Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tapping Diaspora Can Spur Lebanon Growth

By Elias Sakr
Lebanon’s expatriate community funneled $8.2 billion in remittances into the country last year, accounting for 22.4 percent of the country’s total GDP, according to the World Bank, and making it the 12th largest recipient of remittances globally While this money plays a substantial role in the economy, many in the country argue that remittances come at the expense of human capital, as fresh graduates continue to seek job opportunities abroad.
At the same time, some members of the expatriate community are suggesting that their contribution to Lebanon goes beyond cash, arguing that the government should take advantage of the nearly 4 million Lebanese passport holders living abroad to create real growth and build a real partnership between the homeland and the diaspora community.
Among several fields that could benefit greatly from cooperation between Lebanon’s public and private sectors on the one hand, and expatriates on the other, are medicine and science.
Dr. Tanios Bekaii-Saab, medical director of the gastrointestinal cancer program at the Ohio State University Medical Center, is one of those 4 million Lebanese living abroad.
Bekaii, who left Lebanon for the U.S. in the late 1990s to continue his medical studies, laments the many lost opportunities from the almost non-existent cooperation between Lebanon’s scientific community and expatriates in the U.S.
Bekaii holds private Lebanese academic institutions responsible for failing to take the initiative, as much as he blames the government for neglecting the importance of connecting with its expatriate community.
“It is a multifaceted problem. First, the state should start funding research. Second, academic institutions should connect with their alumni,” he tells The Daily Star.
While Bekaii doesn’t find the Lebanese government’s reluctance to fund research programs surprising, he says that universities and academic institutions could benefit immensely, with relatively minimum efforts, from the exchange of expertise with Lebanese expatriates in the medical and science fields.
“[The] American University of Beirut has a powerhouse in the U.S. because they graduate 50 to 60 doctors who go to the U.S., and out of those, two to three end up working in research program[s],” says Bekaii, himself an AUB med school graduate. “AUB should find a way to connect with them.”
“The university has to keep track of its graduates and take advantage of its connections. Both the university will benefit and its graduates will benefit. It’s a win-win situation. AUB has graduated nearly 30 people who are currently medical program directors and chairman in the U.S.,” he adds. “This should be source of pride for AUB.”
Bekaii said Lebanese universities lose contact with their alumni in part because they haven’t established a mechanism of cooperation at the academic level.
“We should not be looking to establish contact only on a social level, through the organization of gatherings or picnics, but also on an academic level, through the organization of expert panels and seminars,” Bekaii says.
Academic institutions should also consider broadening their contacts with more than “one or two well-known universities in the U.S., because there are 50 states and every university has its strengths,” Bekaii says.
Like universities, Lebanese hospitals could also benefit from the expertise of the expatriate community through the organization of peer review panels, according to Bekaii.
While Lebanese hospitals are excellently equipped for clinical care, they fall short of standards when it comes to research, he says.
Cooperation between institutions abroad and Lebanon’s scientific community would not only boost know-how in the country, but would help secure funds to perform medical and scientific research in Lebanon, Bekaii says, citing, as an example, collaboration between his research program and one in Egypt.
“We collaborate with Egypt. Egypt has been funding a storage bank of liver cancer cells and the U.S. National Cancer Institute is funding research conducted by an Egyptian scientist because he is collaborating with our program. Why collaborate with Egypt and not Lebanon?” Bekaii asks.
He argues that the Lebanese government should consider allocating funds to spend on enhancing research, particularly at the Lebanese University.
“In the U.S., the government is the driver of research programs. At our university, the largest share comes from the federal government [the National Cancer Institute] followed by industry money from pharmaceutical companies and wealthy donors,” Bekaii said.
“It costs $1 million to develop a vaccine in the U.S. for the first step alone … we have brilliant minds in LU but they are not exposed to research,” Bekaii says. “Lebanon could be a hub for medical care and research in the Middle East if properly funded.”
This report was published in The Daily Star on 08/09/2011

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