The United Kingdom, which is dealing with a serious shortage of nurses and teachers after leaving the European Union, is attacking, among other countries, its former country Zimbabwe for civil servants: nurses, doctors and teachers.
This is cruel. It seems unstoppable. But it also marks a bad time when foreign aid is seeking to help countries like Zimbabwe strengthen their education and health systems are being damaged by the migration of highly educated people to donor countries.
More than 4,000 nurses and doctors have left Zimbabwe since February 2021. The UK is the destination: data from the British Home Office in 2022 shows that Zimbabwe is now in the top five countries with the highest visa requirements.
This is a big drain. According to the Zimbabwe Medical Association, the country has less than 3,500 doctors for a population of 15 million. Finding nurses is also difficult – only 2.6 per 1,000 people as of 2017, reveals the World Bank. At the 1,000-bed hospital, managers told reporters that jobs had been disrupted as more nurses and doctors left for the UK in 2021.
Of course, the UK – like any other country – must look after its own interests first. But the difference between a $3.2 trillion economy (UK) and a $28bn economy (Zimbabwe) is that the medical crisis is not a fair competition.
Consider this: despite the problems of the National Health Service (NHS), the UK still has 8.5 nurses per 1,000 people – more than three times the number of Zimbabwe. And human trafficking talent in a country like Zimbabwe is cheap. The UK spends around £230,000 ($281,000) on training each doctor – much of which it saves when it sends out trained and skilled medical professionals.
In short, at a time when medical workers are leaving the NHS because of poor pay and conditions, the British government – instead of addressing their concerns – is stealing doctors and nurses from former countries like Zimbabwe.
Shooting in the classroom
If that’s not alarming enough, the UK is now also seducing Zimbabwean teachers. From February 2023, Zimbabwe will join the group of countries and territories whose teachers will be eligible to receive the Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) which will allow them to work as teachers for a long time in the UK.
Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa are other African countries on the list. Teachers’ unions fear that more than 135,000 state school teachers could be lured away to take up jobs in the UK. Over the past four decades, Zimbabwe has boasted one of the best educational outcomes in post-colonial Africa, with the World Economic Forum ranking it fourth in the world in 2016.
However it is pointless to blame the UK when Zimbabwe bears the lion’s share of the problem it is staring at. The country’s inability to pay doctors, nurses and teachers is the main reason why they are looking for a green space.
According to the Zimbabwe Statistics Agency, a government agency, a mid-quarter survey in April 2022 showed that the majority of workers in the country earn about $120 a month. Wages have fallen sharply with inflation.
The Zimbabwean government wants “compensation” from the UK for attracting health workers to the country. Zimbabwe is said to spend $70,000 to train each doctor. But if the government had paid doctors, teachers and nurses well in the first place, the temptation for them to move abroad would have been much less.
In addition to inadequate salaries, medical professionals and teachers complain that the equipment needed to carry out their work is limited – a result of the lack of funding for schools and hospitals, as well as corruption and leakage of value that has been reported by the Auditor General of Zimbabwe.
Give and take
However, this exodus of talented artists from a struggling country like Zimbabwe to the UK is causing confusion. Last November, the UK won a handshake from the Global Fund, which is committed to fighting HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, for donating £1bn ($1.23bn) to the cause. The UK has earmarked £35m ($45m) of funding specifically for “sustainable health in Zimbabwe” from 2021 to 2025.
However, can raising funds for health care in a poor country while depleting its most valuable resources – nurses, doctors, development workers and doctors – build resilience? In June last year, peers in the UK House of Lords described the practice as “immoral and wrong”.
Indeed, morality has never been a priority for the UK in its relations with African countries. And there is little that is right about the way the Zimbabwean government treats health workers, teachers or citizens in general.
However, the results of the brain drain from Zimbabwe are clear: The sick system is getting worse.
The views expressed in this article are those of its author and do not reflect Al Jazeera’s influence.