The United Kingdom, which is buckling under a deepening shortage of nurses and teachers after exiting the European Union, is raiding, among other countries, its former colony Zimbabwe for key public sector workers: nurses, doctors and teachers. This is cruel. It appears unstoppable. Yet it also captures a vicious cycle in which foreign aid meant to help countries like Zimbabwe strengthen their education and health systems is undermined by migration of trained talent to those very same donor nations.
More than 4,000 nurses and doctors have left Zimbabwe since February 2021. The UK is by far the destination of choice: data from the British Home Office in 2022 reveals that Zimbabwe is now in the top five skilled worker visa recipient countries. This is a big drain. According to the Zimbabwe Medical Association, the country has a paltry 3,500 doctors for a population of 15 million people. Access to nurses is poor, too – just 2.6 per 1,000 people as of 2017, reveals the World Bank. In a key 1,000-bed public hospital, managers told reporters that services were crippled when dozens of nurses and doctors left for the UK in 2021. Of course, the UK – like any other country – must look after its interests first. But the imbalance between a $3.2 trillion economy (the UK) and a $28bn economy (Zimbabwe) is such that the scramble for medical personnel isn’t a fair contest.
Consider this: despite the woes of the National Health Service (NHS), the UK still has 8.5 nurses per 1,000 people – more than three times the number in Zimbabwe. And poaching talent from a country like Zimbabwe comes cheap. The UK spends £230,000 ($281,000) in training each doctor – much of which it saves when it imports trained and skilled medical professionals. Simply put, at a time when healthcare workers are leaving the NHS in droves because of poor pay and conditions, the British government – instead of addressing their concerns – is plundering doctors and nurses from former colonies like Zimbabwe. If that’s not alarming enough, the UK is now wooing Zimbabwean teachers, too. From February 2023, Zimbabwe will join a select group of nations and territories whose educators will be eligible to get Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) which would allow them to work long-term as teachers in the UK.
Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa are the only other African nations on the list. Teacher unions fear that many of the country’s 135,000 public school teachers might be tempted to take up posts in the UK. For the last four decades, Zimbabwe has boasted one of Africa’s most impressive post-colonial educational outcomes with the World Economic Forum ranking it fourth-best on the continent in 2016. Yet it is futile to blame the UK when Zimbabwe bears the lion’s share of responsibility for the crisis it now stares at. The country’s inability to pay doctors, nurses and teachers living wages is a key reason why they’re seeking greener pastures. According to the Zimbabwe Statistics Agency, a state body, a quarterly survey in April 2022 showed that most workers in the country were earning an equivalent of $120 a month. Wages have fallen far behind skyrocketing inflation.
Zimbabwe’s government has demanded “compensation” from the UK for luring the nation’s healthcare workers. Zimbabwe reportedly spends $70,000 to train each doctor. But if the government was paying its doctors, teachers and nurses better in the first place, the temptation for them to move abroad would have been much lower. In addition to unsatisfactory salaries, medical professionals and teachers complain that the basic tools they need to do their jobs are in shortage – the result of the underfunding of schools and hospitals, and costly corruption and leakages highlighted by Zimbabwe’s auditor general.
Still, this outflow of skilled professionals from a struggling nation like Zimbabwe to the UK sets up an ironic dynamic. Last November, the UK was winning applause from the Global Fund, which is dedicated to fighting HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, for doling out a £1bn ($1.23bn) tranche of support to the initiative. The UK has set aside £35m ($45m) in aid specifically for “a resilient health system in Zimbabwe” from 2021 to 2025. Yet, how can lavishing aid money on a poor country’s healthcare while raiding its most precious assets – nurses, paramedics, social workers and doctors – make it resilient? In June last year, peers in the UK’s own House of Lords described this practice as “immoral and wrong”.
Admittedly, morality hasn’t ever been a priority for the UK in its relations with African nations. And there’s little that’s right about the way Zimbabwe’s governments treat its healthcare workers, teachers or indeed, citizens in general. Nevertheless, the results of the brain drain from Zimbabwe are clear: A sick system is getting even sicker.