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THE BRAIN DRAIN:

CAUSES, EFFECTS AND REMEDIES


Henry Kyambalesa is currently an adjunct professor in the Col-

lege for Professional Studies’ MBA program at Regis University in Denver, an Independent Business
and Management Researcher and Consultant, and the Founder and President of Agenda for Change
(AfC) party in Zambia.

Abstract

African countries continually lose a significant number of trained nationals, who decide to emigrate
and live abroad in search of higher incomes and a better standard of living, among a host of other
reasons. Between 1974 and 1985, for example, an average of 12,146 technical and professional
personnel per year (computed from data collected by Logan1) were admitted to the United States from
various countries in Africa. Between 1993 and 1995, the United States admitted 32,317 of the
continent’s skilled human re- sources.2 And, according to the World Bank Group,3 nearly 70,000
qualified Africans leave their home countries every year to work in industrialized nations.

Clearly, this is a significant loss to a continent that is in dire need of skilled professionals to
facilitate and expedite the process of socio-economic development. Without large pools of such pro-
fessionals, African countries are not likely to attain meaningful levels of economic growth,
development and competitiveness.

In this discussion, an attempt is made to discern the causes, ad- verse effects and positive side of
the emigration of Africa’s tech- nical and professional personnel, and to suggest viable ways and
means of addressing the cancerous problem.

Logan, B.I., “The Reverse Transfer of Technology from Sub-Saharan Africa to the United States,” The Journal of
Modern African Studies, Volume 25/Num- ber 4, December 1987.

2
See U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Fact Book: Summary of
Recent Immigration Data, August 1995, p. 14, and January 1997; and Kyam-
balesa, Henry, Socio-Economic Challenges: The African Context (Trenton, NJ:
Africa World Press, Inc., 2004), p. 48.
3
See Allen, Ahkiah, “Medical Migration Drains Africa,” Washington Week,
www.pbs.org/weta/washingtonweek/, May 12, 2005.
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BRAIN DRAIN: A DEFINITION

The term “brain drain” may be defined broadly as the migration of trained and talented individuals
from one institution, or from one country or part of a country, to another in search of better working
conditions, a higher quality of life and/or a less hostile environ- ment. Such migration may, according
to the Scientific and Industri- al Research and Development Center (SIRDC),4 take any of the
following forms:

1) “Primary external brain drain,” which occurs when trained and skilled human resources leave their
country to go and work in developed countries;

2) “Secondary external brain drain,” which occurs when trained and skilled human resources leave the
African Union— or any other less-developed region of the world—to work in other parts of the
developing world; or

3) “Internal brain drain,” which occurs when trained and skilled human resources are not employed in
the fields of their expertise in their own country, or when such human resources move from the public
sector to the private sector or within a sector of a particular country.

In this paper, the discourse is about the “primary external brain drain” and the “secondary external
brain drain” to the exclusion of the “internal brain drain.”

CAUSES OF THE EXODUS

There are many factors obtaining in countries which are affected by the brain drain that have
contributed to the exodus of skilled tal- ent; following is a survey of some of the salient factors, that
is: poor conditions of service, human rights abuses, misplacement of trained personnel, disregard for
local talent, scarcity of jobs, lim- ited access to education, poor healthcare services, a high level of
crime, and the fear of losing valued relationships developed in host countries.

Adapted from Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Center (SIRDC), “An Analysis of the Cause and
Effect of the Brain Drain in Zimbab- we,”www.que ensu.c a/, July 31, 2008.

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Considered from the standpoint of the origin of trained and skilled emigrants, the foregoing
causes may be referred to as the “push factors” of professional flight. The inverses of the causes are
essentially the “pull factors” from the point of view of emigrants’ host countries.

Poor Conditions of Service

Poor conditions of service in migrants’ home countries are, by and large, a major reason why African
researchers and professionals have decided to “vote with their feet” so to speak. In Senegal, for
example, a study conducted by the Independent Union of Higher Education for Teachers has found
that a university lecturer earns between US$246.00 and US$261.50 per month, while a senior pro-
fessor at the top of the pay scale earns around US$923.00; their counterparts who emigrate to Europe
or North America, on the oth- er hand, earn between three to five times more.5

In the Republic of Zimbabwe, a massive staff exodus is repor- ted to have “hit the crisis-ridden
Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC) … with a number of senior managers having
left the organization citing low remuneration.”6 At the University of Zimbabwe, most faculties have
continued to experience a mass exodus of professionals due to unsatisfactory remuneration and poor
conditions of service.7

In 2004, the reported lecturer vacancy rates at the University were as follows: (a) the Faculty of
Medicine: 51.3 percent; (b) the Faculty of Science: 43 percent; (c) the Department of Veterinary
Sciences: 36 percent; (d) the Faculty of Education: 35 percent; and (e) the Faculty of Engineering:
34.6 percent.8

Human Rights Abuses

Human rights abuses or violations in Africa take many forms, in- cluding genocide, slavery, torture,
mass disappearances of indi- viduals, denial of freedom of speech, and repudiation of freedom of the
press.9 The following assessment of human rights abuses and

Faye, Abdou, “Education: Europe, North America Tapping Africa’s ‘Brain Reservoir’,” Inter Press Service News
Agency:http://www.ipsnews.net/- africa/, December 27, 2003.

6
The Financial Gazette, “Massive Staff Exodus Hits ZMDC,” October 14-20,
2004, p. C5.
7
The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), “Shortage of Lecturers at UZ Persists Un-
abated,” October 24, 2004, p. 5.
8
Ibid.
9
Derechos Human Rights, “Human Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa,”
http://www.derechos.org/, October 25, 2008.
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violations on the continent by the BBC (British Broadcasting Cor-
poration) is perhaps in order at this juncture:10
1) Widespread torture and ill-treatment of suspects in Burundi,
Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Togo, and Zimbabwe;

2) Women and girls raped and sexually abused by perpetrators from different parties to conflicts in the
Central African Repub- lic, Ivory Coast, the Sudan, and Uganda;

3) Recruitment of child soldiers as combatants and sex slaves in Burundi, Central African Republic,
the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and the Sudan; and

4) Malicious prosecution, arbitrary arrest and excessive force against demonstrations as tools of
political oppression in Cameroon, Chad, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.

According to Whande,11 gross human rights abuses and govern- ment cruelty on citizens in
countries like Zimbabwe have com- pelled a lot of locally trained experts to migrate to less-hostile
countries. And he has the following question for the Zimbabwean government and its sympathizers:
“Zimbabwe used to produce ex- port-quality professionals to serve it. But today, where are our doc-
tors, nurses, teachers, farmers, and pharmacists?”12

Misplacement of Talent

Misplacement of human resources has contributed to what Logan13 has preferred to characterize as the
“reverse transfer of technology”—that is, the migration of professionals from Africa to industrialized
countries where they were trained. Many technical and professional personnel have decided to move
to other countries upon finding that the rewards of their labor in native countries are generally
measured on the basis of political patronage rather than excellence,14 and that corruption, nepotism,
tribalism, and other

10
See BBC News, “Amnesty Deplores African Rights Record,”http://news.b -
bc.co.uk/, May 26, 2004.
11
Whande, Tanonoka J., “Time Running Out for Dictators,” Zimbabwe Inde-
pendent, October 15, 2004, p. 13.
12
Ibid.
13
See Logan, B.I., “The Reverse Transfer of Technology from Sub-Saharan
Africa to the United States,” pp. 597-612.
14
Zambia Daily Mail, “Zambia’s Economic Malaise: Workers Lack Incent-
ives,” June 4, 1988, p. 4.
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similar forms of behavior have permeated every level of organiza-
tional life.15

Here is a good example: “It is not always about the money. Of- ten it is also about mental sanity. I
am from Suriname and it is a daily challenge to handle the enormous stupidity around me, espe- cially in
government circles, where the only qualification one needs to get top management jobs is fierce loyalty
to an ethnic leader.”16

In Zambia, Valentine Kayope, quoted in Ollawa,17 has also con- tributed to the debate on this
issue: “It is not uncommon to observe that only those civil servants who can count on the strong
backing of powerful ethnic politicians have the chance of upward mobility in the public service.”

Disregard for Local Talent

The unfortunate and common tendency among local and national governments in African countries to
scout for expatriate scientists, technologists and consultants from industrialized nations has made
indigenous experts to feel disregarded and have become less creat- ive as a result. As Ayittey has
observed,18 African leaders tend to have “more faith in expatriates and foreign systems than in their
own African peoples.”

In Ghana, for instance, when the country’s military government embarked on a program of
participatory democracy in 1987, it sought the services of a Bulgarian expert; and between 1986 and
1988, the government recruited 265 foreign consultants, whose fees and expenses amounted to 34
percent of the total compensa- tion it paid to 200,000 of its indigenous employees.19

And while consultancy fees paid to expatriate personnel ranged between US$3,000 and US$5,000
per month, those paid to local personnel with equivalent or higher qualifications and experience were
between US$80 and US$200 per month.20 Moreover, expatri- ates were accorded furnished residential
accommodation, office ac-
15
Woldring, K., “Survey of Recent Inquiries and their Results,” in Woldring,
K., editor, Beyond Political Independence: Zambia’s Development Predicament
in the 1980s (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984), p. 187.
16
Anonymous, in Hennessey, Matthew, “Who’s to Blame for Brain Drain?”
Global Envision,www.glob alenvision.org/, July 26, 2007.
17
Ollawa, P.E., Participatory Democracy in Zambia: The Political Economy
of National Development (Elm Court, Great Britain: Arthur H. Stockwell Lim-
ited, 1979), p. 388.
18
Ayittey, George B.N., Africa Betrayed (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1992), p. 111.
19
Ayittey, George B.N., ibid, pp. 111-112.
20
Ayittey, George B.N., ibid, p. 112.
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commodation, logistics support, a vehicle, and the best hotel ac-
commodation while travelling.21

In the Republic of Zambia, the late President Levy Mwanawasa branded citizens who had
migrated to other countries as failures during an official opening of a leadership workshop for Cabinet
ministers, Deputy Ministers and Permanent Secretaries in February 200422—a typical bashing of
emigrants without making any effort to find out why they actually found it necessary to vote with their
feet, so to speak.

In Malawi, during the leadership of the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the Kamuzu
Academy and Kamuzu Hospital did not hire black teachers and doctors because, according to Dr.
Banda,23 black people were not talented enough to fill such posi- tions.

The late Lameck Goma of Zambia, quoted by Neelamegham,24 has attributed African government
leaders’ indiscriminate faith in expatriate personnel to the colonial legacy; he has alleged that the
colonial experience has distorted Africa’s image of herself and her ideas about other continents, and
that this distortion has tended to linger on long after the attainment of political independence, ren-
dering the conquered mind to continue to have blind faith in the supposed superiority of personnel
from the former metropolitan and allied countries.

The common feeling among some officials in Western donor countries, though, seems to be that
less-developed countries actu- ally lack competent people to provide sound leadership in com- merce,
industry and government. The following words of an un- named aid official quoted by Timberlake25 is
indicative of this: “In a sense, we’re talking about ... sending smart white boys in to tell them how to
run their countries.”

This feeling is perhaps engendered and/or reinforced by the un- warranted preference of some
government leaders for foreign ex- perts, particularly those leaders who have explicitly, or at least by
implication, claimed that indigenous experts—locally trained or otherwise—are half-baked. The
following excerpt about the senti-
21
Ayittey, George B.N., ibid.
22
Mambwe, Kennedy, “Careless Levy Angers Zambians Abroad,” Lusaka In-
formation Dispatch,www.dispatch.co.zm, November 14, 2004.
23
See Ayittey, George, B.N., op. cit., p. 111.
24

Neelamegham, S., “Localization of Professional Training in Management and Accountancy: The Zambian
Experience,” Zambia Journal of Business, Volume 1/Number 1, April 1982, p. 10.

25
Timberlake, L., Africa in Crisis: The Causes, the Cures of Environmental
Bankruptcy (Philadelphia, USA: New Society Publishers, 1986), p. 199.
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ments of a Zambian government official will perhaps corroborate
what is implied here:26

“A member of the Central Committee has called for an urgent rehabilitation and improvement in the
standards of Zambian engineering if local economic development is to make any headway ... [he] said
the standard of local engineers is so atro- ciously poor that very few ... can measure to the definition of
what an engineer or technician should be able to do.”

But if this state of affairs is actually true, it is certainly govern- ment leaders who are to blame for
not having initially devoted ad- equate financial, material, and other pertinent resources to the training
of citizens who have the potential to excel in their chosen fields of endeavor. It should be common
knowledge that no prac- tically meaningful training in any field of endeavor can possibly be expected
in the face of inadequate resources and training facilities.

Moreover, it should be obvious that trainers of pronounced caliber are necessary in the
provision of sound and practically use- ful training, but are such people willing to be hired and
retained to work in an environment that does not provide sufficient incentives and training facilities?

In August 2008, the Zambian Vice-President then, Rupiah Banda, was quoted as having said
that “an unskilled population placed a severe strain on public social services.”27 But who is really to
blame for the presence of unskilled citizens in Zambia— and in other African countries, as a matter of
fact?

Scarcity of Jobs

High interest rates and income taxes in the typical African country have, among other factors,
adversely affected investment in new enterprises, and have consequently hampered the creation of
jobs for streams of graduates from local colleges and universities. And governments cannot absorb
many locally trained citizens due to lack of financial resources. The Republic of Zambia provides a
good example in this regard:

1) According to an article published in the Times of Zambia in


July 2004 (reproduced by the Lusaka Information Dispatch28),
26
The Times of Zambia, “Zambian Engineers Lack Vital Spark,” April 17,
1989, p. 6.
27
Kapekele, Mutale, “Rupiah Links Poor Livelihood to Unskilled Populace,”
The Post:www.postzambia.com/, August 12, 2008.
28
Lusaka Information Dispatch, “Look Elsewhere for Jobs, Teachers Told,”
www.dispatch.co.zm/, July 2004.
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about 9,000 trained teachers were roaming the streets—unem- ployed—as they anxiously awaited
their postings by the coun- try’s Ministry of Education. A comment about the plight of the affected
teachers by the then Labor and Social Security Deputy Minister, Chile Ng’uni, revealed that the
government could not hire them to work in public schools because it did not have money to pay them!

In spite of most Zambian schools having been understaffed, the country’s education minister then,
Andrew Mulenga, an- nounced several months later that only about 1,000 out of 7,000 needed
teachers would be employed by January 2005 through financial assistance rendered by the
Netherlands.29

2) In November 2008, Wesley Ngwenya30 made the following observation concerning the scarcity of
jobs in Zambia: “I had been gone to the United States for nine years and during that time had never
come back home. I experienced reverse ‘culture shock’ from the dilapidated infrastructure around the
[capital] city to the many people standing around street corners with nothing to do. It was then it really
hit home in my mind on how real and high unemployment rate was in my country.

The next day after arriving I went straight to work—apply- ing for a job at various businesses and
both government and non-governmental organizations where I thought my education and experience
would be taken advantage of. I have never been offered a job to this day although I was able to attend
a few in- terviews. I must mention here that at my last count I had ap- plied to roughly 260 places over
a period of a year and half.”

Limited Access to Education

Formal education in industrialized nations is, by and large, both free and of high quality. In much of
the African Union, on the con- trary, education is of pitifully low quality, and is not widely access-
ible due to cost-sharing arrangements which most families cannot match without sacrificing some of
their basic necessities of life. Emigration to wealthy nations, therefore, assures African migrants
access to free and high-quality formal education for their children and/or young dependants.

Poor Healthcare Services


29
Banda, Joseph, “Only 1,000 Teachers Will Be Employed—Mulenga,”The
Post,www.post.co.zm/, December 7, 2004.
30
See Ngwenya, Wesley, “Should Zambians in Diaspora Come Back?”Lu -
saka Times:http://www.lusakatimes.com/, November 20, 2008.
Page8 of61
Cost-sharing arrangements in the dispensation of public healthcare services in much of contemporary
Africa has made such services less accessible to low-income families. Overall, access to life-sav- ing
healthcare is seriously hampered by inadequate, dilapidated and antiquated healthcare facilities. Thus,
the availability of high- quality services and modern facilities in the healthcare sectors of developed
countries is an important variable in African emigrants’ reluctance to return to their native countries.

A High Level of Crime

Unprecedented and widespread poverty and unemployment in the African Union have made burglars,
thieves and robbers on the con- tinent more daring. This, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and
Crime has concluded, has “contribute[d] to the emigration of skilled labor.”31 Besides, African
migrants who are resident in af- fluent countries, where there is generally greater safety and secur- ity,
are fearful of becoming obvious targets of perpetrators of such crimes upon returning to their countries
of origin.

To digress somewhat, failure to address the high incidence of crime has also contributed to lower
inflows of investment capital needed by African countries to bolster socio-economic develop- ment.

Valued Foreign Relationships

It is not unusual for indigenous Africans who reside in foreign countries to develop serious
professional, marital and/or other kinds of relationships with citizens of host countries. Such relation-
ships are inevitably and earnestly considered in emigrants’ decision to return to their native countries.
Moreover, involvement by some African emigrants in medical, mortgage and/or retirement schemes in
foreign countries has been a major consideration in making the decision to return to their native
countries during their active work- ing lives.

THE ADVERSE EFFECTS

In less than two decades, the African continent has, according to the Ethiopia-based United Nations
Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), lost a third of its skilled professional personnel

31
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Crime and Development in
Africa,”http://www.unodc.o rg/n ewsletter/, Number 3, 2005.
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through emigration and has had to replace them with over 100,000
expatriates at an annual cost of US$4 billion.32

With respect to healthcare professionals, a study conducted by BioMed Central Health Services
Research has estimated the eco- nomic losses incurred by African countries as a result of emigra- tion
of one doctor to be about US$517,931 and that of one nurse to be around US$338,868.33 There are,
however, other losses that are not captured in the education-costing methodology, such as the fol-
lowing:34

1) Loss of Health Services: Healthcare professionals contribute to health promotion, disease


prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation. Thus, the emigration of such professionals
exacerbates the human resource shortages in national and dis- trict health systems and reduces the
capability of such systems to perform their core functions.

2) Loss of Supervisors: Practicing doctors and senior nurses normally play major roles in supervising
staff in peripheral fa- cilities in any given country that serve the majority of popula- tions—such as
health centers, dispensaries and health posts. Thus, when such doctors and nurses emigrate, the
supervisory capabilities of a country’s healthcare system are diminished, contributing to a further
weakening of the capacities of the healthcare system to provide quality services to patients.

3) Loss of Mentors for Trainees: In any given country, practi- cing doctors and senior nurses train and
counsel new healthcare employees and students on internship. The emigration of such professionals,
therefore, can have a negative inter-generational effect on the process of health-related human capital
creation in a country.

4) Loss of Public Health Researchers: Many of a country’s spe- cialized doctors and nurses who may
decide to migrate to other countries are often among the very few active researchers in local
healthcare institutions. Therefore, emigration of such
32

See Faye, Abdou, “Education: Europe, North America Tapping Africa’s ‘Brain Reservoir’,” op. cit., and Mutume,
Gumisai, “Reversing Africa’s Brain Drain: New Initiatives Tap Skills of African Experts,” Zambia Daily Mail, www.daily-
mail.co.zm/, July 25, 2003.

33
Kirigia, Joses M., Gbary, Akpa R., Muthuri, Lenity K., Nyoni, Jennifer, and
Seddoh, Anthony, “The Cost of Health Professionals’ Brain Drain in Kenya,”
BioMed Central Health Services Research, July 17, 2006.
34
Excerpted and adapted from Kirigia, Joses M., Gbary, Akpa R., Muthuri,
Lenity K., Nyoni, Jennifer, and Seddoh, Anthony, ibid.
Page10 of61

people can stifle innovation and invention in finding solutions to persistent local public-health
problems like cancer, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

5) Loss of Role Models for Children: Doctors and nurses are often viewed by children in communities
where they work as examples to be imitated and emulated. Emigration of such people, therefore, not
only robs children of positive role mod- els, it also negatively affects their dreams and aspirations and,
hence, the number of children aspiring to become healthcare professionals in their adult lives.

6) Loss of Potential Entrepreneurs: By virtue of their education and earnings, doctors and nurses often
set up healthcare-related and/or non-healthcare business entities—such as private clin- ics,
pharmacies, hospitals, retail outlets for groceries, or whole- sale shops. Emigration of such people,
therefore, undermines the growth of entrepreneurship in affected countries and com- munities, and
diminishes prospects for economic growth and development. And

7) Loss of Domestic Jobs: Doctors and nurses usually provide employment opportunities for
housekeepers, gardeners and se- curity guards at their places of residence. Thus, emigration of such
people usually results in loss of employment opportunities and incomes for domestic workers and
their families.

Let us now consider a few examples of the dire effects associ- ated with the exodus of skilled and
trained nationals on the follow- ing African countries: Ethiopia, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa, the
Sudan, and Zambia.