23 September 2010

The State of Brains: Wasted and Drained

There are some days when I can't help but feel that I'm not fulfilling my potential.  Of course, I've always viewed this job is a means to an end.  Still, there are days when, after having quality-checked my 854th timesheet (I'm not exaggerating), that I'm quite convinced Machiavelli had it all wrong.  Nothing could justify this level of tedium.  I've spent altogether too much money on my brain to let it atrophy like this.

Still and all, if my higher reasoning skills are lapsing, I can comfort myself know that I'm not alone.  One of the local nationals working in our records room is a trained surgeon, while the other has a MA (rather, the Afghan equivalent) in civil engineering.  At least when we discuss politics or religion around the office, I feel my development background kicking in.  But as to how the good doctor keeps his skills sharp, I am at a loss.  Every time I ask them to retrieve a file for me, I have twinges of guilt.  These men should be treating the injured or designing a working sewage system for the city, not scanning records for the umpteenth time.

Of course, this job is just as much a means for an end for them as for me.  Although this is not true of all of the linguists, the vast majority of the folks (men, by and large) that work for Coalition forces are in it for the visa.  It is by no means an easy process; Afghans must work for two or more years with the Coalition, fill out forests of paperwork, identify a military sponsor, and when all is said and done, only 50 are allowed in to the US each year.  But they approach it with tremendous foresight and ambition.  The doctor, for example, has been with the company for six years.  He is saving up enough to not only move over his extended family, but attend medical school in the States and resume his practice there.  Others plan on re-hiring with the company as so-call US linguists, making (seriously) 20x what they are now.  One actually just had his visa come through, and he and his wife depart this week for Texas. 

The drive of these men is really amazing; time and again, they display a tenacity, focus, and incredible conviction that things will work out which I find really admirable, if perhaps naive.  I wish their convictions and fortitude were justly rewarded by fate, but unfortunately that isn't always the case.  There was another gentleman I spoke to recently who survived several years in the south as a local linguist with the Marines – no small feat. He received his visa and was re-hired as a US linguist.  However, once he returned to Kabul, he was forced to choose between being a US hire and his family.  His wife and children still lived in Kabul, but US hires are not allowed to leave the bases except under military escort.  The man returned to his work as a local linguist, foregoing the massive pay increase and security clearance, all so he can have dinner with his family every night.
Ostensibly, the 50 per year cap is meant to curtail the ever-present development bugaboo of brain drain.  The effects of the phenomena are readily apparent in Iraq, where the majority of the professional middle class has become economic migrants to more stable areas in the Middle East and West.  This is especially true of doctors.  Some estimates say as much as 60 per cent of that country's physicians have migrated or been killed since 2003.  From a development standpoint, this is a catastrophe.  The professional middle class, encompassing engineers, teachers, and of course doctors, among others, is what allows a post-conflict society to recover and steady itself.  These professions act as stabilizers, spurring growth and development.  In many cases, they also serve to educate, train, and inspire young people to further contribute.

Some economic theories claim that the remittances of economic migrants offset their loss, but I honestly think the vanished human capital is incalculable.  Not only has society lost skilled professionals and intellectuals, a valuable commodity in and of themselves, but also a critical subset of local earners and consumers.  Essentially, the brain drain excises the most profitable element of society and sends it somewhere where their skills are less valued.  Iraqi doctors, or Afghani, for that matter, might not even be able to practice in the country in which they end up (like the States), instead earning minimum wage at Starbucks.  There is no question that standard of living is lower in Afghanistan, such that even the smallest remittance is a dramatic help.  However, the migrant in question then also has to support him/herself in the US.  As someone who has earned minimum wage or less more than once, I can attest that survival on such a pittance is not easy. 

I'm actually a bit mystified as to how the gentlemen I work with can expect perfect equality in the US, considering they're treated like second-class citizens even in their own country.  During a recent site visit, the double standard affecting local linguists was made painfully clear.  In their on-base 'village' (because heaven forbid we garrison them with their units), the dining facilities had degraded to such a level that the food was nigh inedible, and this was during Ramadan!  The linguists did the mature thing, and wrote a memorandum for record asking the base commander to hire a new food contractor, and were promptly ignored.  I was amazed; these men are putting their lives on the line, and you will neither allow them in your DFAC nor ensure that theirs offer nutritious meals.  It even rose to a force protection issue; this was in an area of the country where the Taliban have a history of using poison (against a girls' school, in one instance), and the linguists' food was being prepared off-base.  Nothing like caring for your critical assets.

In the same vein, during my tour of that village, I ended up playing volleyball with a number of the linguists.  Jumping to make a shot, one young man cut his hand rather severely on the metal roof of his B-Hut.  Despite the fact that he was bleeding everywhere, the base clinic refused to see him, as needing stitches and a tetanus shot does not rise to the level of limb-loss, and the site manager had to drive him to the nearest ANA hospital and beg them to see him.

I even feel myself at times condescending to them, as I often think (and sometimes ever refer!) to them as "my locals".  These men, and smattering of women, are amazing professionals.  What they're experiencing right now is, I suppose, less brain drain than brain waste.

Still, I remind myself, there are enough successes to make the struggle worthwhile.  Another young man in my office fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan nearly ten years ago.  He grew up impoverished, working most of his childhood as a street vendor and window-washer.  During that time, he was able to teach himself six languages, including English, and eventually immigrated to the States as a refugee.  Both he and his brother are now back in country, earning 200k+, well able to support their entire family.  He's planning on getting a MA in computer engineering when he returns to the US.  And the doctor just got his visa package today, with a general's signature.  So I suppose a few years of tedium weren't such a huge price to pay.