Not too long ago, African nationalists and scholars were making very loud demands on Europe and America to pay reparations to Africa for the slave trade. They argued that the trade robbed Africa of its most productive population and therefore impoverished the continent. On the other hand, the slaves contributed immensely to the wealth of Europe and America.
As was to be expected, no reparations were ever paid. The demands have died down, although the issue has never gone away.
Another case for reparations has come up. No demands are being made – not very loud yet - but reasons for it exist.
It now turns out that Africa helps build the West’s capacity in various professional fields even as the developed world sends expensive capacity building experts to Africa. The only difference is that Africa is not paid for its experts while we pay a lot for to create jobs for Western experts. Another case of injustice, you might say.
This is how it happens. Reuters reported on 25th November, 2011 that the doctor brain drain to the developed world costs Africa two billion dollars. This is not exactly news. Many doctors, after being trained by their countries move to Europe, America and Australia for greener pastures, as the common saying goes. What is new is the price tag that has now been put to the brain drain. And it is huge.
The movement of doctors out of Africa is only part of the picture. The Reuters report, based on a study by Canadian researchers, did not include other health professionals like nurses. Nor did it include scientists, engineers and academics who regularly leave for richer countries, either voluntarily or because they have been lured.
It is not just any doctor or scientist who goes to the more advanced countries. It is the best and the brightest, leaders and experts in their respective fields, who leave, pushing the cost of their departure even higher in real terms. The actual cost of the brain drain might be anywhere between five and ten billion dollars.
But even with the total cost to Africa remaining unquantified, the current figures are simply staggering. The study, for instance, reports that it costs 21.000 dollars to train a doctor in Uganda and 59,000 dollars in South Africa.
This means that for every Ugandan doctor that goes to work in the rich countries, Uganda is donating 21,000 dollars to that country. Similarly, South Africa gives 59,000 dollars for every doctor it trains. The figures are probably comparable for scientists, academics and other professionals in high demand.
When you consider the number of highly trained and skilled people who leave Africa every year, you realise how colossal the continent’s aid to the developed world is.
But unlike the aid we receive from the rich countries, ours does not carry interest and has no strings attached. We do not demand that they procure specific items from the donor country or that they give jobs to our employed youth in health and other facilities funded by our aid. No. It is completely free.
The same report reveals the huge benefits of the doctors’ brain drain to the rich countries. For instance, Britain gains 2.7 billion dollars; the United States, 846 million dollars; Australia, 621 million dollars and Canada, 384 million dollars.
Add to this benefits from scientists, academics and other professionals and the figure probably triples.
This is the unacknowledged aid Africa gives the developed countries.
Which raises many questions. Aren’t the rich countries morally bound to pay for these highly trained and skilled people who come to fill the shortfall in skilled people and whom they did not educate? Doesn’t their collective conscience prick them when they actually help run down healthcare systems of developing countries? If they continue to receive and employ these professionals without paying for them, doesn’t that amount to plunder of the highly qualified human resource of Africa?
These are the conclusions the researchers who did the study have arrived at – some sort of reparations for this loss.
We should harbour no illusions that this will ever happen. Instead we will get reminders that this is how the free market operates and we must be prepared to play by the rules. Besides, this is not the first plunder of Africa. There have been others before, starting with the slave trade, then the theft of natural resources during and after colonialism, and now that of the educated human resource.
Still we should try to put things right. In negotiations for aid or credit, African ministers should put up a strong case to factor into whatever repayment modalities are arrived at this form of aid we also give. It should, in all fairness, be subtracted from what we are expected to pay back. It might even be that the rich countries actually owe Africa more.