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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Viewpoint: Developing IT Skills Internationally: Who's Developing Whom?

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It is difficult to read anything about the global economy without being told how important IT skills will be in the future, and how the economy will suffer if we do not have enough people with these skills. This is particularly true in developing countries for a number of reasons:

  • The economic status of the country has an obvious correlation to what skills are available, and on education and training opportunities;
  • Hardware and software are typically imported from developed countries, and unfavorable currency exchange rates make computer systems relatively expensive; and
  • The importation of expatriate people skills is exorbitantly expensive and increases developing countries' reliance on developed countries.

This means people with IT skills are far more precious in developing countries than in developed countries. But at the same time there is the phenomenon of skilled people moving from developing countries to developed countries, constituting a significant export of capital from poor to rich. This export takes place for several reasons, the most important being the economic opportunities rich countries offer highly skilled people. This may be inevitable, but it should be recognized that this is a subsidy of the rich by the poor, and the rich who are often self-satisfied about "aid" given to the poor, should not delude themselves that they are being charitable.

For the last few years I have been responsible for liaising with companies wishing to recruit students graduating from the University of the Witwaterstrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Like other countries, South Africa has a large shortage of skills, and our graduates are in such high demand we increasingly find it difficult to keep students for postgraduate study. The university's mission of providing scientists and engineers for the country is a particularly important one as we believe we are a key resource for our country.

I have been surprised by the number of foreign companies that try to recruit our graduates. Of course we are flattered; people from leading software companies are prepared to fly more than 10,000 miles from the other side of the world to employ our graduates. This says something about the quality of what we do. Recruiters are not only prepared to travel, they don't take a polite "no" for an answer. Once we say we won't cooperate, they go behind our backs and spam our students. Why are the biggest companies in the world so desperate?

Our policy is not to help foreign companies in any way recruit our graduates. There are challenging and rewarding careers in South Africa for our graduates. Some will choose to leave South Africa, either for a few years or permanently. This choice is not only their right, but it is healthy for there to be cross-pollination. However, as a publicly funded institution we have a particular duty to the taxpayers. We cannot in good conscience go to local industry asking for financial support if we act as recruiting agents for foreign companies (who do not support us and often do not extend to us the same educational discounts offered to universities in North America).

Aggressive recruiting has made me quite cynical. Recently the CEO of a leading software company that has tried to recruit our graduates visited South Africa. He did what VIPs dothey have their photos taken with President Mandela and open a room full of computers in Soweto. No doubt these photos will be used to good effect in the company's annual report to give its shareholders warm fuzzy feelings.

But these warm fuzzy feelings are misleading. These companies' policies are the equivalent of strip mining in ecologically sensitive areas. It is not a question of helping and attracting people who choose to leave their country, but rather mounting raids on the precious resources of poor countries. It is sad that rich countries have education systems so bad they need to steal from poor countries. If successful they will perpetuate worldwide underdevelopment and inequities. Governments are often only too keen to abet this type of behavior.

Of course, there are a number of international companies that do practice sound policies and have real investments in developing countries. These companies plan for long-term, collaborative relationships with thriving partners. Long-term profits can best be guaranteed by treating developing countries as partners, rather than as dumping grounds for obsolete technologies. It is this alternative model that exports expertise rather than experts, which in the long-term will prove to be more profitable.

The most desirable option is to find partners in developing countries to work with on various projects. These countries have the educational resources, technological infrastructure, and the economic opportunities to make good partners. By making developing countries partners, our resources can be utilized; by poaching skilled workers from less-developed countries, they will be destroyed. There is a healthy niche for companies in South Africa (and elsewhere) to develop software for companies in North America. What we need is for industry, governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations to develop these opportunities further.

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Scott Hazelhurst ( is a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0700  $5.00

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