AFRICA: Limit costs, raise benefits of skills flight

Some 30 million Africans live outside their home countries, and more than a million highly qualified Africans - one in eight - live in an OECD country, a new report by the African Development Bank and the World Bank reveals. While migration is a "vital lifeline" for the continent, and is a symptom rather than the root of development problems, governments must act cleverly to limit the costs and maximise the benefits of tertiary-educated migration.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the tertiary educated account for less than 3% of the labour force but more than 35% of all migrants, according to Leveraging Migration for Africa: Remittances, skills, and investments, which was published on 30 March and is based on new studies.

The report finds that migration and remittances reduce poverty in origin countries, and lead to increased investments in health, education and housing in Africa. Also, migrants forge links between their countries and the world, and some professionals return with enhanced skills.

"An influential body of recent work claims that the migration of highly educated workers can have a net positive impact on the demand for education in a country," it says.

Nevertheless, migration of the highly educated is critical as it involves the transfer of human capital "key to economic growth and poverty reduction", and is controversial as the transfer often takes place from countries suffering skills shortages to relatively skills-rich nations.

High-skilled migration

A surprising fact is that migration levels from developing countries, especially in Africa, to OECD countries are low despite vast wage and income differentials, the report says. Except for the Caribbean and Central America, all developing regions had migration rates of 3% or less of their total labour force in 2000, although migration levels have been rising.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the third-lowest migration rate among developing regions, after South and East Asia, with 1% of its labour force in OECD countries or South Africa.

However highly educated workers are far more likely to emigrate than less educated workers, as their emigration gains are greater, they are more likely to posses skills to adapt to new countries, are better able to overcome financial and legal barriers to immigration, and are strongly favoured by selective migration policies in some destination countries.

An important statistic, the report says, is the large share of tertiary-educated workers in the total stock of migrants, which exceeds the share of high-skill workers in the domestic labour force in every developing region.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, in 2000 the tertiary educated accounted for less than 3% (6.6 million) of a 240 million-strong labour force but more than 35% of all migrants.

Relatively high tertiary-educated migration rates reflect the fact that Africa has the lowest rate of tertiary education of any developing region, that it is difficult for unskilled Africans to migrate, and that there are fewer opportunities and less stable environments on the continent than in other developing regions.

But emigration rates of tertiary-educated Africans vary considerably across countries. "The share of migrants among tertiary-educated workers in Africa ranged from a very low rate of 3% in Burkina Faso to a staggering 82% in Cape Verde. By contrast, overall migration rates range from 1% to 35%, with the vast majority of countries below 7%."

Skilled migration rates are particularly high in small, low-income and conflict-affected countries, the report continues. For instance, in 2000 the average migration rate among the tertiary educated in small countries was 30%, three times that of large countries. And the rate in low-income countries was twice that for middle-income countries.

The high rates from small and low-income countries "reflect their small pools of tertiary-educated workers," the report explains. In 2000, fewer than 900,000 of the 64 million workers in low-income African countries were tertiary educated.

South Africa boasts some of the continent's highest living standards and a relatively skilled labour force. "Yet in 2000, the migration rate among tertiary-educated workers in South Africa was only twice that of Burkina Faso, one of the world's poorest nations." Mauritius, Africa's most developed country, had more than 60% of its tertiary-educated labour force residing in OECD countries in 2000.

The effects of political conflict vary, the report finds. "Migration rates in 2000 among the tertiary-educated in seven African countries that suffered from civil conflicts during the 1990s ranged from a mere 4% (in Angola) to 42% in (Liberia)", probably because most destinations for skilled migrants are English-speaking, as are Liberians.

Among highly educated people who leave Africa, the report says, none has triggered more emotion and controversy than healthcare professionals. It has been argued that the exodus of healthcare professionals, especially physicians, has contributed to a decline in healthcare outcomes in African countries that suffer severe skills shortages in this sector.

In 2004, there were about 25,000 Africa-trained physicians in OECD countries, almost a quarter of the total number of physicians practicing medicine in Sub-Saharan Africa. And emigration of African physicians has risen "significantly" since the early 1990s.

Tertiary-educated migrants from Africa go predominantly to English-speaking countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada, which in 2000 received 53% of all tertiary-educated emigrants from African to OECD countries but only 28% of total African migrants.

Migration policies in the three countries favour educated migrants, they have flexible labour markets and they are widely perceived to offer good career and assimilation prospects. Colonial links also feature prominently as a determinant of destinations.

"Tertiary-educated migrants from different African countries exhibit vast differences in terms of their performance in the destination countries' labour markets," the report states. "These differences reflect language ability, the quality of education in origin countries, and the speed of integration in destination-country labour markets."

Policy options

The data and analysis have important implications for policies to limit costs and maximise the benefits of tertiary-educated migration, the report contends. Policy choices are along two main dimensions - what stage of a migrant's professional career should be targeted by the policies; and who implements the policies, sending or destination countries.

"Education should be a major focus," the report says.

Shifting educational resources to less-sophisticated degree programmes, for instance training physicians' assistants rather than doctors, "could increase the supply of workers trained to provide services that are in short supply in underserved areas while also reducing the ability of trainees to find employment in destination countries".

But, the report warns, such policies should be based on the country's need for the right mix of specialists and lower skilled workers, not the implications for high-skilled emigration.

The benefits of higher education could be increased and fiscal loses from skilled migration decreased by requiring students to pay for a portion of the cost of their education while providing performance-based subsidies to some students, and by requiring graduates to perform public service for a moderate period, it says. "More onerous requirements are likely to encourage emigration and discourage return."

The report also warns against restrictions on the emigration of high-skilled professionals, as this infringes on civil liberties, may not deter emigration given the strength of incentives, and may discourage return.

Also, incentives to return may be ineffective, may be provided to migrants who would have returned in any event, and may engender resentment from workers who never migrated.

"One simple policy that can provide significant benefits at low fiscal cost would be to remove biases against returning professionals that exist in professional regulations or government employment by, for example, adequately recognising qualifications and experience obtained abroad," the report proposes

Destination country policies are also important.

Because many OECD countries have policies that target highly skilled migrants and are the main beneficiaries of professionals trained using African public funds, there is some justice in asking them to subsidise the education expenses in origin countries suffering fiscal loss, says the report.

One potential policy measure is a cooperation arrangement under which OECD governments agree to help African governments enforce their service or taxation requirements or impose their own additional taxes to be remitted to African governments.

But destination countries do not want to impose such taxes, for fear of diverting migrant professionals to other countries that do not implement them. "Furthermore, enforcement in many countries might face institutional and legal obstacles."

Destination countries might consider providing financial and technical assistance to origin countries' educational programmes, the report suggests, provided that such aid does not replace existing programmes. "An option worth considering involves getting hiring institutions (whether public or private) to open training facilities in Africa."

Rather than trying to stem migration, the report concludes, African governments and policy-makers should focus on increasing education and skill levels and providing productive opportunities for the highly educated at home.

"A high level of skilled migration is rarely the root problem but rather a symptom of myriad other development problems. Without properly addressing various policy challenges - in education, labour and financial markets, healthcare and public finance - efforts to design mechanisms to harness the benefits and minimise the costs of skilled migration will not be fully effective.

"Indeed, they may be futile."