Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui
When asked whether corruption is a serious problem in their country, more than 50 percent of Eastern Europeans said yes. This poor perception of their countries resulted in the migration of the workforce and students to Western Europe, toward countries such as Germany, the U.K., France, Greece and Spain. This brain drain has had negative consequences for the industry and economy of Eastern European countries.
Since starting at NYU Abu Dhabi, I’ve become more aware of my Eastern European identity. I didn’t previously associate myself with my regional identity. In Romania, being Eastern European is not a salient concept. This is due partly to the uniform nature of the Romanian population and the lack of mainstream news about Eastern Europe as a region. It was also a shock for me to accept the responsibility of contributing to brain drain.
On campus, whenever someone talks about Eastern Europe, the context is usually negative. It’s always the East that pales in comparison to the economic growth and political stability of the West, while the East is pointed out as a hub of corruption and poverty. Moreover, Eastern Europe comes with cheap prices that make it attractive to tourists that want to eat, drink, shop and stay for a fraction of the price of Western Europe. The affordability of the destinations and so-called bizzare customs are what some say are most appealling about traveling to Eastern Europe.
Eastern Europeans are not to blame for the discrepancy between media representation or rumor about our cultures and reality. We are victim to the labels, too. It took me a while to realize that the feeling of inferiority is in fact a trauma built on the hate my own people have toward the political and economical situation in our region. The sense of self-consciousness that Romanians and those from other neighbouring countries harbor comes from a low position on many political, economic and social rankings and has been ingrained in me since I was young. Despite not perceiving Eastern Europe as a cultural region itself, I knew that the image of my country outside its borders was tainted by high levels of corruption and low wages.
It is not hard to imagine that most teenagers in Eastern Europe have the same realistic and objective perception of the country they come from, nor to imagine that this image of their home might push them to leave. As an international student at a U.S. American university in the Middle East, I fall into this category. The prospect of getting a better education abroad incentivized me to leave Romania after I finished high school. My decision also made my parents happy, thinking that their daughter would stay away from the Romanian educational system rampant with bribery and corruption and poses a financial struggle for anyone who doesn’t get a scholarship from the government.
Why did I choose to leave instead of fighting the system? I was fed up with its anomalies, and I wanted to escape in order to acquire the knowledge and the tools to later change the system.
Recently, anti-corruption efforts have been made across Eastern Europe. Anti-corruption Reforms in Eastern Europe and Central Asia between 2013 and 2015 include strategies and action plans that have been officially implemented to prevent and monitor public insitutions. The governments involved agreed to be more transparent and reduce bureaucracy, leading to some improvements in the public sectors. However, the main challenges associated with strategic planning, monitoring and lack of resources remain. Adherence to the Civil Law Convention on Corruption in most Eastern European countries didn’t lead to any more breakthroughs. Bribery seems to be the worst of the problems, which still occurs both in the private and public sectors.
The failure to make a visible difference for society coupled with low minimum wages and a lack of opportunities encouraged people with higher qualifications to migrate. In the case of Romania, the medical system was hit the hardest. Despite the profit coming from the remittances sent by migrants back to the country, the lack of skilled and qualified workers has affected the Romanian economy. According to a recent United Nations study, about 3.4 million Romanians work abroad and the statistics predict an increase in these figures.
Eastern Europe’s brain drain becomes another country’s brain gain. The benefits for the countries receiving migrants are obvious: well-educated migrants replace nationals in jobs that require a great deal of effort, while their economy is boosted. For the East, the loss of elites is detrimental in many ways.
Looking back at the picture of Eastern Europe that I left behind, I had valid reasons to escape a vicious institutional cycle of corruption and lack of opportunities. However, I have a great deal of regret for not having been able to make a difference by taking the initiative to report problems. Corruption is simply a symptom of deeper issues, but brain drain is ultimately a phenomenon that will compound its impact. By having joined the cohort of young students who decided to study abroad and may never come back, I realize that I actually gave the corrupt elites a life-line. The last thing these elites want is a bunch of young, talented, educated people demanding an honest democracy.
Daria Zahaleanu is Opinion Editor. Email her at [email protected]