecting all levels of the economy,” Fazaa said.