Millions of graduates quit Sub-Saharan Africa

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Speed read

  • Near doubling over decade in number of graduates who left for work
  • Thirteen per cent of all degree holders emigrated over a decade
  • Percentage of graduates who stay rising faster than that of those who leave

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The number of highly educated people leaving Sub-Saharan Africa to work abroad nearly doubled in a decade, a study reveals.

The research, commissioned by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), found that about a million Sub-Saharan Africans with a degree migrated to another, usually better off, country outside the region in 2010/11. This is a 92 per cent rise from 2000/01, bearing in mind that migration trends over the past four years are not included in this data.

“A scientist in a lab without tools and equipment, might want to migrate, not just because of their salary, but because conditions do not enable him to do the research he might want to do.”

Theodora Xenogiani, OECD

In total, 13 per cent of all degree holders from Sub-Saharan Africa emigrated over this period, the highest proportion of any region around the world, the report says.

Theodora Xenogiani, an OECD researcher and an author of the report, says a major cause of this migration is highly educated people being unable to use their skills. “If you have, for example, a scientist in a lab without tools and equipment, they might want to migrate, not just because of their salary, but because conditions do not enable him to do the research he might want to do,” she says.

But the report stresses that this is not a simple case of ‘brain drain’ — the phenomenon whereby a country loses its best thinkers — as many highly educated migrants maintain ties with their home country.

Xenogiani says migrant scientists tend to collaborate with people from their country of origin, especially if they too are working abroad.

Doing the research, she found countries have started to think differently about brain drain. “In the past, countries thought losing highly skilled workforce was a drama, but now it is not considered as such any more,” Xenogiani says.

“They realise they do not have to bring back people permanently. There may be other ways to have links with them, which will have positive impact on countries of origin.”

But the situation in some countries is critical. In Zimbabwe, 44 per cent of people with a degree emigrated between 2000 and 2011. For Mauritius, the figure over this period is 43 per cent and for Sierra Leone 33 per cent, according to the report.

Peggy Oti-Boateng, a senior programme specialist for science and technology for Africa at UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), says brain drain damages Sub-Saharan African universities and other professional sectors before collaboration happens. “Initially, it drains Africa of its highly qualified human capital,” she says.

The OECD report, published on 3 November, sounds a note of optimism, saying that the percentage of people with degrees in Sub-Saharan Africa is rising faster than the percentage of those who go to work abroad. Still, it found that 32 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africans, with or without degrees, would like to leave given the chance.

For Oti-Boateng, the answer lies in greater government efforts to entice their best educated citizens to stay. “African governments should create the enabling environment through robust policies and incentives for professionalism,” she says.