Diaspora academics are returning to develop universities

A desire to contribute to nation-building and improve the standards of universities within Somalia is luring Somali intellectuals to return home to work in academia.

Professor Abdullahi Barise, the founding president of the City University of Mogadishu, said his institution and others welcome this increasing number of foreign-educated Somali lecturers and professors. City University was established by diaspora academics, and more than half of its administration, teaching and research staff are returnees.

Barise is one. He left Somalia after completing high school in 1982 on a teacher training scholarship in Egypt. He then moved to Canada in 1986, where he was educated to PhD level in psychology and social work at McGill University in Montréal, before working for the Québec government as a social worker. He then worked at McGill as a researcher and psychology-social work lecturer, then as an associate professor of social work at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, before moving to the United Arab Emirates in 1999 where he was a senior professor of psychology and social work at Zayed University, Dubai.

“Throughout this time, I continued to support the higher education sector in Somalia through consulting, training, fundraising and collecting books and other instructional materials, as the civil war continued to rage in its most intense phase,” he said.

But, later, he and colleagues decided to return to Somalia when a federal government was reconstituted in 2012 and they set up the City University of Mogadishu.

“The institution’s current three vice-presidents are graduates from large North American and European universities and have ample experience,” Barise told University World News. Two come from George Mason University in Virginia in the United States, and one from the University of Nottingham in the UK. He said other faculty members are drawn from areas such as Europe, southern Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Returnees bring back skills

Barise said the university continues to absorb three categories of foreign-educated returnees: those who were born overseas or emigrated, settled, and studied there; those who left Somalia to study abroad and returned after completing their education; and graduates of the City University of Mogadishu who pursued post-graduate studies in developed countries to later return to work at the university and help develop their country.

“The diaspora returnees are bringing back knowledge skills, not only to the higher education sector but also the human capital needed for the social, political, and economic growth of the country,” he said.

But this process of return immigration is not always simple. Former ex-pats used to richer, more stable and liberal societies overseas are worried about what they will encounter culturally and security-wise. As a result, many returnees accept short-term positions to test the water before making a commitment to remain long-term. Others plan to return to Somalia and then re-emigrate back to their second home country, having gained experience in Somali life and academia.

But some decide to stay, anyway: “When they get in, they are surprised that things are not the way they thought. They find superb quality in our universities, coupled with proper integration mentorship and they opt to remain. In fact, we are seeing a reverse of the brain drain, not only in the higher education sector but also across all sectors in Somalia,” Barise said.

Migration data unreliable

Dr Mohamed Mohamud Hassan Bidey, chairman of the Association of Somali Universities, said Somalia had suffered a severe brain drain as the educated fled the country during the long, intense period of the civil war from 1991-2012 when a transitional government was replaced by a permanent federal administration and when there was no permanent central government due to the instability.

Even though the small number of diaspora academic returnees is increasing each year in Somalia, their number is still far less than the government and the Somalia higher education sector would like, he said. There is no verified detailed data on higher education returnees in Somalia but, according to World Bank migration data, Somalia is still losing more people than it is gaining in some years. The country gained 48,000 and 40,000 migrants in 2018 and 2019 respectively but lost 11,000 in 2020 and 17,000 in 2021.

Bidey, who is also the rector at Benadir University, a private university in Mogadishu, said that many higher education returnees come to Somalia as advisers or consultants in government institutions or agencies. He said Benadir University employs 283 academics, 15 of whom are academic returnees currently working as senior lecturers.

“Our higher education institutions face many challenges attributed to a shortage of qualified and experienced academic staff. Therefore, our Somali universities can benefit enormously from the years of knowledge and experience the qualified returnees bring back home,” Bidey said. “They can provide mentorship to our very own academic staff as well as influence their peers through action.”

Dr Dahir Hassan Abdi, the rector of SIMAD University, another private Mogadishu institution, agrees. “Their association with local universities helps convince Somali parents to enrol their children in local universities instead of overseas,” he told University World News.

Dahir said most Somali PhD returnees have a negative view of local Somali universities in terms of quality, sustainability and research output. Their motivation is more altruistic: “They see joining local universities as giving something back to their communities. When accepting a teaching position, the diasporas don’t set high expectations,” he said.

Somali salaries cannot compare

Although SIMAD University offers good salaries, a flexible schedule and research grants, Dahir said pay is often significantly lower than in other countries, even if you consider the lower living costs in Somalia. Lecturers’ monthly take-home pay falls between (Somali shillings) SOS170,000 (about US$300) and SOS600,000 (about US$1,060). In Canada, for instance, lecturers can earn around US$7,900 to US$14,044.

Although academics are returning, the low pay and the lack of a comprehensive national higher education policy still restrict the flow of academic diaspora returnees.

“To their credit, many members of diaspora academic returnees teach at various universities as part-timers. Their sole motivation is to contribute to the development of nascent higher education institutions. Currently, 15 members of diaspora academic returnees work at SIMAD University as part-time lecturers,” Dahir said, adding that a majority of diaspora academic returnees are employed by the government, United Nations agencies, and international NGOs.

Dr Ahmed Adam Mohamed, a senior lecturer at the public Somali National University, said most of the returnee academics are from China, India, Sudan, Pakistan, Kenya, Malaysia, Turkey, Uganda, the UK, and the US. He said most returnees teach courses related to social sciences, administration, banking and finance, information technology and medicine.

“They return for different motives. Some, like me, see Somalia as our home and want to contribute their knowledge, time, and energy. Some just want to join their families and relatives back home. And some are seeking a new experience,” Adam said. He is a senior health system strengthening adviser at Somalia’s ministry of health and spent 10 years studying in Sudan and one year at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran before returning home.

Ahmed Siyad, the chief executive of Somali Research and Education Network, or SomaliREN, a non-profit higher education support group, said diaspora returnees are plugging a shortage of lecturers and helping to boost infrastructure investment in the higher education sector.

“Many have security concerns that hold them from coming back but, persuaded by the spirit of patriotism and the urge to build their country, the majority are taking that leap of faith. When they come, they find a different Somalia,” he said.

Government should jump in

Although the civil war continues, the situation has calmed down markedly. The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, or UNSOM, recorded at least 899 civilian casualties, including 441 killings, between late November 2020 and late July 2022 – but Mogadishu, where most universities are based, remains mostly calm. The government, in alliance with clan forces, is still fighting the Islamic group al-Shabaab, mostly in the south of the country.

To encourage more returnees, Siyad said SomaliREN plans to support universities in building virtual video conferencing platforms that diaspora intellectuals can use to connect with the Somali higher education sector. But Bidey said, for the flow to really increase, better salaries and more government support are needed.

“Somalia’s wages, particularly in the education sector, are insufficient. Universities do not get enough funds but run on tuition fees. All we can do is advocate and mobilise the academics to return due to the need for qualified human capital in the nation,” he said.

He said initiatives to recruit Somali PhD students are sorely needed. Less than 10% of the teaching staff at Somali universities hold PhD degrees.

To improve the situation and make it more attractive for the returnees to come home, he called for political stability and quick improvement of the security situation.

Siyad suggested establishing a ministry of diaspora affairs to help coordinate the returnee programme.

This article was updated on 10 March.