Malawi's National Organization for Nurses and Midwives says about 2,000 nurses will leave the country this year for jobs in Saudi Arabia and the United States. The group says the nurses were forced to take jobs abroad due to high unemployment in Malawi. Health rights campaigners say the brain drain is alarming as more than half of nursing positions in Malawi's public hospitals are vacant, which the government blames on lack of funding.
Malawi's National Organization for Nurses and Midwives said that currently more than 3,000 trained nurses in Malawi are unemployed.
"We feel the pinch that unemployed nurses and midwives have gone through and are going through," said Shouts Simeza, president of the organization. "Having graduated with a qualification and having been licensed to practice for five years without being recruited is not an easy way of doing things."
Simeza said the first group of 1,000 nurses is expected to leave for Saudi Arabia in August. The plan is to send 1,000 each year for a five-year project.
George Jobe, executive director of the Malawi Health Equity Network, said he is concerned the nurses going abroad do not know enough about the jobs they are taking.
"Who else has gone to these countries and checked the health facilities they will work in, and under what condition?" Jobe said. "These are some of the issues, but paramount to everything is that we wished these were recruited here."
Simeza said the organization has received assurances about the work in Saudi Arabia.
Government statistics show that 65 percent of nursing positions in public hospitals in Malawi remain vacant.
Dorothy Ngoma, adviser to the president on maternal mortality and reproductive health, said that unless the government finds a way to boost pay for nurses, many more will leave the country.
"What will happen is that even the ones that are in the mainstream will choose to quit government jobs here and go to the U.S and earn more money," said Ngoma, who is also a past president of the nurses' organization. "And there is nothing wrong with that. But, it definitely might cause brain drain and that might not be good for Malawi."
However, the Malawi government says it cannot hire more nurses now, because of financial constraints.