Africa's options: return, retention or diaspora?
This policy brief analyses the reasons for, the extent of, and the impact of the brain drain in Africa. It then discusses and critically examines the conceptual and policy frameworks that have guided efforts to address the problem, both in terms of curbing the phenomenon and tapping the skills, knowledge, and assets of those who have left. The analysis also suggests ways of harnessing Africa's intellectual resources – both at home and in the diaspora – to ensure synergies that promote socio-economic and political advancement.
The 'brain drain' in Africa
The ‘brain drain’ has become a major concern for both developing and industrialised countries. But the South is under particular pressure to find effective ways to manage this escalating phenomenon. In Africa the loss of highly-skilled professionals to the developed world has assumed such serious proportions that it has elicited unprecedented national, regional, and continent-wide efforts to address it.
The absolute loss of skilled labour varies from one country to another. In 1990, South Africa and Egypt accounted for three-quarters of professional Africans in OECD countries. Currently, about 30 per cent of all highly educated Ghanaians and Sierra Leoneans live abroad. In total, 7 per cent of Africa's tertiary-educated population are living in OECD countries – a massive drain for a continent already lacking human resources. The problem is, thus, being taken seriously. For example, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – the most current and comprehensive initiative aimed at facilitating the region’s socio-economic and political progress – explicitly mentions a need to "reverse the brain drain" in its framework document. This recognition among African leaders underscores the magnitude of the problem and why addressing it is crucial to the continent’s development.
Cost of the African brain drain
It is difficult to calculate the financial cost of the brain drain in terms of the value of lost human capital. But a World Bank study estimated that between 1994 and 1997 South Africa lost about 8.4 billion rand in tax earnings and 285,000 rand in GDP, due to emigration of its professionals. And Arab League figures suggest that brain drain from the region it covers amounts to over US$200 million in material costs.
In some cases, raw numbers of migrants speak for themselves. More than 300 South African specialist nurses are thought to leave the country every month, while Zambia has seen its pool of doctors diminish four-fold in the past few years. And 45,000 Egyptian scientists in a variety of fields – including 600 in rare specialisations – have emigrated over the last 50 years. Such estimates are a rough guide to the direct cost of the brain drain. But the emigration of highly educated individuals has important knock-on effects. For example, by 2000 the University of Ghana's medical school had lost about half of its teaching staff. Not only is the country’s health care system suffering from a lack of skilled physicians, but the diminished faculty is also unable to train sufficient numbers of future medical officers.
Strategies for addressing the problem
Three main strategies underlie efforts to deal with the brain drain: the retention, return, and diaspora options. The following sections evaluate the motivations and mechanisms behind each of these, and their feasibility in an African context.
Pursuit of the retention and return options clearly involves significant challenges. But this should not discourage governments from forging ahead with such efforts. In fact, these two options should be pursued in concert as medium and long-term strategies. This is because, as will be shown below, the diaspora option does not guarantee a solution to the problem.
1) Retaining talent
The retention option aims to ensure that highly-skilled professionals do not leave their home country in the first place. While there are instances of non-voluntary retention – for example, some professionals are bonded to serve their country or organisation for a period of time after graduation – most commonly, countries offer incentive packages designed to neutralise the factors that make professionals decide to emigrate.
Competitive financial rewards can be used to counter the lure of more attractive economic prospects in the industrialised world. Combined with conducive working environments – to give individuals the professional fulfilment that they crave – these incentive packages have seen a reasonable degree of success.
For example, a survey of information technology (IT) specialists in South Africa in 2002 revealed a 10 per cent drop in the number of those considering emigration over the previous year’s figures, due mainly to increased salaries in the country. In a similar way, Nigeria has been able to address its outflow of university lecturers. In Morocco, however, the IT exodus appears to be continuing unabated.
Some African countries, including South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania, Egypt, and Morocco, have national research grants schemes that enable professionals to pursue careers in their chosen field without having to leave the country. Establishment of endowed chairs – through state, private, bilateral, or multilateral partnerships – can also help to keep some top African experts in their countries, and even to attract those currently elsewhere.
There are obvious difficulties with an extensive implementation of the retention option in Africa, at least in the foreseeable future. Most African countries do not have the capability, within the global economic system, to arrest the downturn in their economies that has led citizens to seek opportunities elsewhere. Additionally, although the current wind of democratic change augurs well, particularly in terms of easing constraints on open criticism of governments, it is not enough to reverse the outward flow of skilled professionals.
2) Luring professionals back
The return option, which involves measures to attract professionals abroad back to their countries of origin, has been used successfully in Taiwan and South Korea. Such schemes go beyond verbal appeals to patriotism, and encompass recruitment drives as well as concrete measures to provide attractive conditions for those who return. In Africa, the International Organisation for Migration’s 'Return of Qualified African Nationals' programme encouraged about 100 nationals to return to their countries of origin every year between 1983 and 1999.
The motivation behind the return option is laudable. But its success partly hinges on bringing back sufficient skilled personnel to make an impact on national development. Finding the required injection of capital is tricky, however, given the economic situation in much of Africa. Moreover, many of the factors that drove people out in the first place persist in much of the continent.
Consequently, some returnees actually move back to the industrialised world, thereby defeating the purpose of the return option. Furthermore, return programmes tend to target the ‘most urgently needed’ professionals. But it is difficult for such returnees, on their own, to have any far-reaching impact on development.
Incentives can also serve to undermine those who stay at home. They feel that their loyalty goes unrewarded while returnees are offered lucrative packages. Logically, it makes better sense to leave the country rather than remain. Ironically, therefore, the return option has the potential to fuel further brain drain.
A key requirement is to create an economic and professional climate that offers adequate remuneration and living conditions. Korea's success at wooing back its citizens from abroad relied precisely on this approach. The country’s current economic crisis, however, has inspired a resurgence in the outflow of skilled labour, reiterating the importance of an attractive economic environment.
One of the main obstacles preventing members of the diaspora from returning is that – for a variety of reasons – a number of African countries do not allow dual-citizenship. This discourages Africans from coming home to “test the waters” prior to relocation, particularly as industrialised countries tend to limit the length of absence for their permanent residents.
Finally, many diaspora Africans – for family and other reasons – are simply unwilling to relocate to Africa, and so their skills can never be captured with the return option.
3) Turning to the diaspora
In the early 1990s, the diaspora option emerged in response to limitations of the retention and return options. It advocates making use of nationals abroad – for example, through collaborative research projects – without requiring them to relocate back to their home countries.
This approach is based on the premise that individuals thrive in an environment that enables them to develop their capabilities further, and from contact with vibrant intellectual networks. Industrialised countries tend to provide such an environment, thereby adding value to the 'human capital' of the diaspora in ways that their home countries cannot. From this perspective, the brain drain can be viewed as a potential asset rather than a liability. The challenge is to devise ways to tap into the pool of nationals abroad.
a) State-run initiatives
Some African governments have realised the potential contributions of the diaspora towards their country's development and have adopted mechanisms to tap into this resource. Much more, however, needs to be done. Diplomatic missions are key to this process, and the first hurdle is to convince Africans that their overseas missions can provide a valuable service. A second challenge is to improve the information-generating and management capacity of state institutions, so that diasporic communities can access the information they need to make decisions on how and when they might contribute to national development.
The Internet offers an ideal way to communicate such information. Websites can be used not only to describe national needs and programmes, but also provide opportunities for members of the diaspora to register themselves, thereby creating essential databases of experts (see the Ghana Skills Bank [http://www.ghanaskillsbank.org/] for example). Additionally, e-mail or web-based discussion groups can be used by members to exchange ideas and views both with each other and with state officials.
Such efforts help to counter the perspective that African governments neglect their diasporic (or indeed local) expertise in favour of foreign knowledge. Many African experts abroad tend not only to have better knowledge of their home countries than foreign experts, but may also be willing to contribute their skills for lower fees. This fact is recognised by initiatives such as the United Nations Development Programme's ‘Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals’ (TOKTEN) programme.
b) Diaspora-led initiatives
African experts in the diaspora can build networks of expertise that can then be called upon for research and consultancy services. Again, the Internet is an ideal tool for creating such communities, in a cost-effective way, and without the limitations of physical distance.
These communities can facilitate regular discussions about issues, plans and projects, and help build trust between diaspora and local researchers, thereby enhancing the success of collaborative schemes. Members of the diaspora may also be in a position to assist local colleagues with Internet subscriptions or even hardware and software costs, enabling the latter to engage with their peers abroad for mutual, and national, benefit.
Several initiatives have already started to do just this. The Ghana Cybergroup, for example, has provided books – and is helping to expand Internet connectivity – to the country’s universities. And the South African Network of Citizens Abroad (SANSA) is engaged in efforts to link professionals abroad with their counterparts at home, and to draw on the former for development projects in the country. Other groups pursuing similar objectives are “Knowledge and Development”, a group of Moroccan professionals in France, and the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association.
Information technology also opens up exciting opportunities in the field of distance education, helping to alleviate the impact of the departure of skilled professionals. Through multilateral programs such as the African Virtual University or institutional partners in Africa, intellectuals abroad may be able to provide coordinated teaching and research expertise. In addition to such “virtual” contributions, members of the diaspora may also wish to arrange short visits to their countries of origin.
Persuading individuals to run, or even be members, of such initiatives may not be straightforward, however. Those engaged in “cutting edge” research may feel that their work is not directly relevant to their home country. But coupling such expertise with knowledge of the African situation can yield valuable results. In fact, such intellectual engagement may actually encourage some to return home.
c) Limitations of the diaspora option
The diaspora option is not without its own problems, however. The circumstances that forced some professionals, especially political exiles, to leave home were unpleasant, engendering resentment towards their countries. They may, therefore, not be inclined to give of themselves – particularly if the regimes that drove them out are still in place.
Also, professionals quickly get used to the relative ease of access to resources needed for job performance and the certainty that characterises processes in their host countries. They may become frustrated when working in or with colleagues in their home countries where such conditions do not exist, and may be unwilling to participate in future endeavours. The difference in professional values between diaspora and local experts can also create tensions in collaborative efforts, culminating in unsuccessful partnerships.
Finally, the success of the diaspora option depends on other conditions that are not always guaranteed. These include a coincidence of interests between home countries and professionals abroad; high levels of commitment and mutual trust within the diaspora; the extent of flexibility allowed by current obligations abroad; and home governments’ political will to engage with compatriots in the diaspora. These factors will determine the feasibility of the diaspora option not only across countries, but across professions as well.
In recent years, some observers have voiced discomfort about using the concept of ‘brain drain’ to describe the phenomenon of skilled labour flight, preferring terms such as ‘brain gain’ or ‘brain circulation’. But many feel that examples such as those in this paper justify the notion of a 'brain drain' – at least in the African context – and are unconvinced by arguments that most émigrés will “ultimately return”.
Regardless of one’s perspective, however, it is clear that a multifaceted approach is needed to address the problem. The diaspora option appears to offer significant hope – particularly with the opportunities offered by information and communication technologies – at least in the short to medium term. But efforts are also needed to retain experts and, in doing so, create conditions that will attract those abroad to come back. Africa faces a particularly hard challenge, given its economic situation. Some would argue that since receiving countries are the beneficiaries – and in some cases active catalysts – of the brain drain, they should play a leading role in helping source countries to deal with the issue. But to be successful, initiatives must be rooted in committed, genuine, and joint efforts on the part of receiving countries, African governments, multilateral agencies, and networks of African professionals abroad.
Causes of the African brain drain
Africa’s brain drain is the product of various factors, both economic and political. Without doubt, a major factor in many professionals' decision to emigrate – despite regional differences – is economic. As the Chairman of the Kenya Medical Association has noted, "working conditions and poor remuneration of healthcare workers is not good and has led to brain drain and very poor working morale in health institutions".
Poor pay combines with another significant, though under-articulated, aspect: lack of job satisfaction. With the exception of South Africa and some North African countries – particularly Tunisia and Morocco – this psychological factor stems largely from the absence of proper facilities and limited professional mobility. This can lead to frustration and, ultimately, a move to more conducive environments abroad. The absence of adequate facilities for post-graduate education also compels students to go abroad, with many African graduates choosing to stay on in OECD countries after graduation.
On the political side, some academics have been pushed out by the authoritarian climate present in many African countries. Those unwilling to tone down their critical views can find themselves intimidated and harassed, and may seek refuge elsewhere. It is estimated that the United States is home to about 10,000 "exiled Nigerian academics".
Devastating civil wars have also contributed to the erosion of Africa's intellectual capital. Over the last five years alone 20 countries have been plagued with civil war, forcing many citizens to flee, including highly qualified professionals. For example, 30 per cent of engineers, 20 per cent of university lecturers and 17 per cent of doctors have now left Sudan in search of safer havens.
Finally, a recent study by the University of South Africa found that “violent crime is the reason why 60 per cent of emigrants leave [South Africa],” though this does not appear to be a significant cause of the exodus from most countries.
The author is assistant professor in the Faculty of Communication and Culture at
the University of Calgary, Canada.
Economic Commission for Africa (2000) Report of the regional conference on brain drain and capacity building in Africa. Addis Ababa
Findlay A (2001) From brain exchange to brain gain: policy implications for the UK of recent trends in skilled migration from developing countries, International Migration Papers 43. ILO, Geneva
Gaillard J & Tullberg AF (2001) Questionnaire survey of African scientists: IFS grantees and INCO beneficiaries. IFS, Stockholm
Jumare IM (1997) The displacement of the Nigerian academic community. Journal of Asian and African Studies 32, 110-119.
Lowell BL (2001) Policy responses to the international migration of skilled labour. International Migration Papers 45, ILO, Geneva
Meyer J-B & Brown M (1999) Scientific diasporas: a new approach to the brain drain. MOST Discussion Paper 41
Odunsi BA (1996) An analysis of brain-drain and its impact on manpower development in Nigeria. Journal of Third World Studies 13 (spring), 193-214
Tettey WJ (2002) Africa's brain drain: exploring possibilities for its positive utilization through networked communities. Mots Pluriels 20
Al-Aly Nizar (2001) Labour-Morocco: calls to halt brain drain
Carrington WJ & Detragiache E (1999) How extensive is the brain drain? Finance and Development, OECD
Ghanaweb (2001) Ghana medical school short of staff
Johnson D (2000) Africa's brain drain slows development