Advice to Africans: We need to retire the idea of brain drain

Lydiah Kemunto Bosire
By Lydiah Kemunto Bosire

Founder and CEO of 8B Education Investments

Posted on Monday, 1 February 2021 19:59, updated on Sunday, 21 March 2021 13:00

Nurses listen to a speech at the official commemoration of the World Malaria Day in Livingstone
Nurses in Livingstone, Zambia 2008 REUTERS/Thierry Roge

I have long struggled with ‘brain drain’ because it is analytically loose, lumping the mobility of Zambian nurses to London in the same bucket as that of Kenyan students going to MIT.

Last year, in a conversation with a former president of a leading global foundation, I asked how he’d addressed the issue of ‘brain drain’ in his work.

The topic was on my mind because two potential investors – ironically, a South African in Canada and an Indian-American in Europe, no doubt in their jobs because of some version of student or talent mobility – had cited brain drain as a reason not to invest in our business, which they otherwise seemed to like (our company is in the business of providing loan financing to African students going to global universities and reducing friction for global universities seeking to recruit them– thereby facilitating the offending brain drain).

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The ex-president had made the point that the term was misguided while he was still in his position, but had been disregarded because ‘the idea that Africans lose the right of mobility if they become educated is so deeply held that challenges to it go unheard.’

…no one looks at Sundar Pichai of Google and feels sorry for India’s loss.

While his criticism of the concept of brain drain had left it intact, our conversation nonetheless gave me permission to continue the battle, and voice at least three concerns about brain drain (of the student mobility variety) that I had previously been afraid to articulate, worried that I might alienate those whose friendships we need to succeed.

Three concerns about brain drain

First, brain drain is premised on the (unconscious) belief about Africa as a place with a shortage of talented people. It is also based on a conviction that Africans belong in Africa, not in the world. Some strands of this argument make the case for different types of Africans that constitute a scarce resource that must not be tempted with global opportunity: doctors, or scions of dynastic businesses, or just smart students.

However they formulate it, users of the term have often neither interrogated its patronising origins, nor considered the autonomy desired by all people to choose how to fulfil their potential. Its deceptive Africa-centricity only thinly coats its suggestion that brilliant Africans cannot be trusted to know what is good for them.

For diaspora Africans, it also legitimises microaggressions of the “you should be in Africa building things” variety. Yet no one looks at Sundar Pichai of Google and feels sorry for India’s loss.

Second, the brain drain concern is not based in data. Consider the UNESCO figures of the outward mobility ratio of different countries – the number of students abroad as a proportion of total tertiary enrolment. In the Asian countries with many students in global universities, South Korea has an outbound ratio of 3.3%, China 2.2%, and India 1.1%. In typical destination countries, Germany has an outbound ratio of 3.9% Canada 3%, France 3.8%, UK 1.6%, and US 0.5%.

How about African countries? Ghana has a mobility ratio of 3.6%, Kenya is 2.7%, and South Africa is 0.8%. Nigeria, whose latest data is unavailable, is likely to fall below Kenya. What do these number tell us? Certainly, not the story that brain drain alarmists would have us believe. Contrary to popular wisdom, we are not sending away a greater proportion of our university students than other regions. It might feel that way, but it is not true.

Indeed, if there is anything the data shows, it is that we are doing too good a job keeping Africans in Africa. Data shows that South Korea has 15,219 graduate students in the US, compared to 552 South African grad students.

Both countries have good domestic universities. But if access to world class graduate schools is a proxy for access to the places (physically and through networks) where the jobs of the future – many of which do not yet exist – will be created, a world which trains 27 South Korean graduate students in the US for each 1 South African graduate student is one where the access to innovation ecosystems is drastically unequal. We should be alarmed about our low capacity to compete in a context where talent is global.

Third, the idea of brain drain has caused real harm.

The challenge of low capacity in African universities is real and acute, and is handled in one of two key ways: by rejecting millions of highly qualified applicants, and by staggering the enrolment of those accepted.

When I graduated high school in Kenya, I was required to wait for two years before I could take my place in a public university. When I became the lucky winner of a scholarship to study abroad, my place was taken by another qualified student, who would otherwise have missed a shot at the middle class.

Thus, those who oppose the mobility of African students should think about all the loss. All the qualified African students who will never attend university because it is too full. All the world class African talent we have missed the opportunity to train, because we have vilified the idea of flooding the world with African brilliance. All the deals that did not get done, or that have been terrible for African countries, because our negotiating teams are no match for the army of top-notch lawyers retained by foreign extractive companies. All the terrible ideas in the development and impact-seeking sectors that have wasted time and money because the leadership of organisations is constituted by people whose sum total of experience in the African countries they are looking to save comes from going ‘on mission in the field’.

The list of losses is long.

Critically, in an era where many are looking for ways to bring private capital into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and cover the trillion-dollar resource gap, private sector financing of the highest training of African students in global universities could be one such investment opportunity; a human capital track to the SDGs, if you will. Except that many impact investors are cautious/nervous about thinking outside the box in that direction, lest they get accused of abetting brain drain. That is wrong.

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To be sure, I am not at all suggesting that Africa’s higher education problems will all be solved by unlimited global mobility for students; we need to build and expand African world class universities, even as we get more Africans into universities with resources developed over centuries. Neither am I discounting the problem of trained nurses receiving incentives to leave Zambia for the UK; we must insist on a policy dialogue with the UK’s development arm to resolve the matter, without creating an environment where the ambitious computer engineer graduating out of Copper Belt University fails to access financing to go for a masters in Georgia Tech.

Let’s be honest; outsiders, even when they are armed with great intentions and are readily available in global hiring pipelines, are simply not invested or knowledgeable enough to be the solution that gets us to prosperity by 2030 and beyond. If the deployment of the concept of brain drain was meant to protect Africa, I am afraid to report that it has failed. Instead, it has muddied our path to building a critical mass of African world class human capital in all sectors.

I am aware that this view may challenge some long-held beliefs of people working in and on Africa, beliefs that are often inconsistent with the direction of travel that many Africans may want for themselves. But in the interest of ‘do no harm’, the time has come for the term to be retired.

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