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African professionals working abroad – a brain drain or gain for the continent?

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By Edwin Naidu

Despite the best efforts of the African Union to curb the brain drain, professionals are still leaving the continent in droves for greener pastures.

The AU Migration Policy Framework (MPFA) Plan of Action (2018 – 2027) spells out what the AU Commission will do during the plan period to ensure the coherent management of migration on the Continent within this framework. But it does not seem to be working with many professionals on the continent opting to go abroad for working opportunities.

A recent survey of youth in 15 countries also found that they are also eager to leave for a variety of reasons, including better career prospects or escaping conditions at home, like corruption or governments that serve their leaders and their chosen ones than the people. In South Africa, questions are being asked about whether the country is headed for an academic brain drain following the sudden announcement that one of the country’s foremost academics and experts on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, is going to become rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo.

While this opportunity in Japan will put him on a global stage giving him the gravitas his career deserves, South Africa – and Africa to which he located UJ – will be the poorer.

The highly rated and internationally respected Marwala is not alone in leaving for greener pastures. Endearing man of the cloth, Reverend Professor Jerry Pillay, Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria (UP), has been elected general secretary of the global faith-based organisation the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The soft-spoken churchman will leave academia at the end of the year to head the 74-year-old Swiss-Christian organisation committed to ecumenism (the belief that Christians of different denominations should work together to promote Christian unity). The WCC is a fellowship of churches consisting of more than 354 denominations, of which the United Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, to which Prof Pillay belongs, is an affiliate. “I’m wonderfully excited about it,” Prof Pillay said. “Because I’ve been a very strong ecumenist, I love the academic world. I’m truly going to miss being at UP; it is the most wonderful university ever. I will miss this environment and would not have left for any other academic adventure. But this is different. This is a call to be with the church and lead the world church. And that has always been in my DNA. I’m here because I serve God and want to serve the world,” he said in an interview.

Marwala and Pillay are not the first to leave for better work opportunities and to serve on global platforms.

There have been many before them, including the former vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, Professor Cheryl De La Rey, now vice-chancellor of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand since 2019.

One of the country’s brightest academics, Professor Adam Habib, left his position at the University of the Witwatersrand to become Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London on 1 January 2021. He served as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa between 1 June 2013, when the term of his predecessor Loyiso Nongxa ended, until 1 January 2021.

Many would argue that the academic world in South Africa is poorer without him, too. His frankness in tackling corruption, challenging the higher education inadequacies or his incisive pen to write on social challenges have not been followed up on with the same fearless zeal.

This is happening not only in academia, for example, the sporting world was also abuzz recently over the appointment of Benni McCarthy as football coach for Manchester United, the Red Devils, currently mired in the doldrums without a trophy in five years. Best of luck to Benny but certainly they need a miracle to get back

to winning ways. The irony in the case of McCarthy is that he had been fired as head coach by Amazulu. Should his appointment succeed at Manchester United, he will be celebrated and regarded as an inspired choice than his failure as a coach. Still, in his playing days, few would argue that he put South Africa on the map by getting plum jobs is not the sole preserve of South Africans. Some of the most influential positions in the world today are held by individuals from the African continent. The face of the World Health Organisation is Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, who is the first African Director General of the WHO.

Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala leads the World Trade Organisation, while Senegal’s Makh tar Diop manages an investment portfolio worth billions at the International Finance Corporation and Liberia’s Antoinette Sayeh is second-in- charge at the International Monetary Fund.

The AU migration policy document says that a “brain drain” occurs when significant numbers of highly skilled nationals leave their State of origin to seek livelihoods abroad. This phenomenon can have detrimental effects on the economies of States of origin countries by hampering the growth and development of industries and service sectors where highly skilled nationals are needed. In its document, it says an estimated 70,000 skilled professionals emigrate from Africa each year.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) specifically recognises the reversal of “brain drain” as a priority. Countering “brain drain” and mitigating its effects on national economies are therefore important policy objectives for African countries.

As part of its strategy, firstly, the policy sought to counter the exodus of skilled nationals, particularly health professionals, by promoting the NEPAD strategy for retention of Africa’s human capacities and generating gender-responsive economic development programmes to provide gainful employment, professional development, and educational opportunities to qualified nationals in their home countries.

Secondly, the aim was to counter the effects of “brain drain” by encouraging nationals abroad to contribute to the development of their State of origin, through financial and human capital transfers, such as short- and long-term return migration; the transfer of skills, knowledge, and technology, including in the context of programmes such as the IOM MIDA (Migration in Development for Africa) Programme, and activities of ILO, WHO and other relevant agencies.

Thirdly, the plan was to establish policies for the replacement of qualified persons who have left the State of origin and implement retention policies and related strategies.

A fourth goal is to maximise the contribution of skilled professionals to the continent by facilitating regional and continental mobility.

Linked to this is the total global volume of remittances transferred to developing countries which exceeds Official Development Assistance, and has important macro-economic effects, by increasing the total purchasing power of receiving economies. Importantly, women migrant workers account for half of the estimated $601 billion in global remittances.

International remittances have become a major source of foreign currencies for most African countries and are more stable, dependable, and countercyclical than other forms of foreign currency inflows, such as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and ODA, thus sustaining consumption and investment during recessions. Remittances are used by migrants’ families to meet daily subsistence needs, health and education, but are also invested in land, homes, entrepreneurial activities, etc.

Identifying ways to maximise the developmental effects of remittances, and improve remittance transfer mechanisms, are therefore topics of growing importance to Africa.

The African Youth Survey 2022, carried out in 15 countries by the South African Ichikowitz Family Foundation, shows that more than half of young Africans are considering emigrating to another country in the next three years to secure employment and educational opportunities for their future. Surely, this must rank as a concern. Around half say they are likely to consider emigrating to another country in the next three years, with South Africa is the most appealing destination in Africa.

Emigration is top of mind for many African youth, said the survey, and more than half say they are likely to at least consider moving to another country in the next three years. In Nigeria and Sudan, this rises to nearly three-quarters, while in Angola and Malawi two-thirds of youth are considering emigrating out of their home country in the near future.

Among those who are considering emigrating, youth cite economic reasons (44%), such as pursuing a job opportunity, and educational opportunities (41%), such as going to university, as the two main reasons they would emigrate. A quarter (25%) are also eager to experience something new and different by going abroad. When asked if they would be emigrating for some time or permanently, more than two-thirds.

On the plus side, among those considering emigrating, two-thirds say that it would be a temporary move to return home with the skills and experiences gained abroad.

The AU policy document states that migration is a dynamic, evolving process, as well as a cross-cutting issue, with complex consequences.

States are therefore urged to adopt the following approaches, to ensure the coherent management of migration, maximise its benefits and minimise its negative impacts.

Ultimately, travel is said to be the best experience one can get in life but surely working experience abroad must rank highly as an individual growth boost for one. With the likes of Marwala, Pillay and McCarthy set to join Ghebreyesus, Okonjo-Iweala, tar Diop and Sayeh in articulating African power on the world stage, one wonders whether we should celebrate or lament their absence in our world. It also begs the question of whether a brain drain is ultimately a brain gain, since those who leave, may one-day return home experienced and equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to play greater roles in their countries throughout Africa.

But why do academics leave for greener pastures? In my view it is not just the incentive of a plum job. Most academics become academics for a reason: strong incentives to influence policymaking and impact on society. In the South African context, this is difficult as academics only seem to be consulted in the face of a crisis. Academics feel like they are used to fix but not build – this is the problem.

Naidu is a seasoned journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental and political factors it is influenced by in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.