African countries like Zambia are continually losing the very people they need to facilitate their economic, social and technological progress. This is perhaps the main reason why President Michael Sata recently called on Zambians living in Botswana, and in all countries worldwide as a matter of fact, to return home and help develop the country.
Between 1974 and 1985, for example, over 12,146 technical and professional personnel were admitted to the United States from various countries in Africa. And between 1993 and 1995, the United States admitted 32,317 of the continent’s skilled human resources. According to the World Bank Group in a 2005 publication, nearly 70,000 qualified Africans leave their home countries every year to work in industrialized nations.
And, according to the Ethiopia-based United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African continent lost a third of its skilled professional personnel through emigration in less than two decades prior to 2005, and has had to replace them with over 100,000 expatriate professionals at an annual cost of US$4 billion.
Clearly, this represents a significant loss to a continent that is in dire need of skilled professionals to facilitate and expedite the process of socio-economic development. Without large pools of such technical and professional talent, African countries are not likely to attain meaningful levels of socio-economic development.
Causes of the Brain Drain:
There are many factors obtaining in countries which are affected by the brain drain which have contributed to the exodus of skilled talent, including poor conditions of service, human rights abuses, nepotism and favoritism, deliberate disregard for local talent, scarcity of jobs, limited access to education, poor health care services, a high level of crime and partisan civil police, and the fear of losing valued relationships developed in foreign countries.
Considered from the standpoint of the origin of trained and skilled emigrants, the foregoing causes may be referred to as the “push factors” of the flight of human capital. The inverses of the causes are essentially the “pull factors” from the point of view of emigrants’ host countries.
Effects of the Skills Drain:
The impacts of the brain drain phenomenon include its adverse effects on a country’s prospects for technological advancement, its numbing effects on politics and governance in the emigrants’ home country, and its ghastly effects on the provision healthcare.
One would perhaps do well to cite some of the salient benefits associated with the flight of professionals from the African continent. In Ghana, citizens working abroad are accounting for the fourth largest source of foreign currency after cocoa, gold and tourism. The foreign currency remittances to the country have become more significant than development aid, which is normally delivered with a lot of conditions attached.
Kenya provides another good example of an African country that is benefiting from huge foreign currency remittances to the country by citizens who are resident in foreign countries. In 2008, for example, the country’s central bank recorded a 6.6 percent growth in remittances by Kenyans abroad from US$573.6 million the previous year to US$611 million.
And, if the emigration includes an entire family, the family would generally be better off. Besides, the exposure of emigrants to outside ideas is itself an engine of growth, because having a significant portion of the population in foreign countries means that individuals who are resident in the emigrants’ native countries would benefit from information flows through visits, the Internet or telephone discussions with the emigrants.
Moreover, some of the professionals who may initially emigrate often return to their home countries with new skills and ideas to help develop the economies of their respective countries.
Further, emigrants generally work in diverse socio-economic settings where they interact with people from different cultural, ethnic and/or religious backgrounds. This is potentially benign for emigrants’ native countries where ethnic or religion-based conflicts are common as it is likely to make the emigrants less bigoted upon their return to their countries and contribute to the harmonization of relations among cultural, religious and ethnic groupings.
Additionally, unhindered migration of a country’s citizens is a reflection of its observance of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly, which provides for the following: (a) everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each country; and (b) everyone has the right to leave any country, including his or her own, and to return to his or her country.
It is also in observance of Article 12(2) of the African Union’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states as follows: “Every individual shall have the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country. This right … [shall] only be subject to restrictions, provided for by law for the protection of national security, law and order, public health or morality.”
For governments and private institutions which hire trained personnel from other countries, professional flight is a benign phenomenon; it makes it possible for them to benefit from the knowledge and skills of people whose training they did not finance. They reap where they did not sow, so to speak!
With respect to foreign currency remittances, however, it is perhaps important to note that such remittances have helped to fund terrorism, civil wars and liberation struggles in collapsed or failed states. During the 1980s, for example, a large portion of remittances by Somalia’s citizens in the Diaspora made it possible for rural guerrillas to procure arms used in toppling the country’s government in 1991.
Nevertheless, it has long been recognized that any adverse consequences of skilled emigration (including remittances which have been used to fund diabolical activities) might be partly or wholly offset by remittances intended to serve benign purposes, as well as the return of emigrants who could have migrated back to their native countries with enhanced skills.
There are many ways in which countries affected by the exodus of their native professionals can address the problem, including the following:
1) Peace and Stability: It is not possible for any country to attain meaningful socio-economic development that would provide a satisfactory standard of living for would-be emigrants in the absence of sustained peace and stability. This should be obvious because the war effort disrupts productive socio-economic activities, and diverts essential resources away from the pursuit of a country’s goals and aspirations.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon each and every political, tribal and military leader in the African Union to be mindful of the need to find ways and means of forestalling war and instability. Among other things, there is a need for political leaders and their constituents to embrace the following elements of democratic governance: accountability, transparency, adequate checks and balances, a free press, respect for the rule of law, a viable mechanism for peacefully replacing incompetent leaders, and respect for human rights.
Moreover, there is a need for serious consideration of ethnic and other interests in the distribution of power, educational facilities, health services, and so forth.
2) Low-Interest Loans: The effort to stem the exodus of trained nationals to foreign countries may also require a country’s national and local governments to grant low-interest loans to professionals based in foreign countries so that they can return to the country to start and manage their own business undertakings. Such loans also need to be extended to locally based professionals to lure them from migrating to foreign countries for employment.
3) An Enabling Environment: Unless the factors that initially lead to migration are redressed, the exodus of skilled Africans will continue to haunt governments and employer-organizations on the African continent. There is, therefore, a need for African governments to find viable ways and means of tackling the problems of human rights abuses, armed conflicts, inadequate social services, and high rates of unemployment.
4) Feasible Policy Initiatives: There are many other important policy initiatives which countries affected by the exodus of trained personnel need to consider in their quest to address the problem and its effects on socio-economic development. Such initiatives may include the following:
(a) Tax proposals requiring native professionals trained through the public treasury to pay a certain percentage of their incomes earned abroad to their home-country governments;
(b) Generation of restrictive policies aimed at delaying emigration – such as by adding extra years to medical students’ training, requiring doctors and other professionals to stay on for a number of years to ‘pay back’ what they ‘owe’ to society, or to incorporate the delay within the training period, thus ensuring that certification follows rather than precedes a spell of public service;
(c) Initiation of international agreements requiring employers in foreign countries who may hire professionals trained through public resources to reimburse the home governments for financial and material resources committed to the training of the professionals;
(d) Introduction of retention allowances for skilled personnel on government payroll;
(e) Provision for research grants for academic staff in government-supported educational institutions;
(f) Provision for car-ownership and home-ownership schemes;
(g) Upward salary adjustments for employees on government payroll; and/or
(h) Assistance with passages for emigrant citizens wishing to return to their native countries by governments in such countries.
In conclusion, a proactive strategy for redressing the brain drain by African leaders is needed, because prevention of the exodus of technical and professional personnel is actually better than cure, so to speak. Such a strategy would require leaders to pursue initiatives designed to prevent the exodus of professionals rather than waste resources on bolstering the return of indigenous talent.
In all, African leaders are going to have to work extra hard in ensuring that native professional talent is enticed to work locally in order for such talent to contribute to the development of native countries. If leaders cannot step up their efforts in this endeavor, they should not be surprised when they continue to lose their highly trained natives to countries which are relatively more developed.
In passing, African leaders need to guard themselves against attributing their own failure and mediocrity in governance to what have become traditional and convenient scapegoats for some of them; that is: colonialism, neo-colonialism, globalization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), among others.
These are mere scapegoats which should not be faulted for the bloated national governments on the continent which cannot live within their means, the electoral malpractices which block cadres of competent potential leaders from the realm of national leadership, or the hemorrhage of public resources through corruption and misappropriation.
The people are fed up of the blame game, and, therefore, expect leaders who have lamentably failed to address the socio-economic problems facing their countries to guard against blaming external factors as having caused such problems.
Kyambalesa, Henry, Emigration of African Professionals: Causes, Effects and Solutions (Saarbrucken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing, April 2012).
Henry Kyambalesa is Adjunct Professor in the School for Professional Studies at Regis University, Denver, USA, as well as an Independent Business and Management Researcher and Consultant. He is also President of the Agenda for Change party.
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