Kyeyo: A Costly Blessing

Kyeyo: A Costly Blessing


The issue of departing scientists does not worry development commentators alone. Even the Ugandan government is worrisome of this rate of departure despite its recent efforts to promote kyeyo.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: October 21, 2005


In September 2004, the government of Uganda took a bold decision and declared emigrant workers (locally known as kyeyo) a noble trade. The government did not stop at recognizing kyeyo as the leading foreign exchange earner, but also promised to use its diplomatic means possible to engage industrialized countries to have a formal arrangement for labor export.


The kyeyo promotion is coordinated by President's Office, under the auspice of presidential legal assistant/advisor, Naava Nabagesera. The biggest targets for kyeyo export are scientists, with nurses offering a big catch followed by medical consultants or doctors and accountants.

This move was welcomed by the majority of job seeking Ugandans, especially since it would allow Ugandan workers to be treated with dignity by their respective host nations. It should be noted however that the exodus of Ugandan scientists and other professionals did not start with government's declaration, but long before the first batch of 50 nurses government arranged for kyeyo in Asian countries in 2004.

This presents real hope for a formal arrangement to the majority of those Ugandans already on kyeyo through private means, but are ever facing the continuous threat of deportation due to their illegal stay in countries they go to.

But soon after government's plans to formalize labor export, talk of serious shortage of scientists in the country has emerged with arguments that labor export is threatening the economy rather than helping it grow. This is because of the brain drain (loss) that a country suffers if it exports its quality labour.

Development experts warn that this depletion of scientists and other 'critical to the economy' professionals from the local scene may instead keep away investors who usually get attracted to Uganda because of its well-qualified cheap labor. Investors especially in health and financial sectors are increasingly getting concerned about the likely shortage of nurses and specialized financial experts due to this move. This means that they will have to import expensive labor from other markets.

This situation has presented a paradox to government because the much-sought human resources on foreign market, is the same that is critical to Uganda's development process.

Little wonder therefore that government is caught up in a hasty swing change of policy, suggesting that science studies be compulsory at O-level in all secondary schools, and prioritizing that 75 percent of 4,000 vacancies for state sponsorship in public Universities go to science students. This is in addition to suggestions that all university students offer a science related subject during their first year of study.

Whether tenable or not, this very ambitious policy switch by the government remains a medium or long-term goal. There have been long held concerns that the shortage of scientists looms, as the economy stays in its development inertia stage.

In March 2005 during a conference on science and technology for economic transformation in Kampala, the Executive Director Uganda Investment Authority, Dr. Maggie Kigozi highlighted the negative impact of brain drain, warning that it is hurting the economy. She said that the flight of scientists and other professionals to developed economies for better terms of work is hurting the Ugandan economy and giving local investors a 'headache' because of the shortfall in skilled labor market.

Kigozi said that in 1998 the flower industry experienced a major slump with export volumes falling from 2,500 tons in mid 1997 to 2,200 tons in 1998, partly because the industry lacked specialists. She added that the flight of workers effects local research especially in young industries like that of flowers.

But to understand fully how brain drain hurts the economy, it is vital to look at how much in terms of resources and efforts the country like Uganda, put in training the departing manpower. A lot of money is spent on educating people from primary to University, especially in science disciplines, and it is a disappointment if they leave the country and not serve the local communities (taxpayers). In fact, it is a true scenario of the poor subsidizing the rich, since the Ugandan government and the people pay a lot to educate many of the health care workers and other scientists or professionals who are leaving to work in wealthier nations like UK, USA and others like Japan.

The situation becomes even more compounded and precarious in a poor country's health sector where thousands of much needed nurses are leaving the government's less paying jobs to go for much higher pay in developed countries. Nurses flock to developed countries like Britain, USA and Australia, which are confronting their own acute shortage of nurses to care for their ageing population. At the end of 2004, there were more than 3,100 registered nurses from Africa in the United States, according to the US national survey of nurses by the department of Health and Human Services, some of them from Uganda.

This is why in May 2004, African countries banded together at the annual assembly of the World Health Organization to urge developed nations to compensate them for their lost investment (in educating such scientists). After an intense debate, the assembled countries resolved to search for ways to lessen the damage of what they called 'increasing rates of emigration', especially with regard health care workers, mainly nurses.

The issue of departing scientists does not worry development commentators alone. Even the Ugandan government is worrisome of this rate of departure despite its recent efforts to promote kyeyo.

The Minister for General Duties in Prime Minister's office, Prof. Mondo Kagonyera, speaking during the same conference on science and technology for economic transformation in Kampala, said; "scientists are not encouraged to stay and do not do a good job because of low pay".

In Uganda, medical consultants, usually PhD holders, according to 2001 Ministry of Health figures, earn about Shs 1.3 million a month, although a salary raise for medical personnel was expected in the 2004/2005 budget. In comparison with the United Kingdom, where many Ugandan professionals emigrate, medical consultants earn between 63,000-85,000 pounds according to UK Guardian newspaper (approx. 300 million Shs) per year, and 25million shillings per month. This is close to twenty times higher than local earning bearing in mind that a UK consultant will work an average of 40 hours a week.

Now there seems to be a big opportunity in a problem. Some poverty alleviation experts are in full support of labor export. They argue that Africa's economies, and indeed that of Uganda, can thrive better with continuous influx of foreign exchange (above half billion dollars) sent home by Ugandan expatriates/emigrant workers across the world.

Dr. Augustus Nuwagaba, a Makerere University lecturer and poverty alleviation consultant says that in face of a failing economy like that of Uganda, kyeyo people, who sweep floors and send dollars home, are the country's economic heroes.

"What people call brain drain is actually brain gain to both the country and those individuals who go abroad for work. If the economy has failed to answer people's questions on unemployment and low pay, the solutions remains finding ways out for better terms," said Nuwagaba stressing that a nurse in Canada earns equivalent of 120,000 US dollars while that in Uganda earns slightly above 1000 US dollars per year.

He says that government should have formalized kyeyo long before traveling to some of the rich nations was made much harder. He says that poor governance has made working conditions in Africa very intolerable.

"Can you compare a Ugandan nurse in government service with that in Canada? It is so unbearable. It is not a question of lack of patriotism, it is bad governance that rewards politics more than any thing else," charges Nuwagaba.

The Blair Commission for Africa report points at the same issue of bad governance, along with corruption and lack of accountability and transparency as major obstacles to economic prosperity in Africa. But even as the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is championing increased foreign aid to Africa in consonance with solutions to the above problems, his government has faced political pressure at home to improve health care at home. The Blair government has hired tens of thousands of nurses, many from Africa, Uganda inclusive.

Nelson Mandela, when he was still South Africa's president, criticized Britain for recruiting its health workers. The country had spent $1 billion dollars to educating health workers who emigrate abroad. But Dr. Nuwagaba says South Africa's scenario is one in isolation.

"Here (in Uganda) most scientists are educated by their families who sell goats, produce and borrow to keep children in school. Such children given opportunity for jobs abroad struggle hard to replace resources invested in them and paying back through helping to pay fees for their siblings," says Nuwagaba who revealed that his cousin Arthur Bikangaga, a surgeon with the White House in USA, earns above 50 million Uganda shillings per month.

But Ugandan scientists are not just moving to overseas. They are also quitting government services for better paying jobs at private hospitals and foreign-financed nonprofit groups and research institutions within the country.

Some analysts however argue that there is no sense worrying about leaving scientists and other professionals since they are not responsible for the biggest chunk of dollars Uganda receives from kyeyo.

In his article titled; Economic heroes mop floors, send dollars home: published on internet in 2002, Senior Ugandan Journalist Joachim Buwembo argues that it is the less educated who work with the view of returning who send money home for investment, while the highly educated get adopted in new environment and settle down.

"The big dollars are coming in not from highly educated Ugandans working outside the country but from less-educated Ugandans doing menial jobs abroad. Yes, it is those Ugandans who bathe invalids and senile wazungu in retirement homes who send us the big bucks. Because of their tangible aspirations (building a house, starting a business, marrying a home girl and paying relatives' school fees) they send their money back home," he says.

According to Buwembo, the professors and professionals take up the Western way of life more easily and become assimilated in the society in which they work. Their salaries are paid into banks and they shop with credit cards, they are attached to their housing mortgages and their savings are invested in the stock exchange and for their children to go to college. They are completely Westernized and irrelevant to Uganda's economy.

Buwembo argues that the less educated Ugandans on kyeyo earn their money in cash, often from two or more employers who exploit their shaky immigration status to underpay them. They remit the cash home as fast as it accumulates under their pillows.

Whether good or not, the issue of labor export or emigration remains contentious. In 2001, Britain adopted codes to limit the government's active recruitment of health professionals from developing countries. But the code does not apply to private recruitment agencies or private employers. Nor does it prohibit the British national health services from hiring foreign nurses and medical personnel who apply on their own. Since 1998, 12,115 African nurses have registered to work in Britain. No surprise that many of the nurses from Uganda are reported to be heading to Britain.

Gauging from the ongoing debate, both sides seem to have a point advanced either for or against. Only the balance between the two divergent views will provide the way forward. Otherwise, which developing nation like Uganda can fore go a half billion-dollar earning annually? Just like no developing country can afford to have its entire valuable work force disappear in Diaspora.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: October 21, 2005