Thousands of Africa’s cleverest people are deserting the continent every year, looking for greener pastures in Europe or North America. But while African leaders know they have to fix this problem, there’s no obvious solution.
There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of highly-skilled Nigerians in the diaspora. Their departure is Nigeria’s loss, and the rest of the world’s gain. If Nigeria is ever going to turn itself around, it will have to somehow start convincing these talented people to stay.
The technical term for this mass exodus is human capital flight, sometimes called brain drain. It refers to the emigration of intelligent, well-educated individuals for better pay or conditions, causing their places of origin to lose skilled people, or “brains”. Typically, such emigrating individuals have learned English and have moved to the United Kingdom, the United States or some other English-speaking country.
Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost a tremendous amount of their educated and skilled populations as a result of emigration to more developed countries, which has harmed the ability of such nations to get out of poverty. Conservatively speaking, brain drain has cost the African continent over $4 billion in the employment of 150,000 expatriate professionals annually. Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia are believed to be the most affected.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, Ethiopia lost 75% of its skilled workforce between 1980 and 1991. More than 21,000 Nigerian Medical Doctors are practicing in the United States alone in the 21st century. Meanwhile Nigeria domestically falls short of the minimum World Health Organization standard of 20 Physicians per 100,000 people. Put urgently, Nigeria is losing human resources necessary for its socio-economic growth.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki said in his 1998 ‘African Renaissance’ speech:
“In our world in which the generation of new knowledge and its application to change the human condition is the engine which moves human society further away from barbarism, do we not have need to recall Africa’s hundreds of thousands of intellectuals back from their places of emigration in Western Europe and North America, to rejoin those who remain still within our shores!
I dream of the day when these, the African mathematicians and computer specialists in Washington and New York, the African physicists, engineers, doctors, business managers and economists, will return from London and Manchester and Paris and Brussels to add to the African pool of brain power, to enquire into and find solutions to Africa’s problems and challenges, to open the African door to the world of knowledge, to elevate Africa’s place within the universe of research the information of new knowledge, education and information.”
Brain drain is not just a Nigerian problem, it’s an African problem, and it is our collective responsibility to figure out where the next generation of African doctors, engineers, economists, agronomists, managers and technicians, etcetera is going to come from. Our first challenge, however, is to make sure Africa holds on to the skills it already has.
The Nigerian government does not seem to appreciate the severity of the brain drain – and its devastating impact on the nation’s development.
In 2011, over 1,000 medical graduates who were born or trained in Africa migrated and were registered to practice in the USA alone. It is infuriating that our leaders act as if nothing is happening in the continent.
In a report, the International Organisation for Migration estimates that there are 300,000 African professionals residing outside Africa, and 20,000 more leave the continent every year. Meanwhile, Africa must employ some 150,000 expatriate professionals at a staggering cost, estimated at around $4-billion per year.
African leaders should stop burying their heads in the sand. They should realise that the continent is bleeding from the number of people leaving it. In fact, it is disturbing that no leader is willing to get to the key root of the issue. Doesn’t it disturb our leaders that people would rather risk losing their lives crossing animal-infested water bodies, or having their boats capsize, than live in this country?
The departure of skilled professionals is part of a broader picture of migration out of Africa. But the loss of these skills may have an outsize impact on the countries they are leaving behind. For example, while Africa bears 24% of the global burden of diseases, the continent employs just 2% of the world’s doctors – leaving it hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with multiple health crises.
So what’s the solution? It is important to ensure that our people feel comfortable in their continent. They should be the first in dealing with solutions affecting it. As a continent we should focus on ensuring that our experts feel needed and can work well in the continent.
The scarcity of these experts illustrates just how important it is to hold on to them. For example, engineers are vital to achieving almost any development goal, yet Africa has an average of just 25 engineers per 1-million people (compared to 168 in Brazil, 2,457 in the European Union and 4,103 in the US). Currently, Africa needs another 7,441,648 in order to achieve the goals outlined in the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
At the moment, the capacity deficit in Africa is enormous for purposes of achieving objectives and goals of Agenda 2063. In addition, whatever capacity that is being built is not sufficiently synchronised or aligned with the needs for transformation. Whatever capacity has been built should also be retained. Better still, as much as possible focus should be on building capacity that builds further capacity in order to avoid erosion and ensure sustainability.
There are initiatives under way to address Africa’s capacity issues. In Zimbabwe, universities are allowing engineering students to study for free. In Ghana, the Public Sector Management Training Programme has trained 375 students in the last decade.
Developing capacity in the public sector is a long, slow and expensive process. It is made even longer, and slower, by the steady flow of these graduates and others into the governments and companies of other continents. Even though we graduated 375 senior and middle level public servants, the number seems insignificant to make a big impact in the participating countries given the size of the public sector.
Instead of spending over $4 billion per year to employ about 100,000 Western experts, some efforts must be used to recruit Africans abroad to reconnect with their motherland even for a short time to educate and share their knowledge with compatriots in the land of their origin.