AFRICA: Governments to tap the diaspora

The brain drain from Africa is continuing apace, according to a new study, and 10 of the continent’s 53 countries have lost more than 40% of their tertiary educated labour force. Now African governments are getting serious about tackling the problem – and using the rich skills of the diaspora to promote African development.

University of Brussels scholar Abdeslam Marfouk described the extent of Africa’s skills flight and its ‘push’ factors at a meeting considering the brain drain held in Tripoli, Libya, last month and hosted by the Rectors, Vice-chancellors and Presidents of the African Universities Conference.

During the 1990s, the number of legal immigrants in OECD countries grew by 17 million, from 42 million to 59 million – or 7.3% of the total population. The number of high-skilled immigrants grew by 64% or eight million people to reach 20 million in 2000.

As a result, the share of high-skilled workers in the total immigrant stock increased from 30% in 1990 to 35% in 2000, reported Marfouk. This was based on a study he conducted into high-skill African emigration to the OECD’s 30 countries.

Most immigrants were from developing countries and through the 1990s their number grew by 96% against only 6% from high-income countries.

“During the same period the total stock of immigrants from African countries increased by 54% – compared with 113% for highly skilled workers,” wrote Marfouk in a paper titled “Africa brain drain: Scope and determinants”.

In 2000, some 4.5 million of the OECD’s immigrants were from Africa, including 1.4 million with high skills. About three quarters of all Africans chose to go to European Union countries yet just over half of the highly skilled live in the three ‘traditional’ receiving countries of America, Canada and Australia, each of which has migration policies that target skills.

Nearly a third of African-born immigrants in OECD countries had tertiary education but this proportion rose to 75% in Canada, 70% in the US and 65% in Australia.

“South-North emigration is increasingly concerned with the movements of high-skilled persons. This is partly due to migration selectivity in a number of OECD receiving countries,” Marfouk said.

“Migration pressure to developed countries is expected to intensify in the coming years given labour shortages in skilled areas in these countries, the rising gap in living standards, and diverging demographic trends between poor and rich countries.”

This brain drain, however, has been devastating for Africa. In absolute numbers, the biggest countries lose the most people – South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco – but in relative terms, or the proportion of the educated labour force, small countries are worst affected.

Cape Verde has lost 67% of its tertiary educated labour force, Gambia 63%, Seychelles 59%, Sierra Leone 53% and Mozambique 45%.

More than half of African-born emigrants are from North Africa, followed by East Africa (19%), West Africa (17%), Southern Africa (7%) and Middle Africa (6%). Small island nations, such Cape Verde (67%), Seychelles and Mauritius (56%) exhibit the highest emigration rates while landlocked countries such Lesotho and Botswana (4%) and Chad (2%) have lower rates.

Marfouk found that both economic and non-economic factors drive Africa’s high-skilled people abroad. Among these are economic and job opportunities, colonial links, shared language, distance from the home country, immigration and welfare policies in destination countries, and social, ethnic, religious and linguistic conflict in ‘origin’ countries.

Also important is the ‘skills premium’: people are able to achieve higher returns for their education in the developed than the developing world.

“For countries of origin, understanding the migration dynamics would help policy makers to control and monitor better their losses highly skilled workers,” he said.

Now, after decades of watching highly qualified citizens leave to pursue better opportunities abroad, African governments are working on ways to retain intellectuals, attract back some who have left – such as through South Africa’s research chairs programme – and use the skills and wealth of many Africans in the diaspora for African development projects.

African ministers, officials and scholars, as well as delegates from North America, Latin America, Europe and the Caribbean, attended an Africa Diaspora Ministerial meeting at Gallagher Estate near Johannesburg in mid-November.

They produced a plan of action aimed at drawing on African and diaspora skills for major continental development programmes. A draft declaration will be presented to the next Heads of State Summit of the African Union, the continent’s EC-style governance body, to be held in South Africa in the first half of next year.

South African president, Thabo Mbeki, told the diaspora meeting that using the skills and expertise of Africans in the diaspora could help the continent implement “faster and I’m certain more efficiently” major programmes being undertaken by the African Union’s delivery arm, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

“While we have pressing challenges here on the African continent, it would be proper for us to look into ways and means of extending Nepad projects to Africans in the diaspora,” Mbeki said. “Through such projects it should also be possible to attract back into Africa the much-needed scarce and critical African skills that have emigrated to the developed North.”

Also, identify institutions and universities should be identified that could form strategic partnerships across the African world so as to “accelerate their practical work relevant to our common challenges”.