Science - January 22, 2009

STEMMING THE BRAIN DRAIN IN ZIMBABWE

Despite political oppression and economic collapse, Ken Giller continues his research in Zimbabwe. Why? The Wageningen Professor of Plant Production Systems is trying to do his bit to stem the colossal brain drain from Zimbabwe. ‘Human capacity is of vital importance to rebuilding the country after President Mugabe finally goes.’

A packed car returns to Zimbabwe from South Africa. ‘People tend to move up and down, and to bring everything they can lay their hands on home’, says Giller.
‘Before I came to Wageningen, I was Professor at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare for three years’, says Giller. ‘Zimbabwe had one of the strongest agricultural faculties in Africa, but a lot of staff have left the country and are working at universities in South Africa right now. As Professor, I appointed a number of bright young scientists to the faculty. Most of them are just able to stay, because we have been able to get funding for joint research projects, such as a regional project directed at smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. I’m also heading a research programme on Competing Claims on Natural Resources on the borders of the nature reserves in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Eight PhD students from Zimbabwe are working in this programme.

‘I was in Zimbabwe for four months last year. Education is collapsing, as many teachers have left the country. An estimated 2.5 million Zimbabweans have fled the country, mainly to South Africa, but also to England – about half a million Zimbabweans are now living in London, or ‘Harare North’ as it is nicknamed. Many of them want to go back when Mugabe goes and the economy of Zimbabwe recovers. But the longer this takes, the more people will stay in their new country, where their kids have grown up. My chief concern is the loss of human capacity, which is vital for rebuilding the country. That’s the main reason I continue collaborating with researchers from Zimbabwe. Apart from that, it’s a beautiful country with fantastic people – I love it.’

You advocate ‘science for impact’ in your research programmes, and you want your research to contribute to development. Is it possible to achieve that objective in a country with severe political oppression and a bankrupt economy?

‘It takes years before science can have an impact on society. I don’t believe in silver bullets. My research is about agricultural system analysis at regional and farm levels, bringing out the diversity and the heterogeneous conditions. These analyses provide insight into which forms of aid and which technologies will effectively support agricultural development.’

‘Yes, it is a problem that the economy of Zimbabwe has collapsed. You cannot buy food and petrol any more in Zimbabwe unless you have US dollars or Rand. I don’t know how the people without access to foreign exchange are able to survive. They had a terrible growing season last year – floods and then drought – so food production was minimal and people are starving. But there is still donor money going to support NGOs in Zimbabwe. Much of that money is used for emergency aid, but some NGOs are also running agricultural projects – and sometimes promoting technologies that are not very effective, our analysis shows. So we can still contribute to making the most of the available resources.’

And what about the political oppression?
‘Many Western donors don’t want to fund government projects in countries like Zimbabwe, in case they are misused for propaganda purposes. I understand that point. But does that mean we cannot support the farmers and scientists any more?’

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