Gain through the loss: Engaging expatriates for nation building


By Prof. Athula Sumathipala

This is an issue which has been very close to my heart for many years for much different reason let alone the reason why I have been an ‘expatriate’, not by choice.

Definition: the expatriate

Let’s first discuss the definition of the term ‘expatriate’ and even try to redefine it to do justice to those are referred to as ‘expatriates’.

The Oxford dictionary definition of an expatriate is that someone who is "living abroad for long periods", "expelled from own country", ‘expelled or removed from his/her native country", and ‘withdrawn from citizenship or allegiance to once native land’.

My opinion and interpretation of an expatriate is very different. For me if someone is ‘living abroad for long periods, either expelled or removed (or forced to be away by the circumstances) and subsequently, has withdrawn not only from the citizenship but also his allegiance to the native land he is a true expatriate.

However, if a person is ‘living abroad for long periods, either expelled or removed or forced to be away by the circumstances and even obtained the citizenship of another country but has never ever withdrawn the allegiance to his native country he should not be defined as an ‘expatriate’. In other words, they are physically there, but as usual they will dream in their native language.

However, ironically there are covert or hidden expatriates: they are living in native soil, not physically expelled or removed, but completely dissociated and withdrawn from the citizenship and also his allegiance to the native land. In other words they are disguised or hidden expatriates.

The reality

It is well known that a large segment of Sri Lankan professionals is scattered in the developed countries. Although there are many reasons contributing to this situation, an adequate attempt has not been made up to now to study this issue in depth. Therefore, inevitably, none of the successive governments could come up with any appropriate, sustainable programme of action to address this issue.

However, with the 7th President in office, a window of opportunity is now available to seriously consider how to ‘gain from the losses’.

We have listened to maliciously and vituperatively worded analyses on the exodus. We have also witnessed knee-jerk reactions and literary exercises executed from time to time with a view to ostensibly remedying the situation. I have, therefore, prepared this proposal to invite the new President to examine the issues from a broader perspective so that, as a nation we could collectively propose practical steps and generate a fair awareness on solving the problems.

The purpose of this analysis is only to comprehend the issues rationally. By understanding the phenomenon, I expect to discuss the optimum strategies to win the support and the valuable services of the expatriates. This contribution, though, should be based on national needs, should also take into account expatriate views; what they are prepared to offer according to their ability.

The remedial action of implementing a systematic programme has become the responsibility of the professionals and of the state. Lost in bewilderment and isolation, the professionals up to now may have become disillusioned. Not only have the expatriates been hesitant to return, they also have developed apathy even to contribute whatever service they could, while living overseas. This has been the glaring and naked truth that cannot be ignored.

Professionals’ neglect

There is no short and simple, good enough answer to this question. There are complex reasons behind this phenomenon. These include political, socio-economic, scientific, educational and perhaps very intricate personal or financial considerations. I am cautious not to discard the view that the exodus can be mainly due to the personal ambitions and expectations for a better living in the economically prosperous world, of those who have the correct ties and links. However, I wish to reiterate that there is a considerable segment of expatriates who are dissatisfied with the atmosphere created by bureaucratic and political interference, denying them the intellectual freedom to practice what they wish to. Narrow educational policies resulting in lesser opportunities for furthering knowledge and expertise also contributed to the fleeing of professionals to technologically- advanced countries. We know a large number of professionals left the island due to the escalation of the ethnic conflict, especially in 1983, and also following the civil unrest in the South during the late ‘80s and the general worsening of the political crisis during the last two decades, especially during the last five years due to deterioration stability and the national security of the country.

The estimated total number of intellectuals who have left the country is around 500,000 or more. There is one more unique category that cannot be ignored. They are the subsequent generations of expatriates who were entirely brought up in foreign countries. They may have not had any direct benefit from Sri Lanka but have retained their identity as Sri Lankans.

As reported in the ‘Economist’ (Sep 2002), America, the world’s biggest skill magnet, absorbs large proportions of the most educated people from the neighbouring countries. It has not changed much since then. A survey of new legal immigrants to America found that about 21% of them have at least 17 years of education, implying some postgraduate study, compared with only 8% of native-born Americans. According to the estimates of the Pew Hispanic Centre (a think tank), 12% of Mexico’s population and 75% of Jamaica, with higher education, are in the United States. Twelve percent of the total labour force of Mexico is in the United States and 30% of those who are with PhDs.

America educates 1/3rd of all foreign students and half of those who obtain PhDs are still in the United States five years later. This is, over 60% for physical science and mathematics. Not only are the students from India and China but also those from the UK likely to stay over. Canada loses their people to the States. From 1997 to 2003, 15% – 40% of their graduates were lost to the States.

In this context of globalization, increased facility to travel and the IT revolution, geographical boundaries are becoming irrelevant. All these have provided the opportunity to develop strategies to re-engage expatriates.

The best strategy

In the context of this abhorrent past as narrated in this short essay, what we require today is a pragmatic solution, embedded in a political vision with a short term, medium term and a long term answer. In formulating such a programme, it is absolutely essential to approach it from two directions; one from the professional point of view and the other from a national point of view. Once again, even from a professional point of view, it has two facets. While recognizing the importance of integrating the contribution of the expatriate community, it has to be done without undermining the value of the genuine intellectuals who remained in the country in spite of numerous adversities.

However having said so I would also make a cautionary note about certain power brokers who may stand in the way of respectful engagement of ‘expatriates’. Even if handled with due care, there will be some local so-called professionals who may not wish to see any engagement of expatriates. That is what needs to be defeated by a visionary politician.

Within a pragmatic programme, the expatriates should be given the choice to come back or to stay back and contribute. However, it is absolutely essential to create an environment conducive for them to come back, if they wish to do so. If their choice is to stay behind, they should be allowed to decide as to how they can contribute to the development of the nation even if they do not return definitely. This, I believe, should be a mutually- beneficial and respectable approach. The importance of this programme will be elevated if it is carried out in a coordinated manner. If and when the professionals decide to return, they should be accepted and their return should be carefully planned and facilitated, as there will be many issues created by the return of expatriates. It is no matter where one would be, in the global village; a significant contribution can be made for the development of the country. Of course, it demands new thinking for such an innovative approach.

In this preliminary examination, I have made certain suggestions on a short-term and a long-term basis, which we are sure, would help to salvage our country through the contribution of science and technology and also research and innovation.

We hold the view that research, innovation, science and technology go beyond territorial boundaries and that due to historical reasons, scientific knowledge, technology, expertise and skills are available in the West and are being utilized by developed countries for the welfare of their countries as explained in my article on the 28th October. I, therefore, reiterate the need to surpass the territorial boundaries and barriers so that we could reach such repositories of scientific wealth, in order to develop our country. In the same strain, we do not believe that physical presence in a particular country is a prerequisite to share one’s expertise in developing and improving the conditions in our country. We also believe that the availability of technical expertise in this advanced era of a communications revolution is vast. In such an arena of distance learning and tele-medicine, the only condition required is a solid programme committed to the agenda in hand.

In an era of advanced information technology, geographical boundaries are fast becoming a misnomer. In fact some organizations have used the Diaspora quite efficiently to achieve their objectives. Some of the nations have also solicited the support of the Diaspora for nation-building.

So let’s learn from this global experience for the benefit of our motherland than for its destruction. Therefore, we emphasize the possibility and the importance of manipulating this ironic situation of the exodus of professionals, to our advantage, into a treasury of expertise.

Proposal 1

One of the most urgent requirements of the day is to launch a comprehensive interactive database and a portal to gather information on expatriate professionals, using the web facility. This should enable the expatriates to provide their details of expertise and the ways in which they are willing to contribute to the knowledge base of the country.

This should become a meeting place for professionals and also will open an avenue for those with similar interests and expertise to form a constructive dialogue. The National Science Foundation currently maintains one such database on a small scale. According to an article, the Science and Technology Policy Research Division (STPRD) of the National Science Foundation conducted a survey to investigate the nature and trends of the external Brain Drain of Sri Lankan scientific community using this database. What I would like to reiterate is that future such attempts should be to formulate a large, international, comprehensive database maintained by a special agency with wider resources. Diplomatic missions abroad should also play an active role to achieve this target. Similar to trade secretaries, we should appoint from the expatriate community, scientists who can play an ambassadorial role to take up the task of linking back the expatriates.

Proposal 2

Actively seek the support of Sri Lankan expatriate academics in top academic positions in prestigious universities abroad, to join honorary positions in Sri Lankan universities and be involved in training local undergraduates and post- graduates, especially in not well established fields of knowledge. However, they should not be offered any more privileges than their local counterparts.

Proposal 3

Investing more on knowledge-based economy: to create an overarching research culture in the country as well as in the universities, expatriates could be offered honorary research positions to increase the research output. These are some of the ways, I think, expatiates could be engaged but we are sure many others may have equally good or better thoughts.

Proposal 4

To develop bilateral exchange studentships/scholarships, PhD positions where the expatriate academics have established positions. This is something some of us do on a personal capacity now but it could be a stronger facilitated effort.


There are many expatriate individuals who are already silently serving the nation with various development projects. I have no doubt there may be not merely hundreds but thousands of others. However, the expatriate population should be considered as important intellectual and financial investments of Sri Lanka and should be systematically and effectively engaged in the nation-building programme. It is now the duty of the professionals to plan and see that a sustainable programme is brought into being.

Let’s GAIN through the LOSS

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