A while ago on a rather long stopover flight in Dubai, I met a young high school graduate. He was Ethiopian and an athlete that was flying back to his country with a 5,000 dollar paycheck he won for an indoor track-and-field race. We spoke about sports, politics and life in Ethiopia. We also laughed about how he has become well-off without the hassle of higher education.
Then, I reluctantly asked what he is planning to do if he continues to earn just as much money as an athlete. He wanted to go abroad and start a life in some European or North American country, leaving behind such a promising career.
His answer was not unheard of from an Ethiopian. Many educated, illiterate, young and old Ethiopians have made this choice. This is a common tendency in developing nations, to prefer a lower status career rather than better ones in their own country.
We have for long justified this action on the lack of job opportunities or even political freedom in Ethiopia. This lack of initiative has given way to losing one’s passion for a meaningful life filled with adventures, and resignation to a life fulfilled with the mere necessities.
This has become a significant social problem. Ethiopia’s heavy reliance on remittance cash and the excessive esteem given to the diaspora community has enticed many to go abroad.
African countries have millions of international migrants. The population of Ethiopian origins in the United States is close to a quarter of a million. These large segments of populations recurrently send pieces of their income to their families and friends in third-world countries. In Ethiopia’s case, this is a national income that rivals export earnings.
This fuels the belief that people who come from abroad can be a potent force for development for their countries of origin, through remittances, promotion of trade, investments, research, innovation, knowledge and technology transfers. But developing nations effort to encourage citizens who reside abroad to return to use their skills, knowledge and financial capital to foster development has not been effective.
The cumulative benefits lost from the flight of highly skilled human capital can only be glimpsed in the success of those residing overseas.
It is unfortunate that with all the potential that exists, we are still stuck on the belief that the cure will come from elsewhere. Locals with immense capacity often choose to toil in overseas countries despite the fact the nation is starved for skilled human power right here in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s reliance on foreign aid and remittances has been unhealthy. It is a symptom of our lack of productivity, and inability to sufficiently use resources that exist right here. The lack of passion for a career, the absence of a hard-working culture and societal pressures to move overseas have persisted for too long.
Despite the apparent shortage of opportunities for the youth though, there are untapped potentials for creativity and growth. This in itself can serve as a motivation to make history, to discover new frontiers and become a fruitful generation that gives rise to an era in Ethiopia of innovation and creativity.
This is not hoopla but rather a practical means that countries such as South Korea used to take themselves out of poverty. The nation’s transformation into a modern economic powerhouse often cited as a human-made miracle came to reality in just three decades. The South’s per capita income in the early 1960s was lower than that of Haiti’s, Ethiopia and Yemen, all of which are relatively undeveloped countries even today.
South Korea lacks natural resources and yet transformed the country into one that enjoys enviable living standards. The government made credit available for exporters and key industries. The government also provided support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Their market-oriented framework incorporating financing ideas, tariff exemptions and outward economic strategy enabled the country to eradicate poverty. Hard work and efficiency have become the symbols of the Korean labour force. What supported Korea’s quick development is their ability to get the plans and strategies put into practice and the collective hard work between the government and the public.
This is a big lesson for Ethiopia to take. We need less of moving overseas, as a shortcut to reaches, and more of hard work. Such a mindset can allow for opportunities to be seized and used effectively.
It will all depend on our perspective. One may see poverty, while others will notice an untapped opportunity. Prosperity is a matter of ideas, vision and hard work; it is never about changing a destination. The country’s level of economic development ought to wake up the populace to understand what is important and what needs to be done.
As a society, we must be able to reward those that come to us with new ideas, instead of brushing away notions that run askew of our belief system. Such attitudes are occasions for humble acknowledgement of reality and hard work not only from the public but the government as well.
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