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HEALTH-DRC: Turning Brain Drain Into Brain Gain

Mattias Creffier

BRUSSELS, Oct 22 2006 (IPS) - How can Congolese doctors and nurses living in Belgium exchange information with colleagues in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? This was the central question at a roundtable convened by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Belgium’s capital, Brussels, recently.

Belgian Minister for Overseas Development Service Armand De Decker; the health minister for the DRC, Zacharie Kashongwe, and four Congolese medical experts who currently live in Belgium participated in the debate, held Oct. 18.

After years of war, the health care sector in the DRC is in tatters: 245 of every 1,000 children born in the Central African country do not live to the age of five, while life expectancy is less than 43 years. The priority of the health minister has been the reconstruction of hospitals in war torn areas. But, battling diseases such as cholera, malaria, tuberculosis and measles is just as urgent a matter.

The DRC’s problems are too great for the expertise of the Congolese diaspora to be ignored in addressing them, said De Decker; he reaffirmed his commitment to funding exchange programmes, while the IOM said it would coordinate such projects.

The Belgian minister wants to set up a database of Congolese medical experts practicing in Belgian hospitals or universities. A system would then be established that enabled Congolese nurses and doctors to take a fully paid leave of absence for several years, to work in the DRC.

De Decker aims to strengthen training links between major Congolese hospitals and Belgian universities and medical facilities. Contributions by the Congolese health workers could even out the spotty level of medical training that is currently being carried out in the DRC, he noted.

Furthermore, the programmes could be implemented even without personnel exchanges – with an internet or video link being set up immediately in certain cases, to help Congolese physicians benefit from the advice of their Belgian colleagues.

Jim Ilunga, medical director of the Clinics of Europe in Brussels, has already organised these types of knowledge exchanges. In the course of programmes he oversees, a Congolese doctor first trains with a Belgian colleague who serves as a sort of mentor in a medical subspecialty. Then, the Belgian specialist goes to the DRC to see how the training is being put into practice.

Tshela, an organisation represented by Rachel Izizaw, coordinates training for nurses in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.

Given the situation in the DRC and its enormous needs, help from Congolese with medical training who now live abroad would be most welcome – especially in rural areas, where medical expertise is often lacking, Kashongwe said. Most of the local training programmes presently consist of initiatives that extend over several weeks, with specialists from Kinshasa traveling to the interior to instruct their peers.

However, during the conference different speakers from the diaspora said they had insufficient information about the needs that presently exist within the DRC and the possibilities for making use of Belgian overseas development aid. De Decker suggested that they accompany him on his next trip to Kinshasa for a meeting with the minister of health, to address this lack of awareness.

To better coordinate information exchanges between local authorities and the Congolese diaspora, the IOM has set up a programme called ‘Migrations for African Development’. One of its objectives is to catalogue the names of the thousands of expatriate medical experts. It is also developing ways to analyse needs for personnel, expertise and equipment.

“We’re not talking about organising some sort of en masse return,” Ndioro Ndiaye, assistant general director of the IOM, told IPS. “But Africans of the diaspora, who straddle two cultures, are in the best position to transmit the experience they’ve gained in the North to their colleagues in the South.”

The roundtable formed part of a conference series called ’24 Hours of the Diaspora’, an initiative designed to encourage dialogue between Africans living abroad and officials in their home countries.

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