Friday, May 25, 2012

Africa’s Brain Drain: Hopeless to Hopeful

By: Samuel M. Gebru (@SMGebru)
May 25, 2012

This article is an abbreviated version of a keynote address the author delivered at the Minnesota State University, Moorhead’s African Night on February 25, 2012.

“What can I bring to Africa?” “How can I help Africa?” These are frequently asked questions by people who are concerned about the political, economic and social development of Africa. Once dubbed the “hopeless continent” by The Economist, ten years later, The Economist is now correcting itself calling Africa the “hopeful continent.”

All around the world, people are awakening their curiosity to learn more about Africa. Often mistaken for a country, the African continent is home to a rich, diverse and driven people. In this article, I will first examine the causes and consequences of a global phenomenon that has deeply affected Africa known as the “brain drain.” Secondly, I will discuss the importance of the “brain gain” as a reversal to the negative impacts of Africa’s brain drain. Thirdly, I will share why the new concept of “brain circulation” is Africa’s latest weapon for success. Lastly, I will attempt to answer my initial question: “What can I bring to Africa?”

The brain drain is a global phenomenon where large amounts of the highly skilled and talented population of a country leave and migrate to another country for better opportunities. The brain drain is a significant problem affecting many developing countries.

Since the 1960s, Africa has experienced at great numbers the massive exodus of its skilled and talented workforce to other parts of the world. The brain drain occurs in three settings: internally, regionally and globally. On the global level, Africa’s brain drain occurs in two major settings. First is where individuals complete their education in Africa and migrate overseas for various political, economic and social reasons. Second is where African students who study abroad stay abroad after graduation and permanently settle into their new lifestyles. 

In both settings, Africa looses because its skilled population is leaving. In my native Ethiopia, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that between 1980 and 1991 Ethiopia lost over 75% of its skilled workforce. Imagine in just about one decade loosing the overwhelming majority of your country’s talented scientists, engineers, physicians, entrepreneurs, educators and attorneys. Indeed, this is a loss for the continent.

Arguably, the main causes of Africa’s brain drain include economic inequality between Africa and the rest of the world; political instability that threatens the safety and freedom of a country’s skilled workforce; and the colonial legacy and postcolonial mentality of Africa.

Economic inequality between Africa and the rest of the world is perhaps the most obvious reason for Africa’s brain drain. In the internal setting, a brain drain occurs when skilled people move from one part to another, more developed and urban part of a country. Similarly, at the global setting, a brain drain occurs when skilled people move from Africa to more developed parts of the world, such as North America, Western Europe and now Southeast Asia. These people, escaping the poverty and lack of perceived or real opportunities in Africa, find life in their new settings. Because Africa is comparatively underdeveloped and less industrialized, it looses.

Political instability is another obvious reason for Africa’s brain drain. Africa has seen its fair share of political strife, civil wars, religious conflict, anarchy and blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law. These series of political factors are intolerable to all Africans, but in particular to those that make up the skilled and talented workforce. Bloody wars in countries like Sudan, Liberia, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Angola speed the brain drain by forcing out skilled workers and social activists. 

Lastly, the colonial legacy and postcolonial mentality of Africa strongly contribute to Africa’s brain drain. Because of the hundreds of years that Africa was subjected to a Eurocentric vision of the world, it has now become internalized in many societies that Africa has no returns for the skilled, and that it is indeed a hopeless continent. African professionals want to offer their services wherever they can receive the highest value in returns instead of embracing the Afrocentric viewpoint, which includes service to one’s community, a community-oriented method of living and a strong embracement of spiritual values. This is, of course, not to say that the Eurocentric vision of the world does not include these viewpoints, but I would argue that these viewpoints are central to African societies. Because of the internalization of the Eurocentric vision, many African professionals view no opportunities for growth in Africa and thus leave.

The consequences of the brain drain are many, but most importantly, Africa looses its human capital—its brain. Africa is deprived of the cutting-edge advancements that its professionals are making abroad for overseas companies and countries. Ultimately, the political, economic and social development of Africa is greatly stalled because the driving force is nowhere to be found.

The brain gain is the other side of the story: where large amounts of the highly skilled and talented population of a country leave and migrate to another country for better opportunities. Does this sound like the brain drain? Yes, because it is the brain drain, but only from the perspective of the one who is gaining and not draining.

The brain gain is most commonly witnessed in the United States. The United States has always been a destination for opportunity, a place where one has a real chance of claiming their piece of the American Dream.

In recent years, however, many skilled and talented Africans and non-Africans alike have started to migrate to the African continent. This phenomenon known as the brain gain reaps positive benefits for the continent because it is a reversal of the loss Africa has suffered. While the 1960s is typically known as the so-called start of the brain drain, Africa has suffered under the brain drain since the era of enslavement hundreds of years ago.

The brain gain offers new promise for Africa. Now being recognized as a continent of hope and opportunity, there is much to be said about Africa’s promise. Technological, political, economic and scientific advancements have placed Africa at a greater forefront than it ever was. Indeed, it is also known as “the last global frontier” in terms of its largely untapped reserve of natural resources. Unprecedented developments in information and communication technology (ICT) have completely overhauled the way Africa’s human capital operates and mobilizes. Investment in ICT allows for greater economic activity and development, attracting the attention of those living abroad that seek greater opportunities.

In the same manner that African professionals are leaving Africa and African students that study abroad are staying abroad, the process is now being reversed to where African students and professionals are returning to rebuild what was lost in their absence. The new generation of Africans is becoming aware of their modern history and of the triumphs and tragedies that Africa has faced in the past centuries. However, more important is that the new generation of Africans is awakening to the opportunities that lie ahead for Africa and is realizing that to make a positive and proactive difference, they must be the driving force behind those opportunities.

African governments are now realizing that not all students and professionals living abroad want to return. Some members of the African diaspora have settled comfortably for many years in their new adopted homelands, be it in the United States or elsewhere. Because of this, new incentives are being created and many governments in Africa have stared to open offices dealing directly with capturing the skill and talent of the diaspora. Correctly so, an increasing number of African countries consider their highly qualified nationals living abroad as an asset for national development.

The brain circulation is Africa’s latest weapon for success because one does not need to be in Africa to help rebuild Africa. Unlike the brain gain or the brain drain, the brain circulation is not a black-or-white phenomenon; it allows much room for creativity and innovation. The impact of the ICT sector is very evident in brain circulation. For example, Skype, Cisco Systems and other video and telephone conference services have allowed African and non-African professionals and students living abroad the opportunity to simultaneously connect with those who live in the continent. 

Advancements in tele-education have allowed professors from India the opportunity to teach courses in universities in countries like Ethiopia and South Africa without having to physically be there. Connected through video conferencing, these Indian professors are able to circulate their brain with students in Ethiopia and South Africa. 

Likewise, advancements in tele-medicine have allowed physicians in Kenya to diagnose patients with the medical help of physicians in the United States who are viewing these medical files through real time connection.

Virtual colleges and hospitals are just two examples of the advancements made through investing in the ICT sector in Africa. This allows mankind the opportunity for brain circulation without national or political barriers preventing us from communicating with one another. One does not need to live in Kenya, or be Kenyan to support the country’s development. Likewise, one does not need to live in Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer, to help advise the government on new energy technologies and strategies. We can do this using our fingertips, laptops and mobile phones.

African governments are now realizing that the strength of its lost workforce does not need to return permanently to help rebuild the continent. National projects building roads and telecommunications systems are now being led and advised by the African diaspora. Without the effective involvement of the African diaspora, it is highly unlikely that any long-term results will be achieved. 

The forced removal of millions of Africans through enslavement is now being undone through the opportunities in brain circulation. The African diaspora with its resources and skills will be able to mobilize quickly and simply because we live in the information era. Otherwise known as the knowledge era, the information era thrives through the creation, manipulation, consumption and teaching of knowledge. This knowledge—this brain—is now a force that cannot be stalled at an airport because one cannot get a passport to enter Sudan or Zimbabwe. Rather, this knowledge is active through real time technology that allows us to be here and there, and consequently, everywhere.

Now that I have discussed the brain drain, brain gain and brain circulation, I would like to attempt to answer my initial question: “What can I bring to Africa?” Africa, once a byword for hopeless, poverty and famine, is moving forward through the strategic investment of knowledge. 

At the Ethiopian Global Initiative, the nonprofit I founded, our mission statement identifies two important things that we all can bring to Africa. First, our social capital: the value of networks, the value of who you know. Secondly, our intellectual capital: the value of human knowledge, the value of what you know. Social capital is important because it determines our ability to build and foster relationships and our ability to use those relationships for good. “Good” can include human rights, development, peace and cultural preservation. Intellectual capital, the value of human knowledge and resources, includes your skills, experiences and how competent you are. Intellectual capital has two important components, human capital—the individual—and structural capital—the society.

By harnessing our collective capital, by bringing it together in one brain trust, we bring to Africa one word: transformation. Because the intellectual diaspora can be tapped virtually wherever located, we as Africans and non-Africans alike, have the distinct opportunity of engaging Africa half a world away without ever leaving our bedrooms. 

The transformation we bring to Africa is manifested through political, economic and social development because our collective capital becomes Africa’s latest weapon for success. Understanding the importance of and utilizing our social and intellectual capital will allow greater influence in the political affairs, economic prosperity and social development of Africa. What Africa needs most is not aid, it is not even trade; it is the skilled and determined people to uproot the continent to realize its full potential. 

Your social and intellectual capital and the transformation we can collectively cause through it is what you can bring to Africa.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a people to raise a continent.

Samuel M. Gebru is the President and Chairman of the Ethiopian Global Initiative.

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