Studies show sub-Saharan Africa continues to export its most valuable commodity – skilled workers. Yet the continent gets little if anything in return. The brain drain has been going on for decades, but efforts are underway to reverse the trend and create an African brain trust.
Joan Dassin – head of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program – says the loss of professional workers is enormous.
"There are something like 30,000 PhDs living outside of Africa. Every year, 20,000 professionals leave Africa. So, Africa as a whole exports its most valuable resource, namely highly trained, talented people," she says.
As a result, she says the continent is now forced to pay for expert advice.
"The figures that I’ve seen show a net export of about four billion dollars a year to support something like 100,000 foreign consultants working on development projects in Africa. While at the same time, paradoxically, highly trained African professionals are unemployed or under-employed," she says.
Ms. Dassin says the brain drain was discussed at a recent meeting in Accra, Ghana, of the various groups involved in the Ford fellowships.
"Well, this is actually a long historical trend that now goes back at least to the 1980’s. And there are a number of reasons, obviously the economic crises of the African countries, particularly starting in the 1980’s with structural adjustment programs and so on. Violence, civil war, political turmoil, lack of freedom of expression in many places, deterioration of the universities – all of these factors have led to what is a very serious exodus of highly trained people," she says.
However, Ms. Dassin says African governments, universities and private organizations are working to end the brain drain – among them the Ford Foundation. Working through local groups, the foundation accepts nominations for fellowships.
It awarded its first fellowships in 2001, including those in Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana. Since then, well over 300 fellows have been selected from the continent.
The Ford Foundation says the goal of the fellowships is to “provide opportunities for advanced study to exceptional individuals who will use this education to become leaders in their respective fields.” What’s more, they are expected to use their education to “further development in their own countries and greater economic and social justice worldwide.”
She says, "We’re finding that because we’re looking to people to hold these fellowships, who have not only outstanding academic achievements, but also a demonstrated record of commitment to social development in their countries that that is creating a higher probability that these people – once they’ve completed their degrees – will return to their countries."
Other efforts include the Digital Diaspora Network Africa, which was launched in 2002. It calls on various UN agencies, as well as technology firms and NGO’s to work together to harness the expertise of scientists, doctors, engineers, economists and others for the benefit of the continent.
For example, this past June, the third annual Digital Bridge Africa meeting was held in Abuja, Nigeria. It focused on ensuring Africa takes advantage of new information communication technologies, which have been integrated into commerce, education and many other fields.