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close this bookThe Courier N° 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentBrain drain : Colossal loss of investments for developing countries
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Brain drain : Colossal loss of investments for developing countries

When a highly qualified professional chooses to leave his own country for another, he does so for one or several legitimate political or economic reasons: peace and security for himself and his family, job satisfaction, better pay and conditions. a higher standard of living, etc. Throughout history, countries and centres of academic excellence which offer these attractions have received the largest numbers of professional migrants and these have, in turn, made substantial contributions, not only to the economic growth of their host countries, but also to the scientific and technological advancement of humanity. The wave of German scientists who moved to the United States after the Second World war, and their discoveries and inventions, come readily to mind. On a global level, therefore, the free movement and interaction of highly skilled people is a positive thing. But the costs to the home countries of losing their professionals is incalculable-in terms of both development opportunities and loss of investment.

Whereas Western Europe was the main loser, especially to the United States, up until the 1960s, the developing countries have emerged in recent years as the biggest suppliers of qualified professionals to the industrialised world as a whole. Today there are more than a million and a half skilled expatriates from the developing countries settled in Western Europe, the USA, Japan and Canada. The USA's educational system and its research institutions are heavily dependent on them. These migrant professionals contribute in no small way to increasing the disparities between the world's rich and poor nations. And it is the developing countries that need them most.

Africa, which has serious shortages of manpower, has been worst hit. It is said to have lost 60 000 professionals (doctors, university lecturers, engineers, surveyors, etc) between 1985 and 1990 and to have been losing an average of 20 000 annually ever since.

There are more than 21 000 Nigerian doctors practising in the United States alone. Meanwhile, Nigeria's own health system suffers a cruel lack of medical practitioners. 60% of all Ghanaian doctors trained locally in the 1980s have left the country, according to the UNDP's 1992 Human Development Report, while, in Sudan, 17% of doctors and dentists, 20% of university lecturers, 30% of engineers and 45% of surveyors have gone to work abroad.

Although it is difficult to calculate the cost of an expatriate professional in terms of the nutrition, health care and education provided by households and the State, it is clear developing countries are losing colossal amounts of investment annually to the developed countries.

The US Congressional Research Service, for example, computed in 197172 that the USA gained $20 000 annually on each skilled migrant from the developing countries. If this rather conservative amount is extrapolated for Africa, then the continent lost more than $1.2 billion of investment between 1985 and 1990 on the 60 000 or so African professionals who emigrated during that period. Much closer perhaps to the truth today would be the estimate made by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), using 1979 prices, which put a cash value of $184 000 on each African professional migrant (and this only for those between the ages of 25 and 35).

On the other hand, expatriate remittances, particularly from skilled workers who earn higher salaries than the average migrant, constitute an important source of funds for development in their home countries. Throughout Africa, households are being maintained by remittances from relatives working abroad. Also, fine buildings are being put up and small-scale projects are financed in villages and cities across the continent with funds sent from overseas. But taken together, these will never be large enough to compensate Africa for the loss of investment suffered as a result of the 'brain drain'.

Serious flaw in international cooperation

The migration of highly qualified professionals from the developing countries is an extremely complex problem which presents the international community with a major dilemma. First, the 'brain drain' cannot be stopped by force nor can it be legislated against. It is linked to fundamental human rights- the right of individuals to move from one country to another, although the exercise of that right is governed by the immigration policies of individual countries. Second, it is fundamentally a national problem which can only be resolved at the national level by providing enough incentives for qualified nationals to remain at home. Third, some industrialised countries like the USA and Canada, have historically operated liberal immigration policies. Even European states, whose immigration policies tend to be more restrictive, have a good number of third world professionals, but there are over a million in the USA and Canada. It is arguable whether, under the circumstances, the liberalisation of the international labour market under the World Trade Organisation, as is being suggested (even by some developing countries), will actually be in Africa's interests.

The reasons for Africa's brain drain problem are legion and easily identifiable, being both structural and economic. The most often cited cause is the continent's school curricula which many see as still largely modelled on the systems of the former colonial masters. This, it is argued, has led to the production of graduates in disciplines that have little or no relevance to the socio-cultural and economic milieux of the continent. This is a highly debatable assertion, given the large numbers of the technical assistants currently working in Africa who are products of the educational systems of the former colonial powers-at least some of whom are having a positive impact on the continent's development. This, however, must not distract from the fact that African higher schools systems are illequipped to produce the right skills for Africa's development needs. Because of shortages of both science equipment and teachers, the system instructs the vast majority of pupils in arts rather than in science and technology-and it is the latter which hold the key to economic growth and development. Thus, there is overproduction of graduates in areas where there are few employment opportunities. This results in high levels of migration, even, paradoxically among the few trained scientists because of the absence of an environment conducive to full professional expression and satisfaction. It is not uncommon for things as simple as electricity and water supply to provide reasons for emigration. Examples abound of frustrated African scientists who have had their experimental work of several years destroyed overnight through power failures.

Powerful factors in the brain drain include Africa's poor rates of economic growth over the past 30 years (worsened by structural adjustment measures which have resulted in dramatic falls in living standards) and political instability (disturbances in Nigeria and Zaire, civil war in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia etc). Thousands of qualified professionals have been forced unwillingly into exile, and the majority of those left behind, in these times of serious economic crisis, are engaged in unskilled pursuits-in petty trading and taxi driving-far removed from their professional training. The loss of investment associated with this situation cannot be underestimated.

Sub-Saharan Africa is in the paradoxical situation today of having large numbers of graduates in various disciplines -from medicine and engineering to architecture and accountancy-who have either emigrated or are simply unemployed, while it hosts a large army of foreign technical assistants. Indeed, Africa receives more advice per capita than any other continent. In 1988, there were more than 80 000 technical assistants, and today the figure is well over 100 000. These experts are believed to cost donors a total of $4bn annually to maintain, a figure which represents nearly 35% of Africa's total official development aid. This situation reveals a serious flaw in the operation of international development cooperation. Would it not be more efficient and cost effective to employ qualified African expatriates in the place of many of these foreign technical experts. The former, after all, have both linguistic and cultural links with the continent. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a programme in this area which points to a possible way forward. The article on that programme, TOKTEN, follows.
A.O.