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Sri Lanka hit by record brain drain, but some stay to rebuild

Colombo Sri Lanka

An evening view of the main buildings and towers of the city at Colombo, Sri Lanka, on March 21, 2023. (Photo by Thilina Kaluthotage / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As Sri Lanka sank deep into its economic crisis last year, dentist Lakmal Kulasekara watched many in his field pack up and leave. No matter how bad things became, he was determined to stay.

“My education was paid for by the people of Sri Lanka, including poor people, and if I don’t pay it back, I am not a man,” he said of the nation’s free public education system. “Yes, we have a problem in our country. But just because of the problem, if everyone chooses to leave, then what will happen?”

Since last year, when the country defaulted on its foreign debt and massive protests forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, over 300,000 Sri Lankans have decided against waiting around to find out. From professionals to laborers, they have gone abroad to escape high inflation, increased taxes, crippling shortages and limited opportunities at home.

Now, this unprecedented brain drain poses a pressing challenge for the government of Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who this month marked his first full year in office.

Wickremesinghe has been on a mission to restructure Sri Lanka’s debt while boosting ties with key partners like India. Another key to the country’s economic revival could be the people who decided to stick it out, whether out of a sense of duty or for other reasons. But as critical sectors like health care and information technology increasingly struggle with personnel shortages, it is a race against time.

“The economic crisis may be resolved in about three to four years. But if the exodus of medical professionals is not addressed, then the crisis can snowball,” warned Rajeev Menon, a medical officer in anesthesia and intensive care attached to the National Institute for Nephrology Dialysis & Transplantation (NINDT) in Colombo.

Widely touted as one of the best in the region, Sri Lanka’s health sector is in crisis. Last year alone, over 700 doctors emigrated, including 125 consultants — doctors considered senior in their fields.

The numbers may not seem big out of around 20,000 doctors and 2,800 consultants in the country of 22 million. But the quick exodus over such a short period has raised alarm.

Government-run hospitals, which mainly serve the poor and middle class, are bearing the brunt, said Dr. Dharshana Sirisena, president of the Government Medical Officers Association. At a news conference this month, he laid out troubling ratios. “In the last two years, 23 out of 30 doctors who are attached to the emergency units at government hospitals have left the country. At least five neurologists out of 29 have already left, and of the eight who went overseas for training, only two returned.”

This talent is not easily replaced, he stressed, as it takes about seven years to train a doctor and at least 10 to produce a specialist.

NINDT’s Menon said the outflow has left remaining doctors overworked. “We feel it especially because anesthesia and intensive care are highly skilled sub-specialties.”

Yasuni Manikkage

Yasuni Manikkage, a urologist at Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital in Colombo, says she has received job offers from Western countries but finds more satisfaction working in Sri Lanka. (Photo courtesy of Yasuni Manikkage)

Despite the growing pressures, some doctors who have stayed do not regret it. Yasuni Manikkage, a urologist at Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital in Colombo, said she is “comfortable here, and after all, it is home.”

“I have gotten offers from Western countries. And yes, the pay is better, but personal happiness and job satisfaction is less.”

In the IT sector, which has also lost plenty of talent, there are similar stories of industry leaders staying put. Some left Sri Lanka, gained experience, then returned home.

The Computer Society of Sri Lanka estimates that at least 10,000 IT engineers have migrated since the crisis erupted. But tech entrepreneur Beshan Kulapala is not considering leaving again.

He went abroad in 2000 to pursue higher studies, but after working at Intel in the U.S. for nine years he decided to come back. “It never felt like home even though the pay was excellent and we had all the comforts. But I always felt like an outsider,” said the former director and co-founder of Vega Innovations, which has developed what it says is South Asia’s first electric supercar.

Beshan Kulapala

Tech entrepreneur Beshan Kulapala says, “Sometimes a hefty paycheck is not everything.” (Photo courtesy of Beshan Kulapala)

Kulapala, a father of three, said he did not want his children to be disconnected from their roots. “I have met so many Sri Lankans in the U.S. who are sad about leaving here because they lose that link,” he said. “I guess sometimes a hefty paycheck is not everything.”

Although he understands why people are leaving, he said even those who migrate can give back to their homeland. “Indians living in the U.S. bring back projects to India, so we can do it too, although we hardly see it happening,” Kulapala said.

Sanjiva Weerawarana, who heads open-source technology provider WSO2, expressed similar sentiments. He lived in the U.S. for 16 years but returned home in 2001, determined to prove that a high-tech company could be built in Sri Lanka. He said his company now has 850 employees, $80 million in revenue and over 700 customers in 90 countries. Yet he still gets asked if he will return to the U.S.

“My answer always was that I am not [going] back,” Weerawarana said. “To date, this keeps coming up because they want to know why the CEO is living in Sri Lanka.”

Dentist Lakmal Kulasekara

Dentist Lakmal Kulasekara and his staff work at their clinic in Colombo. (Photo courtesy of Lakmal Kulasekara)

Meanwhile, dentist Kulasekara has found his own way to support the economy, namely by attracting foreign clients who bring in much-needed currency. Doing business in a plush Colombo mall, the specialist in restorative dentistry and founding director of Danthaja Premium Dental Chambers aims to develop the “dental tourism” business.

“Soon after we opened Danthaja last year, we realized that we were getting a lot of foreigners,” he said. “This was when we realized that we have an opportunity to tap into this area, and we subsequently launched the dental tourism arm of our company. The response has been very good.”

The nation’s battle is still uphill. Experts say Sri Lanka has never before seen such a mass exodus of professionals, not even during its quarter-century ethnic conflict.

“Although there was already a mismatch between available employment and skills in the workforce, today the economic crisis is the main driver of out-migration,” explained Amita Arudpragasam, a policy analyst. “Any government that wishes to stem professional out-migration needs to address the economic crisis and introduce policies to promote social cohesion and economic growth.”

(Source: Nikkei Asia)

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