In a highly globalized world, not only goods and information move easily from one border to another. Human capital movement has also been moving at an unprecedented rate, with transportation costs lowering and some receiving developed countries relaxing their migration policies. While the World Bank estimates that the highest numbers of skilled workers are from Europe, Southern and Eastern Asia, a large proportion with respect to its population of skilled individuals come from developing regions such as the Caribbean, Central America, and the Africa. With Africa still struggling to accomplish systemic economic development, how will the continent achieve this feat in face of its brain drain problem?
From the 1950s to 1960s, the term brain drain was first coined by the British Royal Society to describe the pronounced migration of scientists from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada. Developing from its original context, the term currently refers to the emigration of a country’s highly skilled individuals. While it can also include the movement of professionals from rural to urban areas, it usually encompasses movement of university-trained individuals from developing to developed countries.
Dr. Lala Ben Barka, Deputy Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UN ECA) warned in 2005 that in 25 years time, Africa will be empty of brains. African professionals moving to West to seek greener pastures is considered by the commission as one of the impediments for the continent’s development. While definite figures concerning brain drain is sparse, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that Africa has already lost one third of its skilled labor since 1990. Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana are considered as top three sources of emigrating human capital. In a bleak comparison, around 100 Ethiopian economists are situated in the United States compared to one economics professor in Ethiopia.
In a study published by the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2008, it contends that educational levels of the home workforce are slowly rising globally at a similar rate as the skilled migrants. Consequently, this educational development mitigates the home countries’ brain drain. However, the same could not be said of Sub-Saharan Africa where tertiary education growth remains too low to offset the rising skilled migration.
African governments are particularly lamenting on huge spending on medical practitioners who will eventually leave the country to seek employment elsewhere. The IOM estimated that it costs the Kenyan government US$ 40,000 to train a doctor, while around $ 15,000 is spent to subsidize a university student. Authorities decry the investment they shell out on these professionals, as the receiving countries have more to gain in employing them. Likewise, an estimated US$4 billion allocation from the total Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is spent on expatriates to fill out the staffing gap caused by the brain drain.
Even as a subset of the broader topic of migration, push and pull factors are likely causes of the brain drain. Low wages, sub-standard living conditions, underemployment, lack of research facilities, civil unrest and disintegrating political situation all push the skilled labor to emigrate. Conversely, the prospects of higher income, better working and living conditions, university research support and political stability pull and attract them.
That being said, both the push and pull factors occur in the domestic level, and changes in government policies to address these are in order. However, the simple reality of Africa’s brain drain is deeply entrenched within the complex interplay of political, social and cultural reasons. The inability to address these domestic problems results to a snowball effect, where skilled and potentially tax-paying individuals are forced to leave the country. This furthermore denigrates the taxation system and threatens to pull Africa down the drain with the breakdown of primary social services.
While there were strategies previously employed to attract the emigrated labor, they were not believed to be effective. In the early 90s, an effort to engage the African diaspora was set in motion. This diaspora option, known as virtual participation, allowed the expatriates to contribute in their country’s development while not physically relocating. The African Union (AU) has adopted a resolution in July 2001 to urge member states to harness the knowledge and expertise of their emigrated countrymen. But the promise of tapping the diaspora has the tendency to collapse, especially under governments who criticize these expatriates. Nevertheless, infrastructures must be in place to facilitate such virtual participation, and most of all, a conducive political climate must be set to attract their citizens to come home.
In a related but opposite trend of brain gain, skilled labor who were either educated abroad or moved out of the country after being locally-educated are slowly repatriating. Notwithstanding the al-Shabaab threat, a budding information technology industry is beginning to take hold in Kenya. With the push factor of the global financial crisis and high standards of living, younger Kenyans are returning home from the West to run their own start-ups. In August 2014, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that Sub-Saharan Africa is only behind Asia as the fastest growing region in the world. While the causality of this growth remains to be contested (i.e. political climate improving that results to growth or vice versa), there is a large optimism that this development will pull back Africa’s lost skilled professionals.
Is Africa set to reverse its brain drain? With the projected economic growth of the region, and the promise of new skills and know-how brought by slowly returning migrants, all light seems not to be lost for Africa. But the question of this economic growth being inclusive, thus curtailing some of the push factors for the brain drain, remains to be seen.