Africa’s ability to reach its economic potential has been stymied by a brain drain, the loss of well-educated professionals who seek opportunities in developed countries. A 2013 report from the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found one in nine Africans with a tertiary education—some 2.9 million people from the continent—were living and working in developed nations in North America, Europe and elsewhere.
The number of African migrants has grown more than 50% in the past 10 years, more than any other region in the world. The causes are complex and varied from wars and political instability to the attraction of better wages and greater opportunities abroad.
Discussions of Africa’s brain drain have focused on the health sector
Discussions of Africa’s brain drain have focused on the health sector, and in particular, doctors. A 2011 study from the British Medical Journal calculated the cost of human capital in economic terms. It found that the lost investment of domestically-educated doctors migrating from sub-Saharan African countries to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States reached nearly $2.2 billion. Though Africa may be thought of as a place where developed nations send aid, in reality, its educational system has long been underwriting the healthcare needs of developed countries.
The healthcare consequences, though, go deeper. Africa’s reliance on the pharmaceutical industry outside its boarders to address the needs of the continent’s population has left gaps. As incomes rise and prosperity spreads, urbanization, changing lifestyles and western diets are changing the healthcare burden in Africa. Nevertheless, innovative medicines to treat the ailments of Africans remain elusive as Western pharmaceutical companies look to other markets to drive their revenues and shape their pipelines.
Despite the growing health threats of chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, Africa’s medicine cabinet consists largely of generic drugs—meaning that most medications will have been on the market for at least a decade before people in Africa can gain access to them.
As Africa enjoys a sharp rate of economic growth, the demand for skilled workers is increasing and will be needed to ensure the continent reaches it potential.
Loss of educated and skilled people isn’t a phenomenon unique to Africa
The African Union for the past decade has taken steps to reverse this trend and through such initiatives as the New Partnership of Africa’s Development. It has sought to encourage the doctors, scientists, engineers and other professionals who make up the African diaspora to return home and put their talents to work to help drive an African renaissance.
The loss of educated and skilled people is by no means a phenomenon that is unique to Africa. But as emerging economies build momentum, growth drives opportunity and attracts expatriates home. In China, hundreds of thousands of educated professionals, who left their homeland to study and work, have returned. These so-called “sea turtles” have come back with desirable skills, a network of international business contacts and innovative ideas to energize the economy.
In India, which is enjoying a brain gain, scientists are returning home because of the relative strength of the Indian economy and growing opportunities there. Elsevier, the publisher of scientific journals, reported in 2013 that India is now a net importer of productive scientific talent.
Policies need to communicate that expatriates are wanted and needed back home
And, there are hopeful signs in parts of Africa that trends are improving. South Africa’s Adcorp, a staffing, outsourcing and human resources management firm, reported in 2014 that since the global financial crisis began in 2008, a net 359,000 high-skilled South Africans have returned from working in other countries. The declaration of a reversal may have been premature. A separate study by Thomas Hoppli, an economic analyst at the South African Institute of Professional Accountants challenged Adcorp’s findings, but did find that the brain drain there had slowed considerably.
Efforts by governments can help put in place policies that encourage expatriates to return and communicate to them they are wanted and needed back home. But part of the solution lies with Africa’s businesses to create opportunities that retain the talent we already have and brings home people with desired skills. This includes the chance to put their talents to use, advance in their careers, and make a difference in the lives of others, as well as the future of the continent.
And it’s not just a matter of attracting African expatriates home. We need to share the story of world class opportunities that are available for world class talent. That includes not only drawing Africa’s best and brightest across borders to build our collective economy, but also attract talented professional from developed nations who have a passion for the continent and find rewards in being challenged to build, contribute and grow.
Published: 4/14/2015. By Menghis Bairu
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