Brain drain refers to the mass emigration of educated and very skilled people that leave their countries of origin to live and work in other countries that may have real or perceived better living conditions. Prolonged conflicts, tough economic conditions and environments that are not conducive to development have driven qualified academics and professionals abroad, mostly to the West.
In the case of Somalia, mass brain drain started in the early 80’s when doctors, engineers and scientists from the country started migrating to the Gulf States, and later to Europe and North America. The two decades of conflict and fragile stability added to this problem and the mass exodus continued.
But despite the fact the situation has now improved and the nation is slowly attaining stability, the impact of brain drain continues to linger, most evidently in the research and academic sector. Qualified academic and research staff has been and still is very scarce for certain disciplines of study including applied sciences, engineering and medical sciences. In the private sector, a large number of institutions are depending on foreign expertise, contracted for a short term, to complete a project and maintain equipment; while the country continues to deal with high cases of unemployment among natives.
This situation, if not tackled by developing and enforcing proper higher education and research development policies, will continue to inhibit innovation and creativity, elements that are the key to job creation.
In the last two decades, higher education and research institutions in Somalia have been considered agents of change; and indeed, they have delivered despite the fact that the sector has been unregulated until very recently.
But as agents of change these institutions need to have the resources and the capacity to deliver. The quality and effectiveness of the system that forges these change agents need to be given a careful thought, and guided by national-level policies that address the nation’s needs and the demands of the recovery process the country is going through.
Two main factors that influence the quality and the effectiveness of the university are the curriculum and the availability of qualified professors and researchers. While the first one can be adapted from the more developed universities and customized to local needs, access to qualified academic human resources can be a challenge especially considering the high cost of recruiting and maintaining quality professors.
Since the late 1990s, some of the leading universities that have been started by community organizations in more stable parts of the country have attracted academic staff from not only the diaspora but also from the expat communities. These professors often spend a semester or a year teaching at the university. This has helped to not only bring academic expertise and qualified lecturers to the universities, but also bridge the institution to its academic peers abroad. At these institutions, the impact of the knowledge transfer was evident and promised a brighter future for the students and the communities around the university.
The contribution of the Somali diaspora to the academic and research institutions especially in the form of academic and research expertise (teaching, supervising research, etc.) is virtually non-existent now. Most contributions from Somalis living and working abroad are focused on small business startups and family support through remittances. While all these stimulate the economy and contribute significantly to society, contributions to the academic and research institutions would have had the biggest social and economic impact and would help address brain drain.
All hope is not lost though as the country now seeks to overcome the problem of braid drain through SomaliREN, the Somali Research and Education Network (NREN).
NRENs around the world are well-equipped to tackle the brain drain, and may even reverse it. In the early days of NREN formation, the priority was bringing down the cost of connectivity through demand aggregation and leveraging the combined purchasing power.
While many NRENs are still at this level of ‘maturity’, learning from the experiences of more developed NRENs has taught them the importance of thinking forward and beyond the connectivity. Debate on the evolving role of the NREN has led to thinking about the function and mission of the new research and education networks, NREN 2.0 which focuses on using the network infrastructure and connectivity to innovate, develop new solutions to existing problems, and transform thinking about moving ‘packets’ to moving ideas.
This new way of thinking about the NREN’s roles and mission will require from us to think of the ‘alternative network’ – the human network that will produce, share, consume and multiply the ideas shared across the e-infrastructures our NRENs operate. These are the change-makers that will eventually collaborate globally to solve both local and global problems. These are the communities that will help the NRENs serve their constituencies – their universities, societies, nations – and help them fight brain drain in their communities.
SomaliREN’s efforts to stay significant and serve its current membership while it awaits to operationalise its network has forced the NREN to explore the challenges that are currently facing the country’s higher education and research institutions. As a result, the NREN has planned and engaged in several initiatives that address the scarcity of qualified professors and researchers in the engineering, sciences, and technology and health sciences disciplines. One of the most important of these initiatives is REConnexion – the research and education connection – which is currently focusing on the launch of a research and education job portal.
REConnexion is envisaged to connect the Somali higher education and research institutions and qualified professors and researchers in the diaspora and even expatriates interested in working with these institutions. In addition to this obvious effort at tackling brain drain, this initiative addresses one of the three key strategic pillars of SomaliREN (Connectivity, Community and Content). More specifically, REConnexion responds to the NRENs communities of practice development goal that aims at providing demonstrable use cases for the NREN’s e-infrastructures.
The research and education-focused job portal presents an opportunity for the diaspora and expat professors and researchers to contribute to the recovery of the nation by supporting the ‘factories of change’ – the universities and the research institutions. What is more interesting is that their contributions and engagements with the institutions will mostly be in the form of online collaboration, and lecture delivery via videoconferencing – both of which are NREN-enabled services. These services create opportunities for professors that are already engaged in teaching and/or doing research in universities in more developed countries.
SomaliREN’s role will not only be limited to the deployment and operation of the portal, but also includes facilitating the delivery of the lectures, and providing additional collaboration platforms such as Wikis and e-Learning Management Systems. In terms of implementation, the project will initially depend on cloud-hosted videoconferencing platforms and the connectivity that is already available at the institutions which has improved lately. Once the network is operational by mid-2017, the NREN will have a better opportunity to host these services locally and bring down the operational cost.