360° Analysis

Countering the African Brain Drain


April 03, 2012 13:17 EDT

How the brain drain affects the African continent and what can be done to counter it.

Africa loses the very people it needs. Even though reliable data is pretty scarce, it is estimated that around 23,000 professionals are leaving the continent each year. Many of them are trained in key areas for development and possess skills that are in high demand all over Africa. Unfortunately, in addition to this, developed countries have extended their search for talent beyond their borders and their scouting seems to be successful:  almost one quarter of all African emigrants move to one of the high income OECD countries. The US has benefited from the African brain drain especially; the number of scientists and engineers working in the US is actually higher than those working in Africa. And who could blame those leaving? Apart from the usual reason for migration from developing countries such as better pay, social security and stability, many of the highly skilled consider factors such as job opportunities and the infrastructure that is available for their field of expertise as crucial parts of their decision to leave.

This exodus is hitting Africa in some of its most sensitive spots. The situation has become precarious in the health sector especially. According to the World Health Organization, Africa had an average of two physicians per 10,000 people from 2000 to 2009, the lowest ratio in the world. This looks even worse when compared to the world’s average of 14. Some countries fall well below the continent’s average; Malawi and Ethiopia have only 0.5 physicians per 10,000 people. It is not only the health care sector though. Professionals from all kinds of fields are emigrating, leaving Africa with a continuously growing human resource gap.Ironically enough, to bridge this human resource gap, Africa spends around $4 billion per year, more than one third of its development aid, on foreign experts.  On the other hand, remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa totaled an estimated $21.5 billion in 2010. Even though this sounds impressive, most experts think that it is by far not enough to make up for the economical and social costs every single skilled emigrant causes.

Is if there is a cure for what many see as causing Africa’s slow death? A variety of approaches have been developed which are more or less all based on three key strategies. The first one is retention – keeping the highly skilled from leaving in the first place. Some states have tried to implement fines or other kinds of monetary compensation so that those who leave shortly after finishing their education make up for the economic damage they do to their home countries. Others try to offer a variety of incentives to the well-educated to make them stay.  This method seems to be rather problematic though, and most measures are not easy to enforce. Ghana has introduced an $ 11,000 fine for nurses who leave the country before having worked in Ghana for five years. However, only four people paid the diminished fine in the first three years and it was estimated that many simply decided to leave the country unannounced. Additionally, creating desirable incentives is not easy for developing countries when they have to compete against the prospects prosperous states have to offer.

 So keeping people from moving is apparently rather difficult, but what about those who have already gone? One of the strategies to deal with the many African expatriates is repatriation- making those who have left return either for a limited period of time or even indefinitely, in order to help their country of origin using their skills. Some governments have already discovered how valuable the talent of the expat community is. The Nigerian National Volunteer Service for example, was set up by the Nigerian government not only to attract residents of the country but also to engage highly skilled Nigerians living in other parts of the world to return for a certain period of time. The whole concept is heavily based on the assumption that even after several years of living abroad, connections to your country of origin remain strong enough to make the big step of relocating back home.

However, depending on factors such as expatriates’ reasons for leaving or how well they are established in their chosen country, it might be problematic to convince them to return. Therefore a third approach has steadily gained importance over the last couple of years: virtual participation or virtual linkages. Expatriates in the diaspora support their home countries by providing their knowledge and skills without actually being physically relocated. There are a variety of expat groups who joined forces to support development in their home countries. Founded and run by private initiatives or by governments or international organizations, these groups provide their former home countries with expertise and skills. Their engagement can take a variety of forms: expatriates can provide their technical expertise to build up infrastructure, support educational programs or advise local administration. The Internet has made this a lot easier. Compatriots can get in touch even though they might be spread all over the globe. The advantage of this approach is that it is able to combine the wish of many expatriates not to leave their new homes with the desire to help their old homes which they feel still emotionally attached to.

It seems that the key to countering Africa’s brain drain is successful diaspora engagement. Considering the fact that there are around 167 million Africans living abroad, the potential support and possible gain for the African continent is enormous. Governments must recognize this potential and learn how to use it. At the same time the loyalty of these millions of expatriates should not be taken for granted. Measures must be taken to form strong bonds and allow a collaboration network to develop. Thereby brain drain could be successfully turned into brain gain and would be beneficial for everyone contributing.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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