Africa’s brain drain conundrum

Brain drain has been described as a tendency for talented people from poor countries to seek employment in richer ones. Sometimes, this migration occurs because, while similar skills are needed in both poor and rich countries, the rich countries pay more for them. 
Junior Sabena Mutabazi.
Junior Sabena Mutabazi.

IN EUROPE, much like in Canada, the United States, and Australia, not a day goes by without a news bulletin about migration policy. 

Migration has become such a big talking point to the extent that in the UK, for instance, one political party known as UK Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party has suddenly gained a lot of influence on the British political terrain because of its anti-migration manifesto, which at best describes migrants as benefit cheats and only after ‘stealing’ British jobs – something that saw the party gain a significant number of seats in the European Parliamentary elections.  

Such political parties, including Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National, the third-largest political party in France, gain prominence by protesting over the increased numbers of skilled and unskilled migrants who enter their respective countries from the rest of Europe and elsewhere every year seeking opportunities that would have otherwise gone to natives themselves. 

For the migrants, however, the process is simply economic and is all about searching for opportunities that are rarely found back home in developing economies.

That said, however, if the West is concerned about migration, as Africans, shouldn’t we also have debates of our own regarding the impact of brain drain on our societies, institutions and economies in particular? 

Brain drain has been described as a tendency for talented people from poor countries to seek employment in richer ones. Sometimes, this migration occurs because, while similar skills are needed in both poor and rich countries, the rich countries pay more for them. 

In other cases, brain drain occurs simply because the technical and economic backwardness of poorer countries means that job opportunities there are limited or non-existent. 

Also, in some countries, brain drain is encouraged by tendencies in poorer countries to fill such good jobs on a basis of family connections, political influence, and corruption, while on average richer countries, though subject to some of the above mentioned problems, tend to fill posts on slightly more meritocratic basis. 

So, when you think about it, the scale of brain drain in Africa is staggering. In fact, only a few months ago, the Financial Times reported that in 2011 alone, more than 10,000 medical graduates born or trained in Sub-Saharan Africa were registered to practice in the United States. 

The same figures indicate that the number was equivalent to more than the entire number of doctors currently practicing in Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe combined. In essence, staggering does not begin to explain it.

Similarly, in Europe, the picture is not any different. When you attend any National Health Service hospital in the UK, for example, you soon realise that a significant number of nurses negotiating their way around hospital corridors day and night are considerably of African and Asian origin. 

The observation is challenging because we know that before foreign medical practitioners are allowed to practise in developing countries, they are required to prove that they have a considerable period of experience under their belt. 

In the United States, for example, a study published in the online journal PLoS Medicine, showed that on average, African doctors practiced for 6.5 years before entering the United States.

Although no blame should be imposed on anyone seeking to better themselves, to me one question is unavoidable; since we know that the demand for skilled workers in the developed world is unlikely to diminish soon, who in Africa will be left to deliver key public services, drive economic growth, and articulate calls for greater innovation and entrepreneurship? 

The answer to this is far from clear. In fact, there is not a one-size-fits-all remedy aimed at limiting mobility from particular regions or countries simply because this could, among other things, end up inhibiting development itself, not to mention curbing the rights of would-be migrants.

More importantly, there is a need to devise country-specific measures that recognise the fact that the demand for skilled personnel in developed countries is unlikely to decline anytime soon and that where there is demand, someone will supply. 

As a result, policy-makers should seek ways to plug the drain including, but not limited to, tailoring the local job market to be based solely on merit as well as on job satisfaction, engaging the youth through programmes intended to reduce unemployment levels so as to prevent irregular migration, and fostering partnerships for the return of skilled personnel in the Diaspora to come back to their respective countries to add to human capital.  

As stated by various scholars, it is important that we recognise that migration is not entirely bad for developing countries. Migration has facilitated the exchange of ideas, of attitudes, of different ways of doing things. 

Science and Technology, in particular, are some of the areas that have greatly gained from this phenomenon of ideas flying across borders. 

All we need is to set up a mechanism that encourages our people to return from overseas after acquiring the necessary knowledge, capital and/or experience needed to contribute towards the development of our own countries. 

The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Services Policy.

Twitter: @Jsabex

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