More than 70 percent of about 28 million foreign-born highly-skilled migrants in OECD countries live in four English-speaking countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. As the race for talent among developed countries intensifies, developing countries like Uzbekistan are faced with the reality of a “brain drain” — the flight of the best and brightest away to better markets. Can Uzbekistan reorient this “brain drain” problem into a “brain gain,” by attracting back highly-skilled Uzbeks scattered around the world?
With the change of leadership in Uzbekistan in 2016, the government announced the launch of significant economic reforms. However, Uzbekistan quickly faced the reality that it lacks enough skilled specialists to implement the changes put forward. When President Shavkat Mirziyoyev met with a group of Uzbeks in New York City in September 2017 and invited them to work in Uzbekistan, the government made clear that it would encourage its citizens trained abroad to return and share their expertise and international experience.
There are no official statistics on how many people born in Uzbekistan are now living abroad, but many analysts believe the number is in the several millions. In 2017, more than 1.8 million Uzbek citizens indicated labor as a purpose of visit while entering Russia. There are large number of Uzbek migrant communities in Kazakhstan, South Korea, Turkey, the United States, Europe, and in the Gulf states. Although the majority of these people are labor migrants employed in low-skilled jobs, there are still thousands of Uzbeks working abroad who have completed advanced education and are employed in high-skilled jobs. The new government of Uzbekistan hopes that at least some of these highly skilled Uzbeks will return to help reform the country.
One tangible step in this regard was the establishment of an expert council, Buyuk Kelajak, in May 2018. The expert council is a platform for discussing development strategies for Uzbekistan. Its nearly 300 members, originally from Uzbekistan, live in mostly developed countries and work in a wide array of fields including law, finance, medicine, governance, and academia. The council’s main goal is to help develop reform programs in the political, economic, and social spheres in Uzbekistan, including creating an overarching development model to extend until 2035.
Uzbekistan also established the El-Yurt Umidi Foundation for training specialists abroad and engaging in dialogue with expat Uzbeks. At the same time, the government adopted a concept paper that declared as its goal, among others, “attracting compatriots from among highly qualified specialists to work in government organizations.”
In the past year, several notable Uzbeks returned to Uzbekistan to take up mid- to high-level positions in the country. Among them are Atabek Nazirov, head of the newly created Capital Markets Agency, and Odilbek Isakov, an adviser to the finance minister whose expertise was significant when Uzbekistan issued Eurobonds earlier this year. This list also includes the head of the Navoi free economic zone, the deputy chairmen of several state-controlled banks, and others. Most of these people returned to Uzbekistan through the above-mentioned advisory council, Buyuk Kelajak.
It may be still too early to talk about a “brain gain” for Uzbekistan. Notwithstanding the ongoing call and declared incentives, many Uzbeks are not in a rush to return to the country.
After interviewing two dozen high-skilled Uzbek migrants, some of whom have already returned to Uzbekistan, it’s clear that there is a diversity of positions on the decision to return the country or not.
For those who returned, patriotism, a sense of belonging, pragmatism, and opportunity were decisive factors. At the same time, widespread old-style bureaucracy, corruption, a lack of real economic and political reforms (including the lack of public administration reforms), and low living standards were the main factors cited by those hesitant to return. People in this category expressed hopes that the government would speed up real economic and political reforms and that the level of bureaucracy will diminish soon.
One way Uzbekistan could encourage its citizens to return would be to adopt a law on public services and speed up public administration reforms, which, among others, would focus on diminishing the country’s bloated bureaucracy, promoting meritocracy, and fighting corruption. If implemented successfully, these reforms could also help create equal opportunities and decrease the scale of further brain drain.
Arguably, Uzbekistan should not focus only on calling home Uzbeks living abroad, but also invest in inviting skilled workers of any nationality into the country. Countries can develop skilled personnel on their own through investment in education, but there is a faster way: Recruit it from abroad. Uzbekistan has lifted previous barriers and implemented incentives to recruit foreign professionals. However, except for several advisers to various ministers (healthcare, innovation, tourism, taxes) and state-controlled companies (like Uzbekistan Airways), this has not occurred in a systematic fashion.
Many Uzbeks have made the decisions to leave the country for good and have invested their time and capital in adapting and making a life in other countries. But Uzbekistan can still benefit from its highly skilled expats even if they stay abroad. The establishment of business networks, academic exchange programs between sending and destination countries, monetary and social remittances, promotion of Uzbekistan’s positive image, and serving as a cultural bridge between countries are some of the examples of such benefits. Uzbekistan’s embassies can be more active in working with the Uzbek diaspora, engaging not only Uzbek citizens but those of Uzbek descent who are now citizens of other countries.
Highly skilled migrants are an important and significant means to spur economic growth and innovation in both developed and developing countries. In order to turn its “brain drain” into a “brain gain,” Uzbekistan will need to focus on quickening the pace of economic and institutional reforms it has already announced. At the same time, specific incentives to attract both Uzbek and foreign-born highly-skilled professionals should be embraced and expanded.
Sherzod Eraliev is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute, Finland. He is currently a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Central Asia Program as part of the New Voices from Uzbekistan fellowship program.