Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Various countries in the developing world have implemented policies and incentives to encourage the participation of their respective diasporas in development. The ‘best case’ countries include the Philippines, India, Mexico, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Morocco, Kenya and Ghana, and there seems to be a positive correlation between reforms meant to facilitate diaspora participation and the level of actual participation. The reforms and policies not only contribute to the diaspora maintaining social and psychological links with their home countries but also serve as vehicles for promoting remittances and investments. However, diaspora participation in the (re)development of the country of origin can never be taken for granted.

A key question is whether diasporas created by crisis-driven migration are as liable or willing to engage in this way. Much has been written about crisis migration from developing countries hit by political and economic instability. In most cases, outmigration has led to a severe brain drain as the skilled are often the first to leave. This has certainly been the case in Zimbabwe, which experienced a protracted period of economic and political crisis after 2000. Zimbabweans who left the country are now dispersed all over the globe. Migration has often been seen as a one-way process with migrants moving to destination countries, sending for their families as soon as possible and settling permanently. If migrants talked of return, it was assumed that they were simply dreaming (i.e. ‘the myth of return’).

The theoretical and empirical literature on migration demonstrates that under certain circumstances migrants do return after spending a number of years abroad. The decision to return is not only an important issue in its own right but has crucial implications for migrant behaviour. Literature on return migration emphasizes individual cost-benefit models that focus on success and failure in the destination country, job markets and life-cycle plans. Even though current evidence suggests that the least successful migrants are the most likely to return, success is subjective and depends on expectations prior to migration, perceptions about quality of life upon return and the fact that positive change in the country of origin might influence the desire to return.

Since 2000, Zimbabwe has been through a period of sustained economic and political crisis. The crisis has been well documented and has affected all spheres of life for most Zimbabweans. Amongst the repercussions was a crippling flight of professionals and other skilled people. Most crisis migrants arriving in industrialized countries are not particularly welcome; with less than half settling permanently. In addition, many skilled migrants are underemployed in menial and low-skilled jobs in countries of destination. Crisis-driven migration from a country such as Zimbabwe therefore has the potential to generate a counterflow of migrants once the crisis conditions are resolved.

In 2008, a power-sharing agreement among the rival political leaders – Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara – was brokered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki. The Global Political Agreement (GPA) and its attendant, but somewhat shaky, Government of National Unity (GNU) provided a semblance of normality. Morgan Tsvangirai admitted there were ‘shortfalls’ in implementing all the provisions of the agreement but was optimistic that these would be attended to at the earliest convenience. The International Crisis Group analyzed the implementation of the GPA after the first year and observed that the unity government was clearly making discernible, albeit sometimes painfully slow, progress in a number of areas. It noted that schools and hospitals had reopened; civil servants were being paid (even though the salaries were still low); goods had returned to supermarket shelves; and the cholera epidemic had been controlled. Human rights activists reported a significant drop in abuses. The ravaged economy had generally improved, with Zimbabwe recording 4.7 per cent GDP growth in 2009 – the first positive total in a decade. Since the Zimbabwe dollar was suspended and the US dollar and South African rand were adopted as legal tender, inflation had also fallen dramatically. In the July 2013 general elections, the MDC lost dismally to the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front ZANU (PF). Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections were characterized by confusion and uncertainty. The tentative recovery nurtured since 2009 could be wiped out quickly if a new government does not move fast to assure investors, donors and others.

This paper provides a critical analysis of the GNU by addressing two key migration-related questions: first, how has the Zimbabwean government responded to the brain drain and the prospect of return migration? Second, what challenges and obstacles face skilled migrants who returned after 2008? Answers to these questions should assist policy-makers and other stakeholders to formulate appropriate policies to attract and retain Zimbabwean professionals.