AFRICA: New project to alleviate brain drain

Africa, a continent with a critical shortage of high-level skills, loses 70,000 highly qualified scholars and experts each year mostly to developed countries, according to the World Bank. Initiatives by individual African countries to stem the outflow of talent have largely failed, forcing them to seek ways of harnessing the skills of top-flight academics and professionals who have left - people in the African diaspora. A new project involving Unesco, Hewlett Packard and universities in five African countries plans to turn the brain drain into 'brain gain' for Africa. The idea is to compensate for the crippling loss of skills by creating websites and networks, collaborative projects and strengthened links between researchers across the continent and in the diaspora.

The project, Piloting solutions for reversing brain drain into brain gain for Africa, was initiated by Unesco in response to requests by member states. Lilian Simionescu, an assistant programme specialist in Unesco's higher education division, says: "The project aims to establish links between researchers who have stayed in their countries and those that have left, connecting scientists to international colleagues, research networks and potential funding organisations. Faculties and students at beneficiary universities will also be able to work on major corroborative research projects with other universities around the world."

Five universities in five African countries were selected to participate: Algeria's Centre de Développement des Energies Renouvelables, Ghana's College of Engineering at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, the University of Nigeria, Senegal's Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, and Zimbabwe's Chinhoyi University of Technology.

Unesco and Hewlett Packard say there is potential for the project - which was launched following the success of a similar initiative started in 2003 in south-east Europe - to be extended to other African countries.

Unesco is in charge of overall coordination, management, monitoring and evaluation of the initiative. HP is providing equipment - including servers and grid-enabling technologies - and local human resources to the universities, as well as training and support, until the project becomes self-sustainable. The company will also donate PCs and monitors, and fund research visits abroad and meetings between beneficiary universities.

An advanced technology called "grid computing" will be used to enable academics and students from the five African universities to tap into the experiences and knowledge of emigrated researchers and other professionals.

"Concrete objectives include the creation of websites and establishment of human networks for information and knowledge sharing, the initiation of joint projects and exchange programmes, the strengthening of ties between students and researchers at home and in the diaspora, and reinforcement of teaching and research capabilities," Simionescu says.

For example, one of the participating institutions, the Centre for the Development of Renewable Energies in Algeria, will create a virtual network of Algerian researchers - at home and abroad - who are working on solar power; and using video-conferencing experts working in advanced laboratories abroad will lecture students in Algeria. This will enable the university to offer doctoral-level teaching to its students. The classes will also be relayed to remote parts of the country, benefiting institutions not taking direct part in the programme.

Dr Raphael Jingura, coordinator of the programme at Zimbabwe's Chinhoyi University of Technology, says: "The fundamental principle to understand is that 'brain drain' is a global phenomenon that has always been viewed as a negative force. As a result, there have been numerous global initiatives to deal with the 'problem' from a 'let's-fix-the-causatives' perspective. This approach fails to take into account the global marketisation of higher education and the change that has been brought about by ICT in terms of how the academic world has been reorganised."

The project aims to bring a whole new dimension to the 'brain drain' phenomenon by treating it as 'brain circulation', although this idea already has currency in India. "What this means is that we are not looking for the causes of 'brain drain' but rather looking for ways in which both sending and receiving countries can benefit from migrant human capital," Jingura says.

Since being selected to represent Zimbabwe, Chinhoyi University of Technology has also been working on becoming a "national hub" through which other local universities can also benefit.

Jingura says the pilot project represents a "seismic shift" in approach to higher education in Africa that could change the way in which knowledge is acquired and transmitted, leading to the emergence of greater electronically-enabled international collaboration between academics and helping to improve higher education in the countries involved.

"What we have done so far is to invest in developing our cyber structure. We have upgraded our connectivity from copper-based leased line to fibre optic. We are also working on upgrading bandwidth," he says.

The university has received servers, workstations and other hardware from Hewlett Packard to set up a digital lab for the project. It has also been granted some financial assistance by Unesco to meet recurrent costs in setting up the project, including developing the project website and building a database.

"Both staff and students will be actively involved in the project. We have a team of researchers in the university working on a bio-fuels project and currently they are setting up links with possible partners they will work with over the grid. We are looking at running the project for the next three years, and hope the project will become self-sustaining. As is the case with any new technology, you are bound to get teething challenges here and there, but these are really not insurmountable.

"The bottom line is that as we are constantly losing academics. We are busy putting up the e-infrastructure to track them down so that we continue to benefit from their expertise," says Jingura.

Three representatives of each of the five universities met in Johannesburg, South Africa, in March for training sessions focused on the equipment donated by Hewlett Packard, and on grid computing.

Simionescu says: "Extensive documentation in hard copy was also provided to each participant by the Hewlett Packard trainer for further use when back in their home institution. Although the training was mainly targeting IT people, it also provided useful insights into and understanding of processes to the researchers participating." More training workshops have been recommended, depending on the availability of funds.

Piloting solutions for reversing brain drain into brain gain for Africa: Unesco
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