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Is Brain Drain Good for Africa?

Author: Stephanie Hanson
August 21, 2008


Nearly half of Ghana's educated citizens live abroad, while one in three skilled Angolans resides outside that country. "Brain drain"—the exodus of skilled workers from their home countries—is nothing new. India, China, Ireland, and Russia, too, complain about it. But it hits Africa particularly hard. Of the ten countries with the highest percentage of educated citizens living abroad, six are in sub-Saharan Africa, where many governments heavily subsidize higher education. Development experts decry the adverse impact of brain drain on the region. But recent research on migration of skilled workers concludes that brain drain might, through remittances and the return of talented workers, be good for Africa.

Many experts believe the flight of health workers, scientists, and teachers hinder the continent's development. "It will be impossible to achieve an African renaissance without the contributions of the talented Africans residing outside Africa," writes Ravinder Rena of the Eritrea Institute of Technology. A lack of skilled local labor means that the continent spends roughly $4 billion a year to hire foreign skilled workers, according to the International Office on Migration. "If you don’t have qualified people on the ground with strong local roots to carry out development projects, it’s not likely they will move forward in a sustainable way," Joan Dassin of the Ford Foundation tells Voice of America. Public health experts, including CFR Senior Fellow Laurie Garrett, also contend that brain drain in medical fields have contributed to a decline in health indicators in several African countries, including Ghana and Kenya. Economists caution, however, that there is no systematic data on overall brain drain from Africa (PDF).

A small group of economists now argue that brain drain might have a positive impact on Africa. Those skilled workers, their research shows, are often sending significant quantities of money back to their home countries. A March 2008 paper by economists William Easterly and Yaw Nyarko says remittances to Africa are likely undercounted, but on average they are equivalent to 81 percent of the foreign aid (PDF) received by an individual country. A 2005 World Bank study showed that remittances from skilled workers to their families in Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines helped reduce poverty in those countries.

In some cases, talented workers are even returning to their home countries to work or start businesses. Though research on this phenomenon in Africa is limited, economists have documented the effects of Chinese and Indian tech entrepreneurs returning to their home countries. This so-called brain circulation—in which entrepreneurs start new companies but maintain business links in the United States—has been extensively researched by AnnaLee Saxenian of the University of California, who calls these entrepreneurs "The New Argonauts." Some experts believe African skilled workers could have a similar positive effect on their native economies. In an essay in the book, African Brain Circulation, Rubin Patterson of the University of Toledo proposes that African nationals have the opportunity to spearhead an environmental-conscious industrial economy similar to the information economy pioneered by Asian nationals in Silicon Valley during the 1990s.

Instead of waiting to see if skilled Africans will return to their home countries, some are building institutions to encourage talented students to stay on the continent and help develop their countries. Neil Turok of Cambridge University has built a science and technology postgraduate program in South Africa that he hopes to expand to fifteen countries. Another new program, the African Leadership Academy, will waive tuition for most of its students, but if they are not working in Africa when they turn twenty five, they'll owe the school full tuition plus interest (Forbes). Panelists at an April 2008 meeting at the Brookings Institution advised developing countries to implement policies that create incentives (PDF) for skilled workers to stay rather than restricting their ability to migrate.

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