Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Brain Drain and African Governance

I attended a meeting at the World Bank this week to assess Africa’s needs and to suggest what the Bank’s response should be. Over and over, the topic of governance (or lack thereof) came up. Those who most mentioned governance as a problem were Africans themselves. These are, by and large, people who decided that their countries weren’t being run properly and decamped for America, Europe or elsewhere.

Young Africans, those born in their homeland who left for education purposes or opportunities elsewhere or who came with their families, also don’t feel obliged to return in large numbers. Selected situations like Ghana and Angola are seeing young people come home to start businesses where opportunity seems ripe. Still, the brain drain has struck Africa hard.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has estimated that Africa has lost a third of its human capital and continues to lose skilled personnel at an alarming rate. IOM and the Economic Commission for Africa gathered statistics showing that between 1960, when 17 African countries became independent, and 1974, when most had achieved independence, an average of 1,800 skilled Africans left their homelands for developed nations. Between 1975 and 1984, the rate had jumped to 4,000a year. Between 1985 and 1989, 12,000 skilled Africans each year left for what they thought were greener pastures, and since 1990, the rate has skyrocketed to 20,000 annually.

When many of us think of governance, we look at the African presidents and their cabinets. However, it is the middle management that provides information for policy decisions and implements those decisions once made. Is it any wonder, then, that decisions are made that seem puzzling to outsiders? Certainly there are smart people remaining, but they are not always in positions to provide sage advice, or their advice is not heeded. There just isn’t a critical mass of skilled personnel to carry the day in many of the councils of government. Those who remain in their homelands are heroes for wanting to give something back despite often trying circumstances.

There are people like the late Manute Bol who gave all he had to help his native land of Sudan, and there are many others who contribute to the progress of their countries while keeping a foot in their developed country home. IOM has managed several programs to allow them to do just that. But what I’d like to know is why so often when Africans talk about the Diaspora helping Africa, it is clear they mean only those born on the continent and not those of us whose ancestors came here centuries ago? I thought when the Organization of African Unity declared the African Diaspora the sixth region of the continent in 2003 that divide was eliminated. I guess not.

Members of the historic Diaspora also have made significant contributions to Africa because of their feeling of kinship or just because they want to help those in need. Through church missions, adopt-a-child programs or individual donations to a family they come to know, historic Diasporans have provided what could be considered remittances. Members of the Diaspora have created businesses in African countries or invested in African exchanges. Finally, through programs such as the Teachers for Africa program created by Reverend Leon H. Sullivan through the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, members of the historic Diaspora (as well as non-Diasporans) have contributed their time and talent to the elevation of African societies.

So why is there still reluctance on the part of the recent African Diasporans in the developed world to join with us historic Diasporans to pool our talents and resources for the betterment of Africa?

African governments spend an average of US$4 billion a year to hire about 100,000 Western experts to handle functions considered to be technical assistance, which could have been performed by the African technicians, scientists and other professionals who no longer live there or their counterparts in the historic African Diaspora. Those Western experts, unfortunately, too seldom include a significant number of non-African born Diasporans.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof recently was forced to defend his coverage of Africa as portraying the situation in Africa as white knights coming to save the continent, but when you look at it, aren’t African governments paying them to do so? Is it the fault of white experts that they take the money they’re offered – either by African governments or developed country governments – to provide assistance to Africa? Both African and developed country governments could provide more opportunities for the African Diaspora to help Africa, but change doesn’t seem very likely on either of their parts.

So it’s up to the recent and historic Diasporas to band together to provide what help Africa needs. I don’t begrudge organizations such as Doctors Without Borders or individuals such as actress Angelina Jolie for stepping up to help Africa. God bless them for their generosity of spirit. But shouldn’t we in the Diaspora feel ashamed that someone else feels the need to carry the burden of our people when we are perfectly capable of doing so ourselves?


  1. Thanks for your concern and work on African issues, Mr. Simpkins. The issue of brain drain and the engagement of the Diaspora to help reverse the trend are critical for Africa's transformation. (In fact, I am currently working on a blog article on this question).

    Since its transformation from the OAU, the African Union has recognized the Diaspora as the 6th region of the continent (the others regions being the North, East, West, Southern, and Eastern Africa). However, like many other challenges facing the continent, the translation of the declaration/vision of the AU regarding the Diaspora will take a measure of purposeful leadership and good governance at all levels of government through out the continent. Some progress is being made, but slow and insufficient. We must continue to look for avenues to engage the continent to realize many of the visions that have been set for it. I have blogged about this continuous engagement: . Peace!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing such a moving piece. You’re absolutely correct, the development and progress of Africa lies in the hands of African. Billion of dollars in aid money (loan) has been spent in Africa, but there is a little or no progress to show for it. The continent continues to be indebted by corrupt politicians and their cronies who don’t really care about the plight of the suffering masses, but to enrich themselves.

    The questions is, are the governments of Africa ready to welcome the diasporans with an open hands?