Friday, June 29, 2007

Conference seeks to plug Lebanese 'brain drain'

Conference seeks to plug Lebanese 'brain drain'
By Farah Aridi
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: With the one-year anniversary of the start of the summer 2006 war with Israel approaching, academics and diplomats gathered Thursday to assess the war's impact on a perennial trend of Lebanese life: the tendency of talented professionals and ambitious youths to leave the country in pursuit of opportunities abroad. About 120,000 Lebanese emigrated after the recent war, according to statistics presented at the conference, entitled "Emigration as a Deterrent for Socio-economic Development and the Emigration of Intellects." Perhaps most striking was the proportion of Lebanese intellectuals who now live abroad, which Jihad Aael, president of Welfare of Emigrants and Emigration, put at 70 percent. "We are becoming victims at the mercy of Third World countries monopolizing our intellects," Aael said at the conference, held at UNESCO Palace under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry. The ministry's director general for emigration issues, Haitham Jomaa, said new education was needed to encourage a union of politics and intellect in Lebanon and to help reverse the trend of intellectual flight. "We need a strategy connected to the attempts at preserving our youth and intellects, not one fixed to capriciousness of politics," he said.

Conference attendees disagreed on the extent to which emigration might benefit Lebanon, in that some citizens who gain expertise abroad eventually return home. All speakers agreed, however, that more incentives were needed to encourage Lebanese youth trained abroad to return. Michel Abes said there was a danger that emigrants would train themselves right out of the job market. "Today, our children are diagnosed by something called 'overqualified syndrome'" he said. "Constantly being asked about the reason for their return, they become overqualified in working in their own country." Issam Noureddine characterized the brain drain on the country as a "tragedy." "We are on the verge of a humanitarian tragedy," he said. Former Ambassador Latif Abul-Husn delivered a talk on the problems faced by emigrants when they go abroad. "The National Security Fund in Australia pays about [$440,000] to educate one Australian doctor. In the case of a Lebanese student or any other foreigner, the Australian Government does not pay as much as a penny out of its own pockets" said Abul-Husn. "A better opportunity, a safe and stable environment are given in return" he added, expressing his hope that the Lebanese government might be able to create such an environment to encourage more people to stay.

In the span of 10 years, the number of people leaving the country has risen by 34 percent, according to Guita Hourani, head of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at Notre Dame University. Journalist Lulu Sbayaa proposed an awareness campaign starting in schools and universities to entice youth to stay in Lebanon. "They leave because they have no hope," she said. Noureddine said that sectarianism in Lebanon must be reined in and a true rule of law be established before emigration could be stanched. "Give us back our children" he said. The general director of the Center Statistics Bureau, Mural Totlian, focused on the loss of "human capital." He later announced that the center had benefited from technical expertise provided by the European Union through what is know as MEDSTAT 2, in addition to national and global workshops. "We will be able to find out the reasons behind such vast emigration rates in the past few years depending on socio-economic factors," Totlian said.

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