Reversing Africa’s brain drain

January 13, 2024
5 mins read

New initiatives tap skills of African expatriates
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.

Experts on the continent are increasingly engaged in strategies and programmes to reverse the brain drain or retain skilled professionals at home.

Rural Africa is chaging and there are increasing opportunities for returnees outside the big African cities
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.
Building network
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.

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.

At least 20,000 highly skilled Africans leave the continent each year
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.
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.
With thanks to the United Nations’ African Renewal magazine, where this article first appeared.
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