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Conventional wisdom in Algeria would tell you that there is a serious brain drain problem in the country, as it is elsewhere in the world. Several people however, are challenging this view. AidWatch posted research by William Easterly arguing  four reasons why the Brain Drain is actually a good thing (His book on the pitfalls of the Aid industry is heartily recommended). This was preceded by an FP article a few months ago arguing about many misconceptions of the brain drain. However, speaking of Algeria where the brain drain is such a large phenomenon (15% of the population lives abroad), the question is complex and not as black and white as the debate would condition one to think.

Easterly argues that the greatest benefit is to the migrants themselves, who are often forgotten in the debate. This is true for the cream of Algerian skilled labour but the picture is very different for a large section of migrants. Most skilled Algerians with degrees fail to find skilled jobs in western countries [PDF UN Report]. Perceived racism and classism keeps a lot of Algerians in ghettos in France, inevitably many get forced to reside illegally in their target countries. This poses serious problems as it restricts their movement and often forces them underground.

A powerful argument for brain drain skeptics is remittances. Skilled labour sends large amounts of money back to their families. This, however, falls largely flat in the Algerian context because it is harmful in many more ways that it is beneficial.

First, oil rich Algeria is literally awash with foreign currency reserves. In fact, the country can’t spend the money fast enough to spur development precisely because there is not enough skilled labour and managerial acumen to conduct development. Multi billion projects are given to foreign consortiums such that hardly any transfer of skill or know-how occurs and labour is quickly imported to implement the projects.

Second, Algeria can be considered as a middle way country that is not on par with the poorest countries in the developing world. Remittances are spent either on properties or on imported products (The Algerian dream being the car and the house). In properties, remittances are spent on buying land, apartments, villas and commercial enterprises creating an inflation bubble that effectively forces the whole property market beyond the reach of the local population and places it at the hands of migrants and wealthy businessmen. The foreign currency monies get recycled in the black market for ever-increasing property prices or back abroad to get consumer goods. In the end, remittances push prices up and are spent on imported (often luxurious) products with little benefit to the local economy.

Easterly also argues that the brain drain phenomenon inevitably leads to “brain circulation”, where skilled labour and intellectuals often return to their host countries or act as role models for their compatriots back home. The second point is substantial as many Algerians look up to high achievers in western countries, but the result is the belief that it is by leaving the country that anyone attains any success. The first point is a noble long term goal, but it has never materialised in countries like Algeria. The immigration flow of skilled labour has never been reversed at any point in the last century. After the first few years in immigration, very few first generation migrants return and the return of second generation and above migrants is simply unheard of.

The simple reason that gets ignored is that conditions in the source country are not appealing enough for skilled labour, a chicken and egg cyclic problem that is extremely intractable. More brain drain leads to worse conditions at home leading to more drain brain and so on. In the end, very few skilled people are left to have a good development vision for the country.  Labour movement (not unlike goods, a tasteless comparison I know) strictly follows a free market system despite the occasional lip service to nationalism. Emigrants naturally look for their own well-being and their career prospects.

Simplistic measures such as blocking immigration are simply inhumane and border on the criminal. The problem should be tackled right at the source country to create an atmosphere that is encouraging. This, indeed, is seemingly impossibly difficult despite its apparent simplicity. Source and target countries should work together to encourage knowledge transfer. A possible solution is temporary assignments. Skilled labour in private and public bodies can be encouraged to take temporary multi month or multi year assignments in the source country. Immigration rules should be changed to make this possible because working Visa rules make the choice of the country of work a life long commitment for a lot of migrants.

In the end, the problem of brain drain is real and harmful in Algeria. Less work should be made to vilify emigrants and coerce them into feelings of guilt but more, internationally, should be done to encourage true brain circulation.

Many have tried to read into the recent Sonatrach and Ministry of Construction arrests.  Rumours range from a supposed power struggle between the military (or DRS) and Bouteflika, the desire to bring down the menacingly popular Amar Ghoul (minister for public construction), to supposedly Bouteflika’s desire to shake up the corrupt political and economic system. The first two rumours will be dealt with in future posts. On the last point though, Bouteflika knows that corruption in the country is a very tough nut to crack.

Bouteflika must be aware of his limits here. Although he tried to strip away political power from the military with some success at the top owing largely to the ageing and death of many of the army’s figureheads (and failing at delegating this political power back to democratic institutions I might add), he completely failed at challenging the grip of the ruling class on the socio-economic realms of Algeria.  The country is run by a self-perpetuating system whose members are informally formed by a number of people in power, wealthy individuals, army officials in the various provinces as well as historical figures.

This class (henceforth called the ruling class) carefully keeps itself in power by only accepting loyal people to command its sphere of influece. To regenerate itself and keep outsiders away, this ruling class carefully relies on loyalty and other constructs such as hereditary ascension, historical status and language. Sons of people in power are routinely sent abroad to study in prestigious western universities on state funds and come back to rule the country. Some sons of veterans are often catapulted into positions of responsibility using their historical credentials after testing their loyalty. There is very little in this system for someone who doesn’t fully communicate in French (a mostly élite language nowadays that serves to perpetuate this political divide). Networking opportunities occur at some of the numerous veteran organisations and party activities (FLN/RND) where new blood is found, groomed and trained in various positions up the power ladder.

Furthermore, this system keeps away potential knowledgeable people who may have claim to positions of responsibility based on merit*. Endless hoops of bureaucracy and corruption keep those pesty knowledgeable people away by forcing them into wasting hours of productive time ferrying papers and applications back and forth various inefficient bureaucratic state institutions (banks, universities, government offices, the judicial system, etc). The result is a frustrated worn down citizen who can’t get anything done without resorting to pleading for help from the powers that be. Combined with further discouraging facts, such as the abnormally low wages for positions of intellect (University positions for example), and the impossibility of exploiting one’s entrepreneurial spirits (endless barriers and state controls), the tired worn down citizen just cannot wait before a Visa for a foreign western country is stamped on his passport to get out of the country, thereby enabling him to pursue his ambitions and fulfilling the desire of the regime to get rid of him.

As to the masses of ordinary Amar and Khadidja Algerians, there will be a glass ceiling that they just can’t break. They are always busy trying to solve the primitive problems of their daily lives such as getting an apartment (from the government), a car (loan helped by the government) or a job (over 50% state), thus kept in perpetual need of the government. Their rights are all but taken away (no demonstrations, no freedom of speech, endless trials against dissidents and journalists, a self censured cultural scene, etc).

With this brilliant system, the ruling class keeps itself in power, sends potential challengers away (intellectuals), and keeps an oppressed population from whose votes they continuously claim legitimacy. At the top of the food chain powerful regional officials and wealthy people hide behind façades of national and private organisations  (with names of the form “Houwari and Company Ltd”). These companies often gain exclusive licenses to operate activities of importation, transportation and safe investments to exclusive markets of that nature.

The last president who truly wanted to confront this powerful self perpetuating system was gunned down and bombed by his own bodyguard 5 months into his presidential term. In various memorable speeches, Mohamed Boudiaf expressed his dismay and frustration at the way positions of responsibility are offered based on shabby deals rather than on merit. Owing to his disconnect from the ruling class since the Algerian independence, he spoke in simple terms without grandiose statements or hollow visionary ideas, and with the same street language and words that ordinary Algerians use daily to vent their angst at their government. He fully understood the frustration of Algerians and often spoke with emotion at the state of a country he helped liberate from the shackles of colonialism. The consequence for him was sadly the coffin.

Before him and after his death nobody could really confront this corrupt system. Instead, successive governments have pledged to combat corruption and have done mostly smoke screen measures. This last wave of arrests from Sonatrach falls under this habit of fighting the symptom of the problem (corrupt officials) and not the actual problem (a largely non transparent ruling class). Algerians remember that every few years (or months) serious scandals of that sort erupt. Only recently arrests were made at the ministry of construction concerning the multi billion highway project. A few years ago the Khalifa scandal shook the country with its magnitude: a complete conglomerate formed of a bank, an airline, car renting, insurance etc turned out to be a hot air operation to rob the country of billions of funds. Did anything change after that? no.

Beyond the political readings and the supposed power struggles between the DRS and Bouteflika/Amar Ghoul on the one hand, or the sincerity of the desire of the country to rid itself of corruption on the other hand, the fact is that the corrupt system will always breed more corrupt people and scandals of this sort will always happen.

[*The tactic was best described by the Egyptian Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail when describing the political class of his country (the two countries, Algeria and Egypt, are evidently alike in many ways): positions of responsibility are offered to people of “Wala'” (loyalty) as opposed to people of “Ma’rifa” (Knowledge and merit).]

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Commentary and views of an Algerian about the Middle East and Algeria, Democracy and Human Rights, Islam and Reform, as well as whatever pair of topics the author wishes to write about.

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June 2017
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