Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Africa staffs the West

Africa is losing its brightest to the First World. Less than 10% of doctors trained in Zambia since its independence in 1964 are still in the country: the other 90% have migrated, mainly to Europe and the United States. No less staggeringly, there are more Sierra Leonean-trained doctors in Chicago alone than in the country itself and cash-strapped Benin provides more medical professionals to France than there are in the whole of its own health system.
These medical examples are merely one facet of the massive loss of skills Africa as a whole continues to suffer. In effect, one-third of the continent’s university resources are serving the manpower needs of Western nations and not those of Africa itself. United Nations estimates suggest that Africa is spending a staggering $4-billion a year training professionals for developed countries.
Why this is happening, and what African universities need to do to counter the problem, came under the spotlight in the Libyan capital of Tripoli this week, which hosted the Association of African Universities’ (AAU) two-yearly conference of rectors, vice-chancellors and university presidents. It drew more than 150 delegates from across the continent.
This is far from being the first time senior African academic leaders have raised these issues and in the conference corridors the question most raised was whether the Tripoli gathering would break any new ground.
The theme was The African Brain Drain: Managing the Drain – Working with the Diaspora. AAU president Njabulo Ndebele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, was one of many who stressed that statistics on the brain drain are imperfect. The conference was to assess what the real picture is and to convince governments of the need for better data.
Despite this cautionary note, the indaba was awash with hair-raising figures (see sidebar one), with the AAU itself estimating that 30% of Africa’s university graduates live outside the continent.
Nuhu Yaqub, vice-chancellor of Nigeria’s University of Abuja, set the dominant tone. Noting that the brain drain was invariably one-way -- from the Third World to the First World -- he observed that “developing countries have unwittingly been subsidising the developed countries”, educating a professionals cadre that the developed world received “on a platter of gold at no cost”.
Gilbert Mdende of the University of Burundi introduced another aspect of the problem as seen from a national, rather than a continental, perspective: his university had lost 63% of its lecturers in the past 10 years to Rwanda because of socio-political crises as well as the lure of better remuneration.
Similarly complicating the picture, Johnson Ishengoma of the University of Dar es Salaam insisted that “internal brain drain” had to be factored in as part of the problem. Low academic salaries and poor working conditions (such as huge class sizes) in Tanzania had forced many academics into other fields -- including into the country’s Cabinet. This left major gaps in professorial ranks that could not easily be filled, he said.
Conferences tend to have counter-conferences -- that is, what’s exchanged outside the formal sessions. In Tripoli, many of the counter-conference sessions occurred on the steps of the conference centre with delegates staring at the Mediterranean. (To the surprise of the small contingent of South African delegates, none of whom had been to Libya before, this turned out to be remarkably similar to gazing at Durban’s surf on a calm day -- an illusion broken only when you turned to walk back inside and noted the large mural of Moammar Gaddafi on the front of the Dat El-Emad conference centre.)
During the first tea break, the Mail & Guardian spoke with Andrew Othieno, project officer in The Association of Commonwealth Universities’ Africa unit. His job is to promote partnerships between universities in the United Kingdom and in Africa. “But what I’m hearing so far is what United Kingdom academics complain about: African academics putting the problem on the table, as they’ve been doing since the Sixties, but offering no solution. It’s like continuing to complain about colonialism. The British are tired of hearing this.”
Striking a similar note was a very senior South African academic, who preferred not to be named. “It’s the first morning and all we’ve heard is a repetition from vice-chancellors of the same problem. Yet it’s their job to create enabling conditions in which academics can work and so be retained; they can’t just state the problem. They all complain about not being taken seriously by politicians, yet this is why they’re not.”
Othieno commented that when UK universities approached African universities about partnerships in fields such as information and communications technology, agriculture and health, they often received no response. “We’re offering financing for whatever capacity they want to build, academic materials, computers and so on. There’s clearly a lack of adequate communication between the UK and Africa.”
With all these comments in mind, the M&G asked Ndebele what specifics the AAU hoped the conference would produce. “The conference is part of the AAU initiative begun two years ago in Cape Town, when the current board was elected, to enhance the visibility of the AAU and the participation of the member states,” he said. “We want from the conference a better conceptual understanding of the brain drain, an advocacy programme with key organisations such as the African Union and the African Capacity-Building Foundation, and continued research in the field.”
Commenting on the criticism that the conference involved academics talking to one another rather than involving governments, he replied: “There has been a new development in Africa and that is governments saying higher education is an important part of economic competitiveness, because of the centrality to that of new knowledge and innovation.” (He was referring here to the post-independence African state’s characteristic prioritising of primary education to the detriment of tertiary -- another theme the conference repeatedly stressed.)
Given this new development, Ndebele said: “Politicians and academics need to speak to one another with mutual respect -- that’s a relationship that’s not been good for some time now. There must be new dialogue between the two.”
Politics soon erupted into the conference in a way that underlined the need for higher education to engage governments as Ndebele had suggested. The flashpoint was Nepad. Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo, of the University of Pretoria, argued that Nepad’s recognition of “the importance of technological know-how and skills is an indispensable stimulus for development”, because it could be used as a tool to develop strategies to use such skills possessed by Africans in the diaspora.
While South Africa was widely acknowledged at the conference as being further down the road to luring its professionals back to the country -- at least in having developed policies in this regard for engineers, teachers and nurses -- Vil-Nkomo’s broader claims for Nepad as the golden solution encountered immediate challenges.
Joseph Okpaku, of the Telecom Africa International Corporation in the United States, pointed to frictions among African countries themselves: “The problem with Nepad is that you can’t partner with those you compete with, otherwise there’s just blackmail -- which is what has happened.” And a contribution from the floor suggested deep schisms between governments and higher education: African political leaders had blundered in “taking Nepad first for approval to the Group of Eight and not to us. As a result, Africa doesn’t own Nepad.”
But concrete measures to counter the brain drain looked a distant prospect. It remained unclear whether the conference would achieve the measurable aims Ndebele had outlined or whether, in the testy words of one speaker from the floor, “we’ll still be discussing this 60 years from now”.
The Association of African Universities is an NGO to that aims to promote cooperation among African universities as well as increased contact between AAU members and the international academic world. Its membership numbers 208 universities from 50 of the continent’s 53 countries, and includes the three main linguistic zones of traditional tertiary teaching on the continent -- Anglophone, Francophone and Arabic
Measuring the brain drain

  • Nearly 235 000 professionals left South Africa between 1987 and 1997. Since 1997, the brain drain has cost the country $7,8-billion, according to the Paris-based Institute for Research and Development.
  • Arabic African countries annually lose 50% of their doctors, 23% of engineers and 15% of scientists. Of all Arab students abroad, only 4,5% return home.
  • About 80% of Ghana’s doctors leave the country within five years of graduation; and about 25% of all doctors trained in Africa work abroad.
  • About 20 000 professionals leave Africa every year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
  • A recent study of 10 African countries showed an average loss of 40% of their university graduates, with massive brain drains from Cape Verde (67%), The Gambia (63%), Seychelles (59%), Sierra Leone (53%) and Mozambique (45%).
  • A survey last year of 415 students from developing countries studying at Texas University in the United States showed that more than half wanted to start their careers in the US, 20% preferred their home countries, and nearly 30% were unsure.

Push and pull factors
  • Causes of the brain drain were commonly referred to in shorthand as “push and pull factors”.
  • Among the push factors:
  • Low and eroding salaries.
  • Social unrest and political conflict, including wars.
  • Unsatisfactory living conditions, such as lack of housing and transport.
  • Lack of research facilities and funding.
  • Discrimination in academic appointments and promotions.
  • The pull factors, mostly perceived as being offered in the West, are the reverse: higher wages, political stability, intellectual freedom and better career opportunities, among others.

Africa staffs the West : Mail & Guardian Online