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The ‘brain drain’ – and strategies to curb the migration of highly skilled human resources – has baffled governments, academics and other policy-makers for more than three decades. The issue has become especially critical for developing countries that are struggling to carve a niche for themselves in today’s international knowledge-based economy.

A new and promising way to deal with the brain drain emerged in the early 1990’s, the so-called ‘diaspora option’. This strategy is attractive to any country – particularly those in the developing world – that cannot afford to offer the salaries and other incentives needed to attract their highly skilled expatriates back home. For it provides the opportunity to maintain contact with, and utilise the knowledge of, these valuable individuals.

The aim of the diaspora option is to encourage highly skilled expatriates to contribute their experience to the development of their country of origin, without necessarily returning home. The South African case demonstrates what can be achieved with such an approach.

Linking through networks

The main feature of the diaspora option is that it seeks to establish links with – and between – highly skilled expatriates. This allows for the exchange of information and knowledge between such expatriates, as well as between them and their country of origin. In turn, the country of origin also has access to the knowledge systems that expatriates belong to in their host countries.

Achieving this requires an effective network to facilitate the transfer and exchange of information. The South African Network of Skills Abroad (SANSA), created by the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) and the University of Cape Town is one such ‘intellectual/scientific diaspora network’. SANSA was born out of the realisation that South Africa has a vast pool of highly qualified, highly skilled expatriates living abroad. Encouraging them to contribute their skills and expertise to the country’s development would, it was felt, be immensely beneficial.

With this in mind, highly skilled South African expatriates all over the world were contacted in 1998 by the SANSA team, who asked if they would be prepared to make their skills available to their country of origin. Just 18 months later, more than 2000 had responded to this call, and the number of members is still growing.

A survey of SANSA members has shown that they are located in more than 60 countries, although more than half still has South African nationality. Most are between 30 and 60 years old, with 45 per cent holding masters degrees and almost 30 per cent with doctorates, indicating that SANSA is a professional rather than a student network. They are spread across the academic, business and government sectors, with the majority working in managerial, executive or administrative positions.

SANSA activities

At the core of SANSA’s activities is a website, via which all those interesting in joining the network can register. The website has been designed to facilitate links and exchanges both between SANSA members, and between them and their counterparts in South Africa.

For example, there is a bulletin board on which SANSA members or others can post notices of general interest. There are also seven electronic discussion groups – based on fields of expertise – which allow members, and visitors to the website, to exchange information. The website also has a facility for searching the SANSA database by skills and expertise. 

All of these facilities are being actively used. For example, the number of notices posted on bulletin boards doubled between 2000 and 2001, and the number of searches conducted has also increased substantially.

Current status

In 2000, the SANSA network was handed over to South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF). The Foundation lies at the heart of the country’s innovation efforts, and has important responsibilities for science and technology policy, making it an ideal home for the network. The transfer has thus significantly increased the potential for fruitful collaboration between SANSA members and their counterparts in South Africa.

Admittedly the number of projects generated through the SANSA network has not, so far, been numerous. But there have been some exciting developments over the past year. For example, the SANSA database is now linked into the NEXUS database, which contains information on current and completed research projects in South Africa, research organisations, professional associations, profiles of researchers in South Africa, and forthcoming conferences. The SANSA database has also proved valuable for research purposes, such as a study by the World Health Organisation on the migration of skilled health personnel in South Africa.

The SANSA network also continues to attract media attention more than three years after it was initiated. In 2001 alone, 32 articles about the network appeared in both South Africa and international newspapers, and it has also featured on national television. This interest appears to reflect a realisation both in South Africa and abroad of the important role that such a network can play in boosting South Africa’s research capacity, and thus the country’s social and economic development.

A mutually beneficial option

South Africa is not the only country to be exploring the benefits of using its international diaspora as a response to the brain drain. Over the past 10 years, more than 40 countries have set up similar links and exchanges with their highly skilled expatriates. Many of these countries have acknowledged that efforts either to stem the emigration of highly skilled people, or to attract them back to the home country, are not always effective. But they now realise that they can still have access to the skills and expertise of these individuals, even when they are not physically located in the country of origin.

However, it has become clear that a commitment from both the country of origin and its expatriate community are necessary for the diaspora option to be successfully implemented. A coordinating body is also needed to ensure effective communication between the two. In South Africa, we have found that the best model is to establish a consortium made up of representatives from both the country of origin and the network membership.

The diaspora option is mutually beneficial for both the country of origin and members of the network. The country can harness the skills and expertise of its highly skilled expatriates, and the wider community in the host country. Conversely, network members get the opportunity to contribute to the development of their country of origin, and also to further their reputation through participation in joint research projects.

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