April 24, 2006

Brain drain deprives Africa of vital talent

By Katie Nguyen

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Hundreds of young Africans crammed into
rickety fishing boats, destitute and half-dead from hunger and
illness, wash up onto European shores. Many others are found
dead on the beaches.

These images of desperate Africans trying to reach a
"promised land" in the rich West make headlines. But thousands
of others are quietly being welcomed through the front door.

It is estimated that some 20,000 skilled professionals are
leaving the continent every year, depriving Africa of the
doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers it needs to break a
cycle of poverty and under-development.

Oil and gas-producer Algeria has lost 45,000 of its
academics and researchers over the past decade because of a war
with Islamic insurgents and a poor scientific environment.

"We must find a way to reduce the brain drain. It is an
open wound that infects our nation," President Abdelaziz
Bouteflika has said.

In some countries the rate of skilled migration exceeds 50
percent, the World Bank says, citing Cape Verde, Gambia,
Seychelles, Mauritius and Sierra Leone.

Stymied by conflict, poverty, killer diseases and
corruption, much of Africa is in no position to compete with
richer countries that promise bigger salaries, better working
conditions and political stability.

"Most people want to and do plan to return home, but you
have to ask yourself what are the opportunities? Is the future
secure?," said David Orgut, a Kenyan who went to Britain to
study nine years ago and stayed to work as a consultant in the
construction industry.

"As it is, there are scores of university graduates
struggling to find jobs in Kenya. Until the government begins
to address the state of affairs in the job market, more and
more migrants will prefer to stay abroad to seek employment."


While emigration is not a new phenomenon, its acceleration
since the independence era of the 1960s has cost Africa dearly.

Brain drain deals a double blow to weak economies which not
only lose their best human resources and the money spent
training them, but then have to pay an estimated $5.6 billion a
year to employ expatriates.

Development experts say the talent drain not only
undermines Africa's economic growth, but also damages prospects
for political transformation.

Repressive regimes persecute and drive away the political
dissidents and intellectuals most likely to bring change.

Experts say a deficit of thinkers and intellectuals slows
Africa's progress toward good governance, greater democracy and
improved human rights.

"The political and social impact is bigger in the long
run," Soumana Sako, executive secretary of the Harare-based
African Capacity Building Foundation, told Reuters.

"How can you talk of home-grown reforms if these
intellectuals who should be at the forefront of change are


Virtually every walk of African life is affected by
migration -- from Ivorian soccer players signed up by wealthy
European clubs to Kenyan pilots flying for foreign airlines.

But the health sector is the biggest casualty.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says sub-Saharan Africa
bears 24 percent of the global burden of disease including
HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. To face that challenge it
has just three percent of the world's health workers.

Many doctors and nurses leave to work in countries like
Britain, the United States and Australia, which are growing
increasingly dependent on migrants to tackle staff shortages in
hospitals and to cope with an aging population.

In Malawi, only 5 percent of physicians' posts and 65
percent of nursing vacancies are filled. In the country of 10
million, one doctor serves 50,000 people compared with the
British ratio of one doctor for every 600 people.

A recent report on Zambia showed that about one-third of
its doctors work abroad. British-based charity Oxfam says there
is one doctor per 14,000 people in Zambia.

Officials warn that unless the shortages are remedied,
Africa will fail to reach goals set by the United Nations to
halve poverty by 2015 and improve health services.

"Our approach is that if you (the West) poach one, then you
must help us train four so that we can increase our numbers,"
said senior Zambian health ministry official Simon Miti.

"If they don't help us train more workers, we will not
reach the (U.N.) Millennium Development Goals on health," he
told a meeting of African countries and donor aid agencies in


Despite the gloomy forecasts, analysts say the brain drain
can be effectively tackled.

Last year, Britain launched a $175 million aid initiative
for Malawi to improve conditions for medical staff and mitigate
the brain drain. The six-year program aims to double the number
of nurses and triple the number of doctors.

"What the international community needs to do is recognize
that migration and migrants play an important part in
development," said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the
Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The IOM says rich countries should embrace skilled
migrants, invest in furthering their knowledge to avoid "brain
waste," and encourage them to return home temporarily to share
their skills.

"Until there's acceptance that it's an advantage for
everyone, you're going to be stuck with the brain drain,"
Chauzy said.

(Additional reporting by Johannesburg, Dakar, Algiers