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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.


Image courtesy of L'équipe

Zineddine Zidane, the French footballer of Algerian origin has recently visited the Algerian training camp in Southern France to support the team after spending his career as a French player. His visit comes at a time when he is sharply criticising the French team and its sub-optimal performance in the qualification stages. He still commands the respect and affinity of both peoples across the Mediterranean. Zidane is among a rare breed in this regard: Zidane’s coming to peace with his dual Algerian French identity was not easy. Events that happened during his career highlight the long held question that has yet to be answered for good: what is an Algerian-French and can there be one?

The two countries, Algeria and France, are not strangers to enmity. After a bitterly fought war and 132 years of colonialism, Algerian gained its independence amid cries of triumphalism and anti-French feelings. There were nuggets of Algerians who identified themselves as French throughout that era, Ferhat Abbas declared that “France is me” in 1936 as he tried to theorise a framework where a civilised Algeria is part of France, but he abandoned that route and joined the resistance later in despair. Some Algerians fought with the French against Nazi Germany forces in WWII and gained French citizenship along with a few who were accepted as part of a naturalisation scheme. Thousands of Algerians fled the country in the aftermath of the war, dubbed “Harkis”: Algerians who collaborated with the French against the resistance.

Harkis were considered the lowest form of life by Algerians after Independence, and they struggled in France, forming the bulk of  “les banlieus”: deprived ghettos where poverty and unemployment run rife. Zidane was born in such an environment in Marseille, so he suffered greatly in his early life as a French. His parents were accused of being Harkis (Harki is the ultimate street insult in Algeria today), a charge he had to live with and vehemently deny for many years during his career.

Today, Harkis and other Algerian dwellers of les banlieues still live with the lost feeling of not being French enough to get jobs and opportunities.  Algerian immigrants and their sons are still the favourite target for French politicians: current president Sarkozy infamously described them as “filth”. The current “debate” about “French values” is seen by many as a charge against these people. Recently a minister declared that “Muslims should dress better, find jobs and stop using slang and wearing baseball caps backward.” . For many French Algerians it seems that nothing they can do can change this treatment: Rumours ran wild when it was suspected that Jacque Chiraq, the then French president, only coldly shook hands with Zidane after the world cup win of 1998: supposedly Chiraq wanted to send a signal.  During his career, Zidane was always a favourite target of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National: The French team is not French enough, they would routinely charge.

Across the pond, culturally Algeria is still very much tied to France. Algerian literature is bilingual, and for many years the French side was arguably winning. The administration still uses French as the main language despite years of Arabisation efforts and laws, a fact easily verifiable by surveying the current government websites.  France remains the favourite destination of Algerian intellectuals. Yet, the issue of Algerians who hold the French citizenship remains a hot populist issue in Algerian politics: there is a feeling that they shouldn’t be trusted or given high civil posts. Others, like the former Algerian prime minister Abdelhamid Brahimi conjure that Algeria has been ruled by a “French cultural army” that was prepared an implanted before France left Algeria, and that this army keeps the country under French influence.

So it seems that in both countries the dual Algerian-French identity has repeatedly been a victim to a bloody history and decades of populism, chauvinism and sometimes outright fascism and racism. When in France, few Algerian-French openly celebrate their Algerian ancestry in their professional life, when in Algeria, an even fewer number admit that they hold French passports. This affects a large number of people: on paper, there is no shortage of people who hold or who are entitled to a dual Algerian French dual citizenship. There are 3 million by some estimates.

But there is hope that this seemingly contradictory identity can be some day fully accepted at least in Algeria. In the current Algerian football team that Zidane visited, nearly all of the players hold a second citizenship, mostly French. Top team players who became household names after the recent qualification to the world cup, such as Ziani, Antar Yahia and Matmour,  were all born and raised in France. Perhaps Football will be the venue through which Algeria will learn to accept that Algerians who live in France can be a great asset in their efforts towards modernisation and development.

ElWatan, the daily Algerian newspaper in French, has a very interesting piece of Flash fiction called “Le long chemin de H.H.”. i.e “The long road of H.H.” by Chawki Amari. It recounts the plight of Hassan Harrab, a young Algerian, through the woes that Algeria faced in the last few decades. His last name “Harrab”  literally means the fugitive or the absconder in Arabic .

Well worth the read: I’m sure it resonates with the story of countless Algerians inside and outside the country. Here is the translation in English:

A Fugitive

Run, but where to?

His name is Hassan Harrab, he has an average height, solid calves and works as a plumber. With no political convictions, he quit his country  in 1992 after some terrorist groups threatened his village to leave or  abide by Islamic Law. He went to  a small village in southern France with the intention of working for everybody as a plumber. He does not stay for long: the “Front National” took the mayoral elections in 1993, and his neighbours, clients up to then, have asked him to leave to the Arabs with his screwdrivers. Hassan Harrab takes his tool box to Marrakesh, in Morocco, where he worked in a hotel. After the terrorist attacks of 1994 there, the Algerians were forcibly deported from the country. After a journey in the back of a truck, he finds himself in Ghelizane, in Algeria, but he was considered a Moroccan. He goes to Algiers where he worked until he was thrown out of his apartment by the landlord because the landlord wanted to open a Pizzeria.

In 2000 Hassan Harrab goes to the Kabyle region, where he was persecuted because he fixed the central heating system of the local Gendarme station. After repairing some pipes in Bouira, Hassan Harrab quits Algeria again for Sfax in Tunisia, but in 2004, after a football match, some incidents occurred and Algerians were persecuted. Hassan Harrab again has to flee to Tebessa. Having gone to Egypt to work in the installation of water pumps for the Nile, he finds himself fleeing again after the recent incidents. Today in Algiers, well into his 40s, he has a particular philosophy. Where there are men, there are  losses. And welds do not typically last for long.

Given the interesting choice of the name, the story has definitely some connotations as to the people who flee the country when there are problems, how their problems may haunt them to their exile, and the incredibly hard decision of almost every Algerian in exile of whether or not to return to the country. It reminds me of the classic El-Harrachi shaabi song “Ya-Rayah”. The initials themselves “H.H.” may indicate something, but I’m not finding it – are you?

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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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