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Exodus from Sudan: The flight of human capital and the growth of a parasitic economy

University of Khartoum | photo by Mark Hammergren

By Suliman Baldo

Sudan’s skilled and professional workers, who could repower industry and commerce in Sudan if they had access to opportunities and an environment with greater economic production, are instead leaving in droves to seek better jobs in Persian Gulf countries. This essay examines what they’ve taken and what they’ve left behind, finding that the shrinking middle class and the skilled workers who remain in Sudan struggle in their daily lives as a new consumer class has emerged.

Capital flight

At a recent conference in Khartoum that discussed the accelerating rate of migration of Sudanese skilled workers to Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf countries, the Sudanese government’s Administration of the Affairs of Sudanese Working Abroad reportedly revealed that in 2014 alone, some 50,000 Sudanese skilled workers migrated abroad. These workers included:

4,979 physicians and pharmacists
4,435 skilled technical workers
3,415 engineers
39,000 skilled laborers
The University of Khartoum lost 300 lecturers in 2014 as well.

The figures suggest that Sudan’s “brain drain” is far more critical than many people fully realize, and the country is hemorrhaging skilled workers at a much faster rate than previously believed. After years of economic disparity and hardship the impoverished middle class is voting with its feet as workers seek better compensation for their skills and better working conditions abroad. One under-recognized driver of this mass migration is a deep, systemic problem that has developed and worsened over several years: lack of government investment in Sudan’s most precious resource, its human capital.

Analysts and observers say that in addition to the flight of these skilled workers, countless journalists and media workers are also fleeing the country’s repressive media environment. The Sudanese media watchdog Journalists’ Association for Human Rights (JAHR) has said that between May 2014 and May 2015, the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) seized 66 print-runs of Sudanese newspapers, and JAHR has denounced detentions of journalists in July. International press freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists have likewise pointed to critical conditions in Sudan overall thus far in 2015. Reporters Without Borders said in 2014 Sudan was one of the 10 worst countries for press freedom in the world, a trend that followed an overall media crackdown in 2013.

Significant losses of well-educated, skilled middle class workers will have immediate and lasting detrimental effects for Sudan’s already deeply troubled social and economic landscape. But these losses are a manifestation of a deep, enduring, and destructive trend: the Sudanese regime’s lack of investment in the Sudanese people.

Poor investment in human capital

The estimates of Sudan’s military and security sector expenditures are sobering. Economist and professor Hamid Eltigani Ali estimated in a 2014 interview with Radio Dabanga that the Sudanese government was spending $2 million daily on defense and militias. A July 2015 statement by opposition parties in Khartoum reportedly referenced monthly costs of $4 billion for Sudan’s wars. Some analysts have said military spending has exceeded 60 percent of the budget in recent years, and others have said spending has exceeded 70 percent of the state budget in the 26 years since Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir took power.

Sudan’s spending policies that have neglected social needs, economic re-investment, and infrastructure have resulted in the losses of jobs and vital social services for the population in other economic sectors. Physical infrastructure in the country’s most populous and productive regions, for example, has been neglected and not developed to create services for the population, economic opportunities for workers, or goods for export.

This lack of development and deterioration has affected almost all state institutions and is leading to their decay and slow or rapid collapse. The sectors experiencing some of the most rapid and significant decline are public health and education—two sectors that most contribute to the development and well-being of Sudan’s population and are a source of valuable human capital. Services and jobs in the public health and education sectors have collapsed. Skilled professionals are grossly underpaid, with fully trained Sudanese surgeons now making the equivalent of less than $400 per month. As salaries have contracted, working conditions have also deteriorated extensively in public health and education institutions, forcing many professionals to seek better working conditions and compensation elsewhere.

Many Sudanese officials, including the president, have stated that Sudan is proud to provide its neighbors with the expertise of its sons and daughters. They also say Sudan’s education system is capable of producing new skilled workers and experts to meet the country’s needs. This messaging rings hollow as the halls of Sudan’s oldest university quickly empty out with the losses of 300 lecturers in a matter of months. How such an esteemed educational institution can continue to produce talented workers under these declining conditions remains to be seen.

The mass migration of educators, doctors, other skilled workers, and a large swath of the Sudanese middle class has increased significantly over the last several years. In 2014 the Sudanese General Secretary of Administration of the Affairs of Sudanese Working Abroad told the BBC that 347,000 skilled workers had moved abroad since 2009. Most of them, he said, had been readily absorbed by the economy of Saudi Arabia, which he estimated had absorbed a total of approximately two million Sudanese migrants.

Remittance flows and private gains

Large numbers of Sudanese skilled workers living abroad send generous remittances from their salaries back home to family members who have remained in Sudan. World Bank remittance data from 2014indicates that $189 million was sent back to Sudan from Saudi Arabia, $61 million came from the United Arab Emirates, $24 million from Qatar, and $19 million from Kuwait. The World Bank, which estimates Sudan had an overall GDP of $73.82 billion in 2014, finds Sudan received a total of $432 million in remittances that year. In 2014, workers in Sudan sent $322 million to other countries, with the largest sums going to Nigeria ($220 million), Egypt ($63 million), and Ethiopia ($21 million).

Remittances coming into Sudan, unlike remittances coming into Egypt and Ethiopia, do not enter the formal economy and do little to benefit national economic growth or productivity. Instead the remittance flows for Sudan serve as another rent that those in power are able to capture.

A short-sighted policy in Sudan that involves multiple official rates of exchange for foreign currency is partly to blame for the way remittances flow to private citizens. The remittance market has itself also been tapped by government actors or government loyalists who receive high commissions on transactions through the establishment of a “hawala”-like system of informal financial transfers. Capturing high commissions on cash transfers like these provide members of the Sudanese government with another way among many other ways they have found to profit financially on a private basis.

Economic paradox

The result is an increasingly parasitic shadow economy that further benefits the rich and powerful while taxing the middle class and doing little to address the country’s overall economic hardship that has left most of Sudan’s severely conflict-affected people both neglected and impoverished.

Nowhere are these economic distortions more surreal and more striking than Sudan’s capital city. In Khartoum one can see extreme poverty in the vast majority of the population. This poverty exists alongside extreme opulence and consumerism by two different privileged minorities: (1) those who heavily spend money made from the state and from their connections to the Sudanese regime; and (2) those who heavily spend remittances from abroad on things that create an appearance of wealth. This extreme consumerism is unfolding while skilled and professional Sudanese workers, who have the potential to repower industry and commerce for everyone, are leaving Sudan in large numbers. Those of the former middle class who remain are a shadow of their former selves, quietly sliding into poverty as they see not only their incomes but also their opportunities, prospects, and access to services shrink dramatically.

The author is an Advisor at the Enough Project
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