From brain-drain to brain-gain

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A diaspora volunteer wants Ethiopian-Canadians to pack their skills and journey back home again - for development's sake.



Between 1990 and 2006 Ethiopia trained 3,700 medical doctors. By 2006, a staggering 3,000 of them had left to work in other countries. Ethiopia has long suffered what’s often called ‘brain-drain,’ but Cuso International diaspora volunteers such as Endashaw Woldie are working to turn the situation around.

Woldie applied to Cuso International after reading about the surge of Ethiopian professionals who had departed the country, taking their precious education and job skills with them. “I want to be a good example for the future and help the country,” says the 33-year-old project manager.

A psychology student in Addis Ababa in 2001, Woldie was one year away from graduating when he was forced to leave Ethiopia after general unrest and university student-led demonstrations against the government resulted in a violent crackdown.

Fleeing to a refugee camp in northern Kenya, he spent three years living in a tent with the limited water and food rations supplied by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

His situation brightened when World University Service of Canada, active in the camp, offered him a scholarship to attend the University of Western Ontario.

Woldie says that Canada has been good to him. After graduating with an Honors BA in Economics and Sociology, his first job was career advisor for the government of Alberta in Edmonton. In 2008 he was laid off, but secured a new position as employment counselor in Fort McMurray. When that term job ended, he decided to extend his education and was accepted in a Royal Roads University Master’s degree program to study conflict analysis and management.

Home is where the volunteer is

Nearing the end of his graduate program, Woldie started thinking about returning to his country of birth. “I wanted to be a good example for my fellow Ethiopians in Canada and encourage them to give of their service. It’s important to contribute to the development of the country, and make a sustainable contribution to the future,” he says. Now a Canadian citizen, Woldie knew he could re-enter Ethiopia on humanitarian grounds since he was going to focus on sustainable development.

He applied and was accepted for a two-year Cuso International placement as project manager with the Addis Ababa-based Alliance for Brain-Gain and Innovative Development (ABIDE). Now back in his other home of Ethiopia, Woldie is working to help universities connect with the human expertise they need. “My main responsibility is to develop a database to know how many diaspora live outside the country. We are building partnerships with government organizations and educational institutions.”

It was ABIDE’s research that highlighted how almost all trained doctors had left the country. “We need to address this and attract professionals back to support their country,” notes Tewabech Bishaw, the founder of ABIDE. The non-profit organization was launched in 2006 as an Ethiopian NGO and has agreements with several universities to help them connect with professional instructors.

“We offer ongoing and sustainable engagement of diaspora to support the goals of the institution,” explains Bishaw. ABIDE works in the health and education sectors with partners such as Cuso International to recruit and place diaspora professionals. So far, three Ethiopian-Canadians are serving: one is at the Addis Ababa University medical facility; another, a nurse, works with a local NGO on HIV/AIDS care and management; and Woldie is with ABIDE.

“In overseas placements, diaspora volunteers have an advantage,” notes Bishaw. “They have connections with the culture, language and setting. Trust and confidence can be built, as well as relationships with national professionals.

They also achieve fulfillment and gratification, and can get the work done with so much more ease than anybody else.” She points out that once a diaspora individual has been engaged in a short-term project, the likelihood of extending into a longer-term partnership is high.

A global village with two-way streets

Bishaw notes that one in 35 people in the world are immigrants, and that of the two million Ethiopians living around the world, the majority are in North America. “Institutions need the ability to network and partner with diaspora and get them on board. Through our work on the ground and through the internet, we hope to build the system to let them do that,” says Bishaw.

The organization is refining a website that will allow diaspora and institutions to interact, matching needs to the human resources available worldwide.

“I find it easy to work here, even though there are few resources,” says volunteer Woldie. “Because of my background, I can meet the challenges and I know how the country works.”

“It’s a success story. I’m happy to have come back.”

Story by Maureen Littlejohn

Photos by Ethan Baron