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On emigration and brain drain

 

By MMK

 

I am getting sick and tired of this knee-jerk, sanctimonious and yes, stupid Africa-is-suffering-from-a-brain-drain argument.

 

Every week, on one newspaper or the other, I read of a conference to decry the movement of Africans to the West as the latest neo-imperial plot to bring down long-suffering Africa.

 

When they are not after your gold, oil or cobalt, they are after your mind goes the plaintive wail of the unreasoning aid and development industry do-gooders.

I wish they would just shut up, start a business and get some real work done that increases the wealth and security of their countries.

 

Instead, they prefer to play the old ‘White Guilt’ game of joining with the West’s liberals – who make up the bulk of the aid industry – to call for regulations to stop the flow of hopeful people who are trying to do right by their families and themselves.

 

The argument goes something like this: African professionals have been costly to train and are now moving abroad to pursue their professions thus benefiting the West, rather than their home countries which are now suffering the consequences of this migration. What twaddle.

In 2004, Kenyans abroad, just as an example, conservatively remitted at least $600 million to their friends and relatives through official channels such as Western Union. This is only the tip of the ice-berg as a lot more dollars are sent home through other channels.

 

 

In 2003, the World Bank estimates that remittances by migrants to their (overwhelmingly poorer) countries exceeded $93 billion, twice the level of worldwide official development assistance. There are other estimates trying to account for informal remittance networks that put the figure at $120-$180 billion per annum.

Unlike development assistance transfers – a large proportion of which pays for luxurious NGO lifestyles and lines corrupt politicians’ pockets – migrant remittances go directly to family members. They are available to the recipients to use according to their own priorities and are used to finance basic consumption, education, health, purchasing or building homes, starting businesses and funding retirement.

My mother was a nurse in the UK for nine years before she returned to Kenya last year. She had initially trained as a nurse in the early 1970s, worked at a succession of government hospitals paradoxically managing to get poorer with every year as the cost of living got more expensive and her professional opportunities shrunk.

 

After a decade of this grind, she went into business for herself and eventually ended up competing for small government tenders – a dirty, corrupt business. Every procedure was fraught with either red tape or dishonesty, and she again ended up almost financially insolvent when the government would not pay her for services she had provided.

Her decision to migrate to the UK was a difficult one: she was broke, in debt and two young children, not to mention my grandmother and a sickly sibling, were dependent on her.

 

Should these educated young Africans go back to their home countries?

 

She moved to Kent in her mid-forties with kids in tow; having to re-qualify as a nurse by starting at the very bottom of the rung; and not knowing how to drive and unable to even afford a car, had to walk 6-7miles each way to her first £6 per hour nursing home job.

She was forced to often work 80-hour weeks, while meals tended toward baked beans and curry deliveries punctuated by intense worrying about Britain’s youth culture destroying her children. Few were the moments that were not stressful.

 

Opening the post was a nightmarish affair; it was always a bill demanding more money and too rarely a cheque in her name. I can remember her calling me once almost in tears when she realised that she owed the BBC £100 for its compulsory license fee even though she could not remember the last time she had managed to put up her feet to watch ‘Celebrity Big Brother’.

 

But through these travails, she scrimped and saved, and took some advanced nursing courses to qualify for better paying work. Eventually, having been offered a part-time postgraduate place at one of the better universities, she was finally able to come into her own.

The hours remained long but in the final three years before she happily returned to Kenya, they had become far more lucrative. She was now earning £20-30 per hour by working for nursing agencies. This enabled her to buy a property to rent, paid down her mortgage in Kenya and put my brother and sister through university.

 

   Georgia Tech graduates

 

The former studying astrophysics with the dare-you-doubt-me intention of being the first Kenyan to go to space, while the latter reads international relations with giddy plans to change our country’s political landscape.

 

But my mother’s achievements were not limited to Britain’s shores. She invested her money in Kenya by buying land, supported her mother and brother and provided financial assistance to dozens of friends and relatives during her nine years away.

 

This, we are supposed to believe, represents a brain drain and a sort of imperialist plot. If it does, then I am all for brains draining with all speed and would love to hug imperialism.

The alternative discussed in the ever ongoing conferences bemoaning the brain drain is that my mother had remained in Kenya, getting poorer and perhaps eventually being one of those trades-people that the government treats like criminals when it is not taxing them punitively.

 

Headlines and distinguished dignitaries in the all-knowing aid industry call for the governments that made my mother’s hopes untenable in Kenya and forced her to seek greener pastures abroad to be responsible for regulating and "encouraging" less brain drain. Every such pronouncement draws a bitter laugh from me.

The Kenyan state has routinely devalued and destroyed the aspirations of its citizens with its high taxes, over centralisation, arrogance and criminal conduct. It is akin to the colonial state that we supposedly got rid of 41 years ago though now staffed with black faces whose mouths spout a hypocritical nationalism that enriches them at the expense of those like my mother.

 

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Rural African women embracing information technology, many can only afford such expensive training with money remitted from relatives living overseas (Photo: P Bennett)

 

I am weary of the brain drain argument. It belongs to donor and NGO conferences, not to the real lives of those who must live by their wits and effort as opposed to a cheque from Western taxpayers.

 

Those who bandy the argument are relentlessly statist and even now have their eye on remittances that they believe can be directed better by government and development organisations than by the people who earn them.

 

It is an argument beloved by middle class paternalists in hock to donor money and who believe that without those who have left, everything at home will fall apart – it is nonsense of the worst kind.

They make the case not because they believe it, but because they are paid to. Most have been abroad and even worse, make the argument while in London or Washington or Paris.

 

Not for my mother the benefit of migration, but for them who are in the United Nations or Oxfam, being abroad to pursue their vulturous careers based on beggardom is just fine. Ultimately, they choose to not appreciate that people own their own lives and the fruits of their labour belong to them to utilise as they wish provided it does not harm others.

The obvious response to the sentiments I have expressed is that African governments paid for the training of (health) professionals so people such as my mother owe something to the system.

 

This argument, which infuriates me whenever it is made, ignores the fact that most professional who leave their countries do so after years of trying to make a go at home while paying their taxes the whole time. My mother had been a taxpayer for a quarter century before she left. And finally, shocking news to the brain-drained developmentalists: you have failed.

Four decades of your hot air, smugness, arrogance, paternalism and poverty of ideas have only built on equally vacuous colonial legacies to leave many people in Kenya and Africa reduced to a brutish existence that does not reflect their effort, flexibility and hope.

 

Stop bemoaning the brain drain and start thinking of how to use your brain better.

 

MMK blogs as Bullets & Honey

 

Please e-mail comments about this piece to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

 

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