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Brain Drain in Montenegro: from Data Assessment to Possible Solutions

March 29, 2015

By Bilsana Bibic

In the context of youth unemployment, Montenegro places better than other countries in the region. For example, ILO WESO Trends for 2015 predicts a 38.8% youth unemployment rate for Montenegro, in comparison to a 47.5% rate for Serbia and 57.7% rate for Bosnia.

This, however, does not mean that Montenegrin youth are better off on the labor market. According to Vijesti, there were around 30,000 unemployed individuals registered with the Bureau for Employment in March this year. 14,000 of them were young people. And, if we are to judge on the basis of the capital, Podgorica, the majority has a higher educatio degree.

Statistical Data on Brain Drain and the Labor Market

A new IMF special report underlines the incomplete reform process in the Western Balkans, and warns of the risks of a further unemployment increase. Montenegro, which compares favorably to new member states but lags behind EU average in almost all areas, is mentioned as being the country with the sharpest increase in poverty since 2008 (together with Albania).

A sure sign of the inefficiency of the labor market is the constant emigration of the most highly-skilled members of the population. While an exact number of highly-skilled Montenegrins abroad does not exist, the 2014 Study on Diaspora notes that 2,605 individuals living abroad (6.2%) have a university degree.

This data, however, is based on the 2003 census. Other newer data, based on the 2013 census, is still lacking. An important step in solving this issue in Montenegro is the Scientific Network Project which the Directorate for Diaspora conducts in cooperation with the Ministry of Science. However, though laudable, the project lacks a vision of interpretation of data in order for it to be useful to the various actors in the field, as Aleksandar Jacimovic, the acting president of OMSA noted in comments for Balkanalysis.com.

Action Plans, Education and Challenges

The Action Plan for Employment for 2015 gives further insight into the internal causes of brain drain and the situation on the labor market. A high level of unemployment paired with inactivity of the labor force, lack of entrepreneurship incentives and the active informal sector are the top challenges.

An issue specific to Montenegro is the regional difference in unemployment and development levels between the southern/central and the northern regions. As Al Jazeera Balkans notes, while the country’s unemployment rate in March 2014 was 15%, northern Montenegro’s rate was 25%.

Due to a lack of opportunities, youth increasingly migrate from the northern and into the central and southern parts of Montenegro. This leads to a twofold brain-drain phenomenon: one in relation to foreign countries, and the other, an imbalance within the country itself. Most jobs, however, especially in the southern region, are seasonal, short-term and only a few necessitate a higher education degree. Thus, for the majority of highly-educated unemployed youth, the situation is a stalemate.

Another big challenge for Montenegro is the quality of higher education. The labor market demands skills which education currently fails to provide. HEIs are inadequately funded, especially in relation to research activities, resources are scarce (human resources, accessibility of data and academic materials, etc.), while research capacities are underdeveloped (in relation to methodology and data processing). Moreover, issues surrounding plagiarism make students mistrust the ability of HEIs to provide them with adequate personal and academic development.

As a consequence, young people go abroad, seeking quality education and opportunities for professional advancement. Nevertheless, these factors are a matter of personal desire of a particular individual as much as a necessity. Sometimes, the main inspiration for departure is the curiosity and desire to study and work abroad.

At other times, reasons surrounding the economic and social situation prevail. Recently, a politization of youth and the resulting decline in their political engagement has become an acute problem in the region. The discourse on politization in Montenegro, though present, still awaits wider public debate and research. Participation in political parties as a way of securing a job, nepotism, and promotion on the basis of non-professional criteria are taken for granted. For those who wish to be employed on the basis of merit and treated professionally, the option of emigration is sometimes the most feasible.

Existing Institutional Mechanisms for Countering Brain Drain in Montenegro

Montenegro has various mechanisms in place that are supposed to deal with the question of brain drain. Legislation includes a (now-expired) National Youth Action Plan, Strategy of Cooperation with Diaspora 2011-2014, an Action Plan related to it and a Draft Law on the Cooperation of Montenegro with Diaspora.

Meanwhile, the country’s scientific system is regulated by the Law on Scientific and Research Activities from 2010, and also by the Amendments of the Strategy for 2012-2016. Montenegro also has a Directorate for Diaspora which has existed under its current structure since 2011.

The implementation mechanisms are numerous. The Ministry of Science publishes regular calls for national and bilateral projects in the field of scientific and research activities. The first Center of Efficacy was established and the financing of the first Scientific and Technological Park in Montenegro is underway.

Moreover, the Ministry of Science, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, co-finances scientific and research activities. In this regard, the new National Program of Scholarships for Excellence is quite remarkable. Some 1.26 million euros will be invested in the financing of talented Montenegrins studying and researching at renowned HEIs abroad.

In relation to bridging the gap between the labor market and education, the Bureau for Employment’s Professional Training Program, now in its third year of implementation, is a theoretically sound mechanism. The new program – Youth are Our Potential – is also worth mentioning.

Practical Shortcomings and Private-Sector Tendencies

However, even though such official implementation mechanisms to increase youth employment and reduce brain drain do demonstrably exist, a discrepancy between theory and practice is still present, as the data on unemployment and brain drain clearly demonstrates.

Indeed, as Aleksandar Jacimovic pointed out, the new National Program of Scholarships for Excellence has a time limitation (it ends in 2017), offers only co-financing rather than full financing of studies and makes return to Montenegro a condition of funding. The Professional Training Program, on the other hand, has failed to produce significant results so far. Out of 7,500 individuals who have completed the program, 2,000 (26.6%) got a job offer.

For many employers, this program represents a way to acquire a free labor force. It is common for a company in need of two employees to ask for up to 12 trainees, while then failing to provide any of them with the necessary support. As these examples demonstrate, Montenegro needs quality, not quantity in terms of results from the government’s mechanisms.

NGO Activities and Preferences for a ‘Brain Circulation’ Model

An important NGO working with these issues is OMSA. The organization works with government bodies, lobbies for various interests of the community of Montenegrins who are studying abroad, and is an important interlocutor on new initiatives and projects.

In the past, they have worked on making all of the funding available to Montenegrin students studying in Montenegro also available to those studying abroad. They are engaged in the Montenegrin Empowerment tool project aiming to collect data on the Montenegrin population abroad born after 1980 in an interactive and accessible manner, which would consider career development. They are considered to be a strong advocate of transforming the idea of brain drain into brain network and understanding the decision to go abroad as an individual career decision of high risk.

In a country with a large discrepancy between the ways brain drain is understood among various national and international actors, such advocates are essential. The Montenegrin Directorate for Diaspora shows a positive shift in this regard. The Directorate acknowledges the need for the brain drain question to be considered in a new manner, and focuses its efforts on developing knowledge networks.

In this sense, it moves towards the brain circulation model, which is more flexible and better aligned with the complex migratory trends of highly skilled populations and away from the traditional brain drain/brain gain models. The brain circulation model, unlike the traditional models, acknowledges the positive impact of brain drain. It understands mobility as a personal choice, allowing for development of mechanisms which do not seek to permanently re-locate highly skilled professionals to their country of origin but to create knowledge networks.

Conclusions

Montenegro is still far from bridging the gap in attitudes and perceptions, and shifting the long-term brain drain policies towards a model of brain circulation that some advocates consider the ideal one. The regional differences within the country, based on unequal development and investment, will have to be addressed as well to remedy the basic brain drain problem.

In regards to making the domestic labor market more appealing to Montenegrin students currently studying abroad, a temporary positive discrimination in employment, tax and housing areas could possibly show results. A reassessment of the national approach to financing HEIs, study and research programs would also be constructive. HEIs need more funding to be directed towards research activities.

On the other hand, according to experts like Aleksandar Jacimovic, mechanisms of financing study programs with the aim of investing acquired knowledge into Montenegro need to be separated from those which aim to stimulate the global presence of Montenegrin citizens in various fields.

Finally, and most importantly, as Aleksandar Jacimovic succinctly puts it, “the administration needs to completely dedicate itself to the development of human capital, placing strengthening of youth and collaborative culture at the center of all actions and to constantly remove all limits and barriers for creative and proactive action imposed by the system.”

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