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Ford Foundation Program Encourages Brain "Gain" for Africa

Thousands of Africans come to the United States each year to study. Those who remain contribute to the US economy but contribute to Africa’s brain drain, or loss of skills that could be used to develop the continent.

Figures show, for example, that Ethiopia lost 75% of its labor force in the 1980s as many of its workers fled because of warfare; meanwhile, there are more Malawian doctors in Manchester, England, than in Malawi, which has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world; of Ghana’s highly skilled workers, 47% live in the 30 industrialized countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

One program that’s working to enhance the skills of African professionals committed to developing their home countries is the Ford Foundation International Fellowships.

The five-year-old effort is currently helping train 666 fellows from the Middle East and from eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Most of the fellows are studying in the United States and Europe, and about a quarter of them are studying in their home regions.

Joan Dassin is the executive director of the program. She told English to Africa reporter William Eagle it encourages the fellows to return home – by accepting those with a proven “social commitment” to their countries. The students are often tied to positions at home that would not transfer easily abroad, such as work on HIV/ AIDS, in local health clinics, or in micro-finance:

“By working with [people] who are not typically the beneficiaries of international scholarship programs, we feel strongly that those who have the welfare...of their home countries [in mind], and who regard the opportunity to study overseas as a kind of unique chance to get the knowledge they need to benefit their home countries – these are people for whom going home is a natural choice. We think it is important to put resources behind those kinds of people, and therefore create a reverse sort of flow [of skilled labor back to Africa].“

Dassin says the Ford Foundation program also offers incentives to returning fellows, such as helping them establish regular contacts with regional and international organizations and keep informed of job opportunities back home. “We try to create an ethos of return, so from the moment they are chosen to study abroad, we work with them on conferences and seminars that reinforce their leadership skills back home. We work with them to ease pressures of return.”

Some western governments seek out African professionals, thus increasing the brain drain. But Dassin says the Ford Foundation hopes to establish an alternative market place that gives value to community-based development work in a student’s home country: “If you don’t have qualified people on the ground with strong local roots to carry out development projects, it’s not likely they will move forward in a sustainable way.”

So far, the results have been positive: of the 183 fellowship alumni from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, about 60% have returned home; 25% are in advanced training, and the rest are doing short-term training in other programs or are working for regional organizations in Africa.

Dassin says Africa spends about four billion dollars a year to hire skilled workers from outside the continent. She says by keeping professionals in their home countries, part of that money can go to the communities that need development most