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Brain Drain and a Cross-Continent Debate

Talk to anyone who lives in, works in, comes from or cares about Africa and eventually the topic of “brain drain” will come up. Large numbers of African doctors, nurses, engineers, computer programmers and other professionals leave their homes and come to the US and Europe to earn higher salaries and, often, experience more respect than they receive at home. On the one hand, their absence leaves their home countries without critically neccesary professionals, leaving local health care systems crippled. On the other hand, the huge amounts of money remitted home by Africans working abroad are major contributors to the economies of African nations and allow one professional living abroad to support an extended family.

Sokari Ekine, aka Owukori, wrote fact-filled and informative post about African brain drain a few days back, pointing towards different tactics nations are taking to keep skilled professionals at home. The post generated a lively debate in the comments section, and a response from Martin from Bullets and Honey, who’s pretty critical of the brain drain argument and those advocating for it:

I am getting sick and tired of this knee-jerk, sanctimonious and yes, stupid Africa-is-suffering-from-a-brain-drain argument. Every week, on one newspaper or the other, I read of a conference to decry the movement of Africans to the West as the latest neo-imperial plot to bring down long-suffering Africa. When they are not after your gold, oil or cobalt, they are after your mind goes the plaintive wail of the unreasoning aid and development industry do-gooders. I wish they would just shut up, start a business and get some real work done that increases the wealth and security of their countries.

Reading through both of their comments on Owukori’s blog, it becomes clear that the two are in violent agreement. African healthcare is clearly in crisis, and brain drain is agravating the crisis. But unless African governments can find ways to adequately compensate skilled professionals, some of Africa’s best and brightest is going to go abroad. Everyone acknowledges that remittance is a critical part of the African economic picture, and both Owukori and Martin are worried that American and European “concern” about African brain drain can be a smokescreen for racist immigration policies…

My time in Ghana makes me think the key in figuring out whether brain drain is good, bad or both is to ask the question: Does the diaspora come home? In Ghana, at the turn of the millenium, we started seeing evidence of a returning diaspora – really smart, talented Ghanaians were coming home from the US and Europe, bring back capital and expertise and using these to set up businesses. Brain drain is still threatening short-term when you’ve got a returning diaspora, but long term, it’s probably a powerful engine for business and job creation.

2 thoughts on “Brain Drain and a Cross-Continent Debate”

  1. Nice post Ethan. I think India’s experience supports the good in the long term theory.

  2. I think it is interesting that the Brain Drain debate is taking place at the same time as Tony Blair’s Africa Commission and the whole G8 discussion on aid to Africa AND the immigration debate in UK is once again on the front pages of the tabloids. It cannot be a coincidence that all these are taking place simultaneously. I find it ironic that the BMA is so concerned about healthcare in Africa that all of a sudden they too are entering the debate on the number of nurses and doctors from Africa working in the NHS in Britain. Without the African nurses and doctors the NHS would fall apart so who is it that they are considering to replace the Africans? Not Brits that for sure as the cost of training a doctor is prohibitive for most parents. My cousin had to mortgage their home in order for their son to train as a doctor who know works over 50 hours a week for a pittance. That is not a way to encourage young people to enter the profession.

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