By Gumisai Mutume
For thousands of Africans living overseas and seeking ways to contribute to the development of the continent, initiatives aimed at staunching the outflow of professional expertise are offering new possibilities. Now, more than ever before, there exists "a major opportunity to transform the historical brain drain ... into a new African 'brain trust'," notes Mr. John Sarpong of the Digital Diaspora Network Africa.
He was among 130 heads of technology firms, non-profit organizations and UN agencies who launched the network in July 2002 as part of a resurgence of initiatives to reverse the loss of professional skills from Africa. Among those being targeted are scientists, medical doctors, engineers, university lecturers, economists, information technologists and other highly skilled people in short supply on the continent.
Some initiatives use the Internet to attract skilled workers -- like the thousands of South African doctors living in Canada -- and make it easier for them to provide services to patients back home. Other programmes hope to entice skilled professionals to actually return to Africa.
African professionals tend to migrate to Western Europe and North America. Many are dissuaded from returning home by the economic and political crises that have bedevilled the continent over the last few decades. Failing economies, high unemployment rates, human rights abuses, armed conflict and the lack of adequate social services, such as health and education, are some of these factors.
The UN Economic Commission for Africa and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that 27,000 Africans left the continent for industrialized countries between 1960 and 1975. During the period 1975 to 1984, the figure rose to 40,000. It is estimated that since 1990 at least 20,000 people leave the continent annually.
A brain drain is said to occur when a country becomes short of skills when people with such expertise emigrate. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) notes that in Africa, the loss of medical doctors has been the most striking. At least 60 per cent of doctors trained in Ghana during the 1980s have left the country.
The phenomenon "is putting a huge strain on the continent," notes IOM Deputy Director-General Ndioro Ndiaye. To fill the gap created by the skills shortage, African countries spend an estimated $4 bn annually to employ about 100,000 non-African expatriates. "It is high time programmes and policies are put in place to reverse the devastating effects of the brain drain," she says.
How to redress it
Experts on the continent are increasingly engaged in strategies and programmes to reverse the brain drain or retain skilled professionals at home. They include restrictive policies aimed at delaying emigration, such as adding extra years to medical students' training. Various tax proposals have been put forward as governments realize that the large numbers of citizens living outside their borders are a potential economic resource. Proposals range from one-time exit taxes to bilateral tax arrangements, which would require the receiving nation to tax citizens of another and remunerate the home country.
Another strategy is the adoption of international agreements by industrial and developing nations under which wealthy countries pledge not to recruit skilled people from developing states. However, the two most popular strategies involve transferring skills through networks of professionals and intellectuals and the time-tested approach of repatriation.
Because many people are reluctant to return to politically or economically unstable countries, some countries are now trying to find other ways to tap the knowledge and skills of their professionals based overseas. This approach is popular because it does not require participants to relocate to their home countries.
The South African Network of Skills Abroad (SANSA) is an example. Through its website, it invites professional South Africans to sign up. It reports that at least 22,000 graduates from five major South African universities resident abroad remain in touch with the universities. SANSA estimates that about 60 per cent of the country's expatriate graduates are located in six countries, with Australia, the UK and the US accounting for more than half of them. Looking at the nature of their skills, the group estimates that about 30 per cent of the University of Cape Town's contactable doctoral graduates are living overseas. They comprise significant proportions of the university's graduates in medicine, commerce, education and engineering, all areas in which South Africa has an acute shortage of skills.
Once professionals join SANSA, they may offer to train their South African counterparts or assist them to conduct research. They could facilitate business contacts and transmit information on research results not available in South Africa. SANSA members may also help to transfer technology to their home country, such as providing computers and software. This is already being done in other African countries. The Africast Foundation, for instance, collects and refurbishes "retired" computers in the US for use in schools and poor communities in Ghana.
Wealth of talent
Rather than blame departing professionals for the shortage of skills on the continent, SANSA views "these highly skilled South Africans located abroad as a potential asset," note Mr. David Kaplan and Mr. Jean-Baptiste Meyer. In a report for SANSA, they however stress that the success of networks depends largely on the commitment of expatriates.
The willingness of these experts to share their knowledge and financial resources would be "a powerful demonstration of their commitment to making a difference in women's lives," noted Ms. Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). "There is a wealth of untapped expertise among Africans in the diaspora, especially in the private sector," she told a meeting in Uganda in May, to launch the Digital Diaspora Initiative. UNIFEM is among a number of international agencies participating in the initiative, which is specifically targeted at improving the lives of women in Africa through the use of new information technologies and the expertise of Africans living abroad. Under the programme, African experts will be encouraged to contribute to policy formulation and financing information technology programmes with the aim of taking advantage of the sector's growth.
Relocating African expatriates
Other programmes to counter the brain drain involve the physical relocation of expatriate Africans either to their home countries or elsewhere on the continent. A major limitation, however, is that such operations require large sums of money. Some expatriates may wish to be repatriated with their entire families. Others may request salaries comparable to what they earn in their host countries, along with up-to-date technological resources. Another limitation is that repatriation only allows for the return of the individual expatriate and not the knowledge networks to which he or she may belong.
Despite such challenges, the Kenya-based Research and Development Forum for Science-Led Development in Africa (RANDFORUM) has been exploring ways to repatriate African professionals and intellectuals, as requested in 1999 by the Presidential Forum on the Management of Science and Technology in Africa, a grouping of African heads of state. That year, a taskforce led by a former Zambian president, Mr. Kenneth Kaunda, recommended that RANDFORUM and its sister organization, the African Foundation for Research and Development, identify overseas-based Africans interested in returning home to offer their skills. Another RANDFORUM project aims to relocate professionals from "distressed countries" -- those that are faltering economically or politically, such as Liberia or Somalia -- to where they can be productive. Rather than confine professionals and intellectuals from such countries to refugee camps, they are utilized elsewhere and returned once the situation in their countries normalizes.
Adapting to changing needs
Organizations involved in repatriation face the challenge of attracting larger numbers of participants. IOM's Reintegration of Qualified African Nationals Programme, which ran from 1983 to 1999, only managed to relocate about 2,000 nationals to 11 participating countries. Immigration regulations are cited as one of the concerns of potential returnees, notes Mr. Chernor Jalloh of IOM. People are concerned, for example, about whether they would be able to return to their adopted country once they leave. Immigration laws in some industrialized nations require migrants to remain in the country for a specified period or risk losing their residence status. On the other hand, those who have been naturalized in their new country often have to make a choice between that or their home state, as some African countries do not recognize dual citizenship.
While past IOM programmes focused on permanent relocations, they are now evolving to cater for the needs of those Africans who prefer to remain in their new countries. Instead of permanent relocations, "we now use sequenced visits," says Mr. Jalloh, describing some aspects of the newly established Migration for Development in Africa programme. These may be short stays, on a number of occasions to service a particular need, for example, "a request for a specialist doctor in a remote part of Sierra Leone," Mr. Jalloh told Africa Recovery. The doctor continues to live abroad, returning when needed to complement the work of teams in the African country.
UNDP notes that the attitude of Africans abroad towards returning is likely to change as their countries develop and prospects and opportunities there improve. "Timing and chance play a part in this," reports UNDP. But in the end, the utilization of skills abroad can be effective "only when countries get their houses in order."
Growing political will
Until recently, African governments had expressed little concern about the loss of skilled people, while development lending agencies often compounded the problem by obliging recipient countries to hire foreign expatriates, as part of the conditions attached to those loans. Moreover, politicians often portrayed countrymen who opted to work and live abroad as unpatriotic. But the sharp rise in skilled emigration and the serious human resource constraints facing the continent have forced many to rethink their views.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is one of the leaders actively attempting to address the challenges of the brain drain. On his trips abroad, President Obasanjo often meets professionals and intellectuals who have left Nigeria to ask them how they can contribute to their country's development. President Obasanjo also is one of the architects of the continent's new development framework, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).
The New Partnership calls for the establishment of a reliable, continental database to determine the magnitude of the problem and promote collaboration between Africans abroad and those at home. An important NEPAD priority is to develop Africa's human resources and reverse the brain drain. Under NEPAD, African leaders explicitly call for the creation of the "necessary political, social and economic conditions that would serve as incentives to curb the brain drain...."
Dealing with the push factors
But these statements of intent must be transformed into action and deeper issues resolved before the brain drain can be curbed. Many Africans long to return home and participate in development, but their aspirations are "vigorously thwarted by negligent governments whose priorities ... ignore national welfare," says Mr. Kwaku Asante Darko, a lecturer at the National University of Lesotho. Mr. Darko, a Ghanaian, stresses that until the factors that lead to migration are dealt with, it "would be catastrophic" to expect to solve the continent's manpower shortages through an immediate return of skilled Africans. In addition, the continent needs to provide "a conducive environment which is amenable to positive criticism, free of harassment and persecution," says Mr. Rohey Wadda of Gambia's Strategy for Poverty Alleviation Coordinating Office, a national body that oversees development programmes. African countries must be made "more politically, economically and socially attractive to their citizens."
Sometimes, trained professionals are frustrated by donor policies that have the unintended effect of over-emphasizing reliance on foreign technical experts at the expense of trained nationals. In a 1993 report on the effectiveness of technical cooperation, UNDP noted growing concern among African development experts about the persistent reliance on expatriate technical personnel decades after independence and despite major efforts to train nationals. In Burkina Faso, UNDP noted, 800 foreigners with university degrees were employed in the country in 1990, while an equivalent number of Burkinabč nationals with university degrees were jobless. African governments and donors are at times "too quick to bring outside expertise without exploring the capabilities available at home or that could be attracted to return," UNDP reported.
The challenges of establishing the necessary political conditions to retain and re-attract skilled personnel are daunting. While on one hand some countries are beginning to recover, on the other, some are engulfed in renewed crises. In Kenya, the recent election of a new president, Mr. Mwai Kibaki, has spawned a period of euphoria and a wave of returns by exiles hoping to rebuild a country that had all but collapsed under the weight of 24 years of rule by former President Daniel arap Moi. President Kibaki has been quick to invite Kenyans "who have been hounded out of our shores by repressive policies of our predecessors to come back home and join us in nation-building." He notes that the country desperately needs "the genius of its citizens wherever they are. It's time for healing and we need every hand on
On the other hand, Cote d'Ivoire, once a migrant's haven in West Africa, has recently been embroiled in civil war. Another of the continent's better-managed economies, Zimbabwe, which also used to draw African immigrants in search of opportunities, is seeing a mass exodus of professionals under the current economic and political crisis. The Zimbabwe National Association of Social Workers estimates that 1,500 of the country's 3,000 trained social workers left for the UK during the last 10 years.
Going back to a job
Returning professionals also need to find a place to work. Until a few years ago, the Gambia did not have a university and had to spend a significant proportion of state funds to train and educate its professionals abroad. Those who became professors could not return, as they had nowhere to ply their trade. In many other African countries, educational institutions are poorly funded and resourced, while there are few private sector jobs. Although they promise to redress such shortcomings, governments still spend very little on specialized areas such as science and technology. The continent's share of investment in research and development is only 0.5 per cent of the global total and it spends 0.8 per cent of the world total on scientific publications. Also, Africa desperately needs universities devoted primarily to research.
Africa's problems are further aggravated by the under-utilization of those skills it already possesses, notes UN Economic Commission for Africa Deputy Executive Secretary Lalla Ben Barka. "In every African country," she says, "there is a paradox of high rates of unemployment and under-employment among school leavers, including university graduates -- even scientists and engineers."
An international problem
Given the international nature of the brain drain and the covert support it receives from developed countries in need of skilled personnel, measures in African countries to contain it will only succeed with the support of destination countries, notes the Union for African Population Studies, a scientific, pan-African non-profit organization. It says that the international community needs to put pressure on developed nations to modify existing policies on the immigration of professionals from developing countries.
Industrialized countries are in growing need of two types of immigrant labour -- those willing to do poorly paid, dirty and dangerous jobs that their own nationals scorn, and highly specialized professionals, such as software specialists, engineers, doctors and nurses. The US has 126,000 fewer nurses than it needs and government figures show that the country could face a shortage of 800,000 registered nurses by 2020. Because of such shortages, industrialized nations have embarked on massive international recruitment drives. South Africa recently had to appeal to the government of Canada to desist from recruiting its medical professionals. In the rural province of Saskatchewan, Canada, more than 50 per cent of doctors are foreign trained and at least 1 in 5 of the 1,530 doctors there earned their first medical degree in South Africa.
However, it may become even tougher to stem the outward flow of skilled professionals from developing countries in future. With falling birth rates and aging populations, demand for labour in Northern countries is forecast to grow, as younger people are needed to maintain productivity. In poorer countries, millions will continue to seek opportunities in richer countries to find better paying jobs and raise their standards of living. And in a globalizing world, where the dominant economic paradigm promotes the free movement of capital, it will become increasingly difficult to restrict the free movement of skilled labour.
According to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, there is a clear need for international cooperation. "There are no easy choices or simple solutions," he says.
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