Saturday, March 22, 2014

Time to Return?

There's a time for everything, the song says. But is this really the time for educated Colombian expatriates to return to their homeland?

Colciencias thinks so, and that's why they're starting a program called Es Tiempo de Volver (It's Time to Return) to draw educated professional back home. Colombia has certainly experienced a huge brain drain over recent decades, as many of its most educated people migrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe in pursuit of interesting and well-paying professional employment that's scarce at home. According to Wikipedia, 5.6 million Colombians - more than 10% of the population - live outside the country, and half of Colombia's trained medical doctors are in the U.S.

Perhaps it's understandable. After all, Colombia has relatively few jobs for the highly educated, and they pay poorly compared to similar jobs in rich nations. And, until recently, Colombia's violence drove many wealthy and educated people out of the country.

But the emigration of Colombia's best and brightest carries a huge cost for Colombian society in terms of the wealth and ideas they might have generated at home, as well as the money Colombia invested in educating professionals, who then put that knowledge to use somewhere else.

So now, Colombia is offering expatriate Colombians with PhDs benefits including salaries, housing subsidies and good positions in universities and scientific institutions for returning to La Madre Patria to live and work for at least two years. The first year, Colciencias plans on creating 200 positions.

I wonder how many professors, doctors, scientists and others will be willing to drop their lives and return home. The most likely, I suspect, will be people nearing retirement, nostalgic for Colombia and no longer very interested in career advancement.

Such people certainly can contribute ideas to Colombia. But, is this investment contribute more to Colombia than would spending the money on, say, preschools or high school textbooks?

And I can't help thinking about those Colombian academics who stayed loyal to their country and resisted juicy job offers in North America or Europe. What will they think when their colleagues who weren't so loyal to their homeland get all these benefits for returning home?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Anonymous said...

I have my doubts about that. Professional workers here in Colombia are paid a pittance in comparison to their counterparts in the US and elsewhere. Also, I doubt that workers overseas are going to jump at the opportunity to work 10+ hours a day and wrangle with the often ridiculous commute times (especially here in Bogota) in order to make 1,000 USD a month. After working in the US or Europe, transitioning back to the inefficient office culture here in Colombia may be too difficult for someone who actually goes to work in order to get things done. Calling the Colombian workplace "organized chaos" would be putting it mildly. I have never seen people doing so much (or appearing to do so much) and accomplishing so little.

Miguel said...

You might be right...Which is why I think this offer would be most attractive to people nostalgic for home, or idealists who want to help their homeland.

On the other hand, a person with a PhD in Colombia would be a big fish in a small pond. What's a PhD worth in New York or London?


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Maybe, but I still don't see a return to Colombia as a first option for professionals in the US. The competition for jobs may be greater in San Francisco and New York, but there are plenty of places in the US with well paying options besides those cities. I can't really say those kinds of options exist here in Colombia. Maybe a rich kid with connections and a dad who is on the board of directors for some company could be set up pretty comfortably. Professionals and people with advanced degrees who don't get hooked up (engineers, doctors, dentists, lawyers), work ridiculous hours and don't make much to show for it.

I think we are on the same page here, and I don't think there is going to be a huge influx anytime soon. Unless wages go up to the point where they actually parallel similar wages in the US (in terms of cost of living) and the Colombian workplace gets it's act together, I just don't see it.

Could you imagine a professor at a university in the US transferring to let's say, La Nacho? I think it would be a pretty big eye opener. Things like student strikes, ridiculously bad infrastructure and walls that are merely a canvass for extreme political opinions probably ensure that most people with nice cozy jobs teaching in North America, don't want anything to do with many of the educational institutions here in Colombia; and we are talking about Colombia's "best" university. I mean, have you seen what time the university students got o classes here in Colombia? They are out and about at 7:00 in the morning. Go to a university in the US at 7, and you'll be the only person in the building. Why would you give up the freedom of scheduling your own classes and not having to wake up at the crack of dawn everyday? So you can be blasted by smog coming from a collective as you stand on the corner waiting for your bus....

Miguel said...

You're probably right. Which is why those who return here will probably do it for more abstract reasons, such as homesickness or wanting to contribute to Colombia.


D Lee said...

There was an interesting article in CNN about the “brain drain” of so many young, educated professionals who have left Puerto Rico.

Instead of trying to lure them back with benefits, the government needs to figure out a way to keep them from leaving because once the “best and brightest” leave, it’s nearly impossible to lure them back if the underlying reasons for them leaving still remains. They may eventually return, but only after they retire or to be buried.

Miguel said...

I imagine that one of this program's goals is that the returnees will serve as seeds to attract others.

I think it's really difficult for a developing country to keep talented, ambitious people (altho I do know of quite of few of them who live and work in Colombia) when they see more opportunities and higher pay overseas.

That won't change for a while, at least.