Accessibility links

Breaking News

Migration of African Professionals Worries African Leaders

The European Union has announced a plan to admit 20-million skilled workers during the next 20 years in order to meet projected labor shortages. The proposal has drawn protests from leaders in developing nations, and in particular Africa. they say this will aggravate an already severe shortage of skilled-labor in their countries. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.

The European Union's proposed Blue Card would allow non-European professionals, primarily in the fields of health, engineering and information technology, to work and eventually acquire permanent residency in Europe.

But, senior African officials say the proposal would aggravate what they called a brain drain of skilled African professionals that is hurting development on the continent.

A spokesman for the Ghana-based Association of African Universities, Pascal Hoba, said the effect is particularly demoralizing for Africa's universities which are training the next generations of African professionals.

"The African brain drain is a reality, unfortunately. And as an association of African universities, AAU is deeply concerned when the product of its endeavors is attracted by other horizons," said Hoba.

Statistics compiled by international organizations show that about 20,000 African professionals leave the continent each year. The number appears small when compared to the total number of migrant workers in the world, some 80 million, but it represents a significant portion of African professional corps.

A dozen countries, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kenya, have lost 40 percent of their professionals or more. Some smaller countries, such as Cape Verde and the Gambia, have lost more than 60 percent of their skilled workers.

Zambia reportedly has lost more than 80 percent of its doctors trained since independence. South Africa lost one-quarter million professionals in the 1990s and now has vacancy rates of up to 40 percent in some public hospitals and government offices.

Critics say the figures mean that African universities are spending billions of dollars a year to help staff offices and laboratories in the developed world.

Hoba says the causes vary from country to country.

"In some countries depends on the political situation," he added. "And in some of them it is more the socio-economic problem."

He says war and political crises drive some professionals away from their home countries. But by far the greatest attractions are higher salaries and enhanced facilities for research and professional advancement.

The International Office of Migration tracks global migration patterns and sponsors conferences on migration issues. Its research director, Frank Lazcko, says migration is part of a globalization trend of labor.

"It is a mixture of both supply and demand factors. Across the world there is a growing demand for skilled people," he said. "You have competition between rich countries, but you also have movement of people from developing countries to richer countries in the north."

He says there is also significant migration from developing nations to other developing countries. And he notes that rural areas in Africa suffer the most from the brain drain because many professionals want to work only in the cities.

Laczko says the I.O.M. has programs that encourage skilled African expatriates to return home on temporary or permanent assignments.

Some countries, such as Botswana and South Africa, have launched programs to attract skilled citizens back home and ease their reintegration into local society.

Pascal Hoba says the African University Association has launched programs in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, whereby universities sponsor expatriate African professors for periods of three to six months to work at universities in their home countries.

But he says a more permanent lure (attraction) would be to improve salaries and facilities at African institutions.

"One of the recommendations that came up clearly is to reconsider the salary issues of higher education staff," added Hoba. "And also to make the environment of work appropriate for research or teaching and community engagement for higher education."

Laczko says in the past the predominant view was that the best way to develop a country was to stop migration. But he says there is a growing realization in some countries that migration is not all bad.

"Migration can bring a great number of benefits for the country of origin, most visibly in terms of the moneys that are sent back through remittances, but also through these various diaspora linkages and also when people return, whether temporarily or permanently, to their country of origin with new skills, new contacts and greater experience," said Laczko.

He notes that few countries restrict migration of their citizens. He says governments should recognize that worker mobility is likely to increase around the world and develop policies to address it.

"It is for governments to decide how best to manage that mobility in the interests of development and that inevitably also requires a certain degree of cooperation between states because migration inevitably involves two or more countries," he added.

The European Union says its proposed Blue Card program would avoid recruiting professional categories that are already in short supply in Africa. Some African governments have extracted pledges from certain western states to refrain from recruiting in Africa.

But observers say such agreements do not restrict the operations of private recruitment agencies which are becoming major players in global labor movements. As a result, they say there is no single solution to the global labor migration trend, if indeed there is any solution at all.