Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Unemployment and insecurity emptying Lebanon of Lebanese

Unemployment and insecurity emptying Lebanon of Lebanese
'We're suffering a huge brain drain'
By IRIN News.org
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Economic instability and persistent security threats are driving ever younger and more educated Lebanese abroad, creating a brain drain that threatens the country's economic and social future, researchers say. "We're suffering a huge brain drain," Kamal Hamdan, head of the Lebanese Center of Research and Studies, told IRIN. "Those who have the brains take their diplomas and leave. They are the young people who would go on to be middle executives and entrepreneurs. In the long term, their absence means we may face a serious shortage of policy developers and managers." About 30 percent of Lebanese - nearly one in three people - want to emigrate abroad, and the figure rises to 60 percent in the 18-25 age bracket, according to a poll published in April and conducted by Information International, an independent Beirut-based research center. The poll also found that almost 12 percent of undergraduates want to emigrate, along with more than 15 percent of the country's professionals. The survey polled 997 Lebanese citizens of varying ages and creeds from across the country in February. Nearly half of all Maronites, the largest Christian denomination in the country, said they were considering emigrating, while some 22 percent of Shiites and 26 percent of Sunnis say they are considering moving abroad.

In addition, economist Elie Yachoui, board member of the National Council of Scientific Research in Lebanon, estimated that more than 50 percent of those who graduated from college in the past two years have left the country. Lebanon is home to approximately four million citizens, but some 16 million people of Lebanese descent live abroad, with the largest communities in South America, West Africa, the US, Canada and Australia.

Almost since gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon has been plagued by regular political assassinations, and the country has been slipping in and out of turmoil since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. In the last month, eight explosions have ripped through Beirut and its environs. Abdo Asmar, 24, has been trying to leave Lebanon for years without any success. He has found work as a security guard for a private company, in what he says is "a flourishing career in Lebanon, given the circumstances." Asmar recently received a job offer that would finally allow him to leave, but it is not the destination he was hoping for. "I received a job offer to work as a security officer in the Green Zone in Baghdad, for 10 times the salary I'm paid now," he said. "Why would I bother to stay? If I'm going to die anyway, I'd rather die rich." Hadi Sabaa, 27, is equally pessimistic about the future of his country, even though he has a steady job at a local newspaper. Like many other journalism graduates, he is trying to leave for Dubai, "where reporters are appreciated, respected and decently paid. There, at least, I will not have to worry about where my children are at the time of the next explosion."

Political sensitivities have long hampered efforts to record data on actual numbers of emigres. No official census has been taken since 1932, for fear of upsetting the delicate power-sharing agreement between Lebanon's rival sects. "We haven't been allowed to conduct serious research for over 16 years now, because in Lebanon this subject is taboo, due to official fear of revealing the new confessional and religious make-up of the population," said Hamdan, whose own three children have left and do not have plans to return. Hamdan accused successive governments of "deliberately neglecting the need for an organized database, so that we don't know who left and who came back." The minimum wage in Lebanon is less than $200 per month and has not changed since 1996.

A report issued by the World Bank this May found that nearly 26 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) - or about $5.6 billion - comes from emigrants, based on a calculation of the balance of payments for 2006. The report also showed that 45 percent of these transactions come from the 400,000 Lebanese residing in the Gulf, in particular those living in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Yachoui blamed the high rates of brain drain on "bad policies, undertaken by successive governments, which failed to produce economic growth as the public debt skyrocketed." He told IRIN that, in addition to the current deteriorating security, the country's massive indebtedness also stands in the way of achieving economic growth. According to estimates, Lebanon's public debt in 2006 stood at slightly more than $40 billion, which is the equivalent of about 180 percent of GDP, one of the highest ratios in the world. Billions of dollars pledged to Lebanon at the Paris III international donor conference in January will go simply to service public-debt repayments, and many pledges for project financing have yet to be approved because of the current political stalemate that has seen Parliament closed all year. "Lebanon has three sources of revenue," said Yachoui. "One is natural, the second monetary, and the third - the most important - is our human resources. When this disappears, we lose the capability of managing the first two."

For some, though, even successful economic reforms and a better salary would not entice them to stay. "I don't care if they fix the situation now or ever," said journalist Sabaa. "What good will economic reform do me if, on my way to buy some bread, a car bomb blows me away?" - IRIN

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