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Critics Decry Brain Drain in Uganda Healthcare Sector

Uganda's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has put together a program that will send nearly 300 highly skilled workers to Trinidad and Tobago. Critics say health facilities are already severely understaffed and that more than a million Ugandans will lose their healthcare provider because of the move.

For years, Uganda has suffered from a severe lack of healthcare workers. Low recruitment combined with irregular pay and under-equipped facilities have resulted in many workers seeking employment in other fields - or moving abroad.

The government is now facilitating this process by shortlisting 283 highly skilled health workers to be sent to Trinidad and Tobago for work. Program officials say among them are 185 midwives, 20 of the nation's 28 radiologists and one of only three of the nation's neurosurgeons.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is hoping that the program will result in remittances sent home - which will be taxed by the government - and will help raise funding for the healthcare sector.

Uganda has about one doctor for every 25,000 patients and one nurse for every 11,000 patients. Such numbers have resulted in scores of preventable deaths and high maternal mortality rates, with 17 women dying each day due to labor complications.

Janet Obuni, president of the Uganda Nurses and Midwives Union, said work-abroad programs are attractive because it is common for nurses to go unpaid for up to six months at a time. She also said sending workers abroad will put many patients in danger.

“We find it very unfortunate that the government that would take a step or decision to export its health workers to, as we said, a very small country that is very rich and that has even more health workers for its population. I know the government is trying to fix the issue of not paying health workers well, by sending them out so that the health workers can be settled, because out there they will earn more money. What about the population here?” said Obuni.

However Fred Opolot, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the government is monitoring the process closely.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working very closely with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor and Gender. They've also assured that whatever they do, they do not put the country in a situation where it will endanger the lives of Ugandans. This is a well thought out initiative and they are confident that by sending a few health workers to Trinidad and Tobago it will not constrain the health system in Uganda,” said Opolot.

A local think tank, called The Institute for Public Policy and Research, has filed suit with the High Court for what it calls “government assisted brain-drain.” The hearing is expected to take place on March 2.