February 6, 2019 / 1:00 PM / in 2 months

Algerian brain drain is pre-election headache for government

* Young professionals seek opportunities abroad

* Presidential election to be held in April

* Government priority is to engage with youth

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS, Feb 6 (Reuters) - No matter who wins Algeria’s presidential election, 29-year-old cardiologist Moumen Mohamed plans to seek his fortune elsewhere.

He is one of a growing number of young, educated Algerians who are looking for work in Europe or the Gulf to escape the low salaries imposed by a state-dominated economy at home.

The exodus of doctors, engineers and other highly skilled workers is a headache for a government hoping to engage with its largely youthful electorate ahead of the vote on April 18.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 81, has not said if he will seek a fifth term, although the ruling FLN party, labour unions and business leaders are urging him on.

For young professionals, the question is scarcely relevant. Many feel disconnected from an elite populated by the veterans of Algeria’s 1954-1962 war of independence from France, an era they only know about from their grandparents.

They want to pursue their careers but feel discouraged by a system that offers low-paid jobs and little opportunity to better themselves.

“I have already done my paperwork to migrate,” said Moumen, the cardiologist, who works at a state hospital. “I am waiting for a response.”

Nearly 15,000 Algerian doctors work in France now and 4,000 submitted applications to leave their home country last year, according to official figures.

The government does not accept all the blame.

“The press has exaggerated the phenomenon ... it is a problem for all Algerians, not just the government,” Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said in response to a reporter’s question about young doctors leaving.

But in Europe doctors can earn ten times what hey get in Algeria, a socialist economy where medical professionals are paid little more than less skilled public employees.

“Salaries, working conditions are bad, and above all there is no appreciation of doctors,” said Mohamed Yousfi, head of the specialist doctors’ union.

“Our doctors are filling the medical desert in Western countries like France, Canada and Germany. They are also present in the Gulf,” said Yousfi, sitting in his office in the public hospital at Boufarik, a town near Algiers.

The hospital, which opened in 1872, was being refurbished by building workers, and Yousfi said medical equipment was readily available.

“The authorities focus on walls and equipment but forget human resources,” he said.

PUBLIC SECTOR

Algeria has poured billions of dollars in the health sector in the past decades, with around 50,000 doctors and 150,000 beds available in 2018, official data shows.

The North African oil and gas producing nation guarantees citizens cradle-to-grave welfare, but lack of competition from the private sector means some services are poor.

The country only ranks 85 out of 189 in the Human Development Index of living standards compiled by the United Nations Development Programme. This is behind Western and Eastern Europe, the Gulf and even sanctions-hit Iran.

Many public hospitals do not offer the same level of quality as private clinics, which have been slowly opening. Those who can afford it go abroad for treatment.

“We are not respected as we should be as long as our dignitaries, ministers and generals continue to seek treatment overseas,” said a doctor who asked not to be named.

Doctors are not the only ones who want to migrate. Pilots, computer engineers, oil drillers and even journalists are also heading for the airport, privately owned Algerian media report.

Around 10,000 engineers and drillers from the state energy firm Sonatrach have left the company in the past ten years, according to senior company officials. “If nothing is done to improve working conditions and salaries, more and more will leave,” a Sonatrach source said.

Most professionals head for the Gulf, where they earn good salaries.

“I left Algeria in 2015. I am a computer engineer and I am now in Oman working for a big telecoms firm,” Messaoud Benali, 39, said by phone.

“I know plenty of educated Algerians who work in Gulf countries,” he said.

Bouteflika must say whether he will run or not by March 3, according to the constitution.

If he does, he is expected to win despite his poor health, because the opposition remains weak and fragmented, analysts say. But how the ruling elite can connect with young people is another question altogether.

Algeria has one of the world’s slowest internet speeds, but its young people are still very tech-savvy.

This became clear when 21-year-old singer Farouk Boujemline invited fans via Snapchat to celebrate his birthday in the centre of Algiers.

About 10,000 showed up, jamming the traffic for hours, and police had to set up barriers around the city’s independence monument to make sure the party didn’t get out of control.

By contrast, Bouteflika, Prime Minister Ouyahia and several other ministers do not have Twitter accounts to communicate with the public.

Algeria is one of the few countries where government ministries still use fax machines to communicate with the outside world.

“How to reconnect with the young elite, this is the top priority for Algeria’s next president,” said political analyst Ferrahi Farid.

In the past, authorities could ensure public support by increasing salaries or extending the welfare state.

When riots erupted in Algiers in 2011, the government sought to prevent any spread of the Arab Spring uprisings by offering billions to pay for salary increases, interest-free loans, and thousands of jobs in the public sector.

But 95 percent of government income depends on oil and gas revenues, which halved in the years from 2014 to 2017, forcing officials to impose a public hiring freeze.

“When the oil price is $100 you can do a lot, but when it is $50 there is not much you can do,” Farid said. (Editing by Ulf Laessing and Giles Elgood)

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