How Serious Is Africa’s Brain Drain?

UPDATED June 19, 2019 02:53 pm .

Francis Cordor
June 19, 2019 02:53 pm

Scholars and researchers have been writing about Africa’s “brain drain” problem for decades, as they should. Africa continues to struggle with some of the world’s most challenging problems ranging from natural disasters, famine, and disease to extreme poverty, illiteracy, corruption, lack of infrastructure, stalled industrial development, low mortality, genocide, war, and terrorism to name a few. These problems are not unsolvable; however, when your best, brightest and most educated minds leave the continent in search of better opportunities, these problems become even more difficult to solve.

What is Brain Drain?

The term brain drain is defined by Merriam-Webster as:

“The departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another usually for better pay or living conditions.”

According to UNESCO’s Science Report 2010, at least one-third of all African researchers were living and working abroad in 2009. In 2013, the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that one in nine native-born Africans with a post-secondary education had migrated to a developed nation outside of the African continent.

An article on Quartz Africa reported that former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki had said that Africa has lost 20,000 academics and 10 percent of its highly skilled information technology and finance professionals.

One area in particular where brain drain is notably apparent is in healthcare. Take a look at the CIA World Factbook’s number of doctors per 1,000 people by country:

  • Liberia — 0.01 doctors per 1,000 people
  • Kenya — 0.20 doctors per 1,000 people
  • Zimbabwe — 0.08 doctors per 1,000 people
  • Malawi — 0.19 doctors per 1,000 people
  • Somalia — 0.04 doctors per 1,000 people

To put these numbers in perspective, the United States has 2.45 doctors per 1,000 people. Imagine a mid-sized community of 100,000 people. If that community happens to be located in the United States, it would be served by about 245 doctors. On the other hand, if it were located in Liberia, the entire population of 100,000 people would be served by just one doctor!

How Brain Drain Hurts Africa

As you can imagine, having just one physician for that many people is a recipe for disaster. We don’t have to imagine it. 2014’s Ebola outbreak in Liberia and surrounding countries, each of which has a similarly dismal doctor to population ratio, showed us just how serious the danger is. There simply were not enough doctors and healthcare workers to effectively contain and treat the epidemic. More than 11,000 people died.

Brain drain negatively affects developing countries throughout Africa. These countries tend to have a shallow talent pool to start with. An article on African Business Review noted that half of Ethiopia’s population left the country for training — and never returned! As skilled and talented people leave, countries are even less equipped to pull themselves out of poverty or innovate in science, engineering, or technology. Meanwhile, businesses in the affected countries have a difficult time finding qualified workers. They struggle to use technology to boost efficiencies due to a lack of knowledge and IT workers.

According to the OECD’s 2007 report, Policy Coherence for Development 2007, Migration and Developing Countries, brain drain can lead to:

  • The loss of skills for the source country
  • Loss of ideas and innovation
  • Education investment losses
  • Lost tax revenues
  • Loss of critical health and education services
  • Social effects such as regional inequalities, family stress, changed gender roles, disrupted education, and crime

The Brighter Side of Brain Drain

Brain drain is a serious problem for countries throughout Africa, but there is a silver lining: the engaged diaspora.

For example, a World Bank study found that remittances to Africa in 2014 totaled $32.9 billion. $21 billion (roughly two-thirds of the entire amount) of this flowed into Nigeria. Countries that are reliant upon remittances include: The Gambia, Lesotho, Liberia, Comoros, Senegal, Mali, Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe, Togo, and Guinea-Bissau.

Those who have left their countries in search of better opportunities give back in other ways beyond remittances. Another World Bank report, Migration Fosters Exports, in 2015 found that each migrant generates about $2,100 per year in exports for the country of origin. Many eventually return to their home countries and later serve as mentors by transferring their knowledge. When they do return home, some return with knowledge and/or skills that they would not have gained had they never left.

What About Muscle Drain?

African athletes, like their healthcare, science, technology, engineering, and business professional counterparts, are not immune to the allure of opportunity. We’ve seen countless African athletes leave the continent for teams in Europe and beyond. In some cases, it may be a purely sports-driven move.

In others, however, the same social, economic, and political factors are pushing them out and pulling them away. It’s about opportunity, a better standard of living, a better life.

Stopping the Exodus

Some countries such as Cameroon, Zambia, and Uganda have reportedly increased salaries for academics or provided other incentives to keep these individuals from leaving. In 2009 in Cameroon, the country tripled academic salaries, a move that boosted their numbers and increased the volume of scientific articles produced. Uganda and Rwanda both have offered incentives to bring expatriates home.

In South Africa, an initiative called Innovation towards a Knowledge-based Economy covers the ten-year period from 2008 through 2018 and focuses on five core areas: biotechnology and pharmaceuticals; space science and technology; energy security; climate change science; and social and human dynamics.

Some African governments, such as Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and South Africa have moved to funding biotechnology through partnerships with various agencies, laboratories, universities, and foundations.

Another option is to bring people home, if only for a short time. For example, the Nigerian National Volunteer Service is partially designed to encourage highly skilled Nigerians living abroad to come back for a prescribed amount of time.

Progress is being made, but there’s more to do. If we really want to retain our best and brightest and entice those who have left to return, we need to improve Africa’s standard of living, create better opportunities and higher salaries, modernize education, and create political stability.

The bright side of the brain drain problem is the engaged diaspora; perhaps this is also part of the solution. What do you think? Share your thoughts with us.


Featured Photo: Courtesy of Tashatuvango/Shutterstock.com

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