Why African governments should halt brain drain
As we celebrate the International Labour Day next week, on May 1, we should appreciate that one of the most serious challenges facing our continent is the problem of brain drain. Brain drain refers to the current phenomenon of human capital flight which involves thousands of highly skilled professionals leaving their countries every year for opportunities in the developed world.
The effect of this is that while the African countries lose their best human capital they also at the same time spend precious money on educating and training replacements, sometimes paying huge sums of money to expatriates. Clearly there is utmost need to reverse this problem as well as build and effectively utilise capacities if the African continent is not to be marginalised further than it has already been.
The continent of Africa with a population of nearly 850 million people, according to International Organisation for Migration (IOM), has only 20,000 scientists and Engineers which comes to about 3.6 per cent of the world’s scientific population. At least, according to IOM, one-third of science and technology professionals from developing countries are currently working in Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), there are more than 30,000 Nigerian doctors practicing in the US alone, while Nigeria’s health system suffers from an acute lack of medical personnel. For neighboring Ghana about 60 per cent of doctors trained locally in the 1980s had left the country. According to IOM, there are more African scientists and engineers working in the US than there are in Africa.
In monetary terms, according to Dr Dejene Aredo from Ethiopia, Africa is losing as much as US$ 4 billion a year through top professionals seeking better jobs abroad. He says that in Ethiopia alone there is only one full Professor in economics while in the US there are 100. He says that for every 100 professionals sent abroad for further training between 1982 and 1997, 35 failed to return to Africa and that there are more than 32,000 PhD holders living outside Africa as academic refugees.
It is not only PHD holders fleeing the African continent; African teachers are currently working in the United Kingdom where there is an acute shortage of qualified teachers. For instance, according to Richard Lucas, head teacher of Essex primary school in East London, his school is dependent on overseas teachers including those from Africa. A few years ago, 150 potential recruits were interviewed from Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg in South Africa.
But why the brain drain? There is no doubt that those leaving are the very people that African countries need desperately to develop their economies and once they are gone, there is no likelihood of passing on their invaluable skills to the next generation of Africans. This is a double cost to the world’s poorest continent.
The highly skilled professionals do not leave simply to earn more money. The first major factor, according to Dr Sibry Tapsoba, is the value attached to the contribution of these professionals and the persecution these people get in their countries. He is of the view that facilitation of their return and the assurance from their governments that everybody who has a PhD is not an opponent is important.
Although southern African economies are relatively better than many in sub-Saharan Africa and these countries, therefore, act as magnets for skills in Africa, South Africa is experiencing a brain drain of its own particularly since the end of the white dominated apartheid era, according to the World Markets Research Centre. These highly skilled people from South Africa are moving to the more developed English-speaking countries. In South Africa reasons advanced for departure of professionals include crime, low salaries, limited prospects for career advancement and a deteriorating medical infrastructure.
Consequently South Africa is already criticising the UK for poaching the country’s skilled manpower. The criticism is mainly leveled against the UK based recruiters who have gone as far as recruiting primary school teachers and now the figure for recruited teachers stand at more than 8,000.
For Eritrea, a bold step has already been taken to forestall the flight of the country’s top professionals. Out of those that are sent abroad from Eritrea to study, a high percentage does not return home to serve their country. Consequently, the country has proposed a controversial bond of US$ 15,000, the equivalent cost of two years post-graduate study as a guarantee for their return. This is viewed by critics as extortionate for a country with less than US$ 250 as income per capita. Other measures being used include withholding of academic papers until the return of students and sending students to countries that are ‘less attractive’ as opposed to ‘more desirable’ countries like western Europe and the US.
The public sector should be made more attractive particularly to young graduates in the form of better remunerations and incentives, increased prospects for further studies and more room for innovativeness and initiative.
While it is difficult to pay western type and size of packages for the highly skilled professionals in Africa, African governments can at least ensure that there are some minimum conditions to attract the badly needed skilled professionals. Otherwise the view that Africa is the biggest contributor to brain drain and thus only contributing to the development of richer nations will continue to prevail.