Sunday, December 25, 2005

Yearender: Brain Drain, Serious Impact on Africa's Development

People's Daily Online -- In the early 1970s, very few Ethiopians chose to emigrate to other states, however, in three decades, Ethiopia has become a nation of emigrants, losing thousands of well-educated scientists, doctors, and other professional elite every year.

The Ethiopian story is not individual. It is only one example reflecting the growing alarm over Africa's increasing exodus of human capital. It is an episode which shows Africa is losing the very people it needs most for economic, social, scientific, and technological progress.

Actually, the issue of Africa's brain drain has both internal and external causes, and needs the efforts of the whole international community. For the future of Africa, the governments of developed countries should not evade their responsibilities for the issue, while African countries should do their best to encourage overseas professionals to return.


As a result of the human capital flight, or brain drain, Africa has incurred tremendous losses.

According to a study by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), Africa has been losing 20,000 professionals each year since 1990. Another study by the World Bank says that some 70,000 highly qualified African scholars and experts leave their home countries every year in order to work abroad, often in more developed countries.

"Today if you visit universities in this country you will not find any lecturers who have been there for more than seven or eight years," said Professor Haile Tilahun of the Addis Ababa University. Haile is a researcher on international migration of highly qualified personnel.

According to the IOM, there are currently just 200,000 scientists and engineers in Africa, servicing a population of about 860 million. Africa would need at least 1 million scientists and engineers to sustain the continent's development prospects. While, at least one-third of science and technology professionals from African countries are currently working in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In light of a dwindling professional sector, African institutions are increasingly dependent on foreign expertise. To fill the human resource gap created by brain drain, Africa employs up to 100,000 expatriate professionals at a cost of 4 billion US dollars a year.

"In the 21st century, science and technology is a country's capital and the key to its economic growth. Nations without a skilled and technologically savvy workforce are doomed," he said.

Haile said emigration of African professionals to the West is one of the greatest obstacles to Africa's development.

"Africa is dying a slow death from brain drain," he alarmed.


"There are a number of pull and push factors that facilitate the flow of best brains out of Africa," said Professor Tadesse Mengesha of the semi-official Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development.

Some of the pushing factors include poor working conditions, limited career opportunities, limited educational opportunities and low pay and economic instability, said Tadesse.

He added that the pooling factors include higher pay, better working conditions, career opportunities, so on and so forth.

However, the primary cause of brain drain is unreasonably low wages paid to African professionals. Africans living in the West obtain much higher salaries than they get at home.

"It's hard to blame a trained and educated person for leaving her country because of the many obstacles in the path to success," said Tadelech Hailu, a young doctor with a master of medicine working at Addis Ababa's Black Lion Hospital.

Tadelech each month earns 1,300 birr (150 US dollars) from the hospital. She believed that higher wages act as a magnet to professionals.

"If we take the case of Ethiopia, someone with a master's degree makes 150 dollars a month whereas that same person would make 30 times more if hired with a similar kind of job in the West, " she said.

The contradiction is that Africa spends 4 billion dollars annually to recruit and pay 100,000 expatriates to work in Africa but it fails to spend a proportional amount to recruit the 250,000 African professionals now working outside Africa. African professionals working in Africa are paid considerably less than similarly qualified expatriates.

At Tadelech's hospital, Cuban and Russian doctors are paid 15 times more than Ethiopian colleagues.

"My country is willing to hire expatriates and pay them lots of money but it will not pay us studying abroad and willing to come back home the same amount of money. What do these expatriates have that I don't have?" asked Tadelech.


As long as Africa's brain drain phenomenon continues, its ongoing development efforts will continue to be undermined.

The solution to the problem, according to Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah, is that Africa needs a new type of citizen, a dedicated, modest, honest and informed man. A man who submerges himself in service to the nation and mankind.

At the headquarters of Ethiopia's Ministry of Mines and Energy, Asfaw Shuba, an geological engineer, did his PhD in Canada and came back home three years ago.

"I remember the toil of our coffee farmers that kept us in school. I don't think we the young ones have any excuse not to return and contribute," he said.

"I returned to Ethiopia after my studies in Canada. I am happy although not rich. Patriotism, that is all that Africa needs to reverse this brain drain."

Besides the individuals themselves, African governments can do more to help reverse the trend.

"Botswana has almost no brain drain at all, actually it has one of the highest rates of returns of overseas students in the world. If Botswana could do it with respect for professionals, then why can't the rest of Africa follow suit?" asked Fikru Desalegne, state minister of capacity building.

In Ethiopia, the government is now providing such incentives as reduced import duties, foreign exchange accounts and stronger private ownership laws to encourage professionals to stay in the Horn of Africa country, and attract those abroad to return, invest and share their expertise.

The aim is to reverse the country's brain drain and promote development led by Ethiopians with vital technical and professional skills.

According to official data, Ethiopia trained 2,491 general practitioners between 1988 and 2001, but in recent years one-third have already left the country seeking better employment opportunities in North America, Europe and South Africa.

Fikru said Ethiopia should learn from China and India to recruit and retain professionals. He added that the two Asian giants often provide recruitment incentives, such as relocation expenses, loans for housing and for starting businesses, salary supplement for the first few years.

"However, a more permanent solution will be to pay wages that are competitive," he said.

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