***Coming This November: US Black Engineer magazine's 2008 Diversity edition will spotlight the careers of some of the most prominent blacks in Information Technology in Q&A profiles.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Talent Drained Out of Africa

The Council on Foreign Relations reported recently on Africa’s vexing “Brain drain." That's when a nation's skilled workers—regardless of whether they get their university education at home or abroad—take flight for more money in the United States and other industrialized countries.

But as the article observes, skilled-worker exodus is neither new nor particular to Africa. The nations of India, China, Ireland, and Russia are also affected, although generally not as adversely.

In 2005, a World Bank study reported Britain had lost more skilled workers to the global "brain drain" than any major industrialized country. At 17 per cent of the total, about 1.4 million graduates have left the UK to look for more highly paid jobs in the US, Canada and Australia. This fuels concerns that Britain's failure to defend its manufacturing, science, and university base pushes highly skilled workers overseas and risks damaging long-term productivity.

Stakes Are Higher in Accra, Nairobi, and Luanda

The Brits can worry about losing some university graduates, but in sub-Saharan countries the loss slashes the tiny middle class. More than 40 percent of skilled African workers emigrate to wealthier countries. Of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of college-educated citizens living abroad, six are in Africa: Ghana (47 percent), Mozambique (45 percent), Kenya (38 percent), Uganda (36 percent), and Angola and Somalia (33 percent).

The study didn't show that the exodus is more prevalent in sectors such as engineering, IT, medicine, or academia compared to other university majors, but public health experts told the CFR that the loss of medical staff contributes to a decline in health indicators in African countries.

The numbers are stark. In 2007, the British government reports that more than 17,000 doctors and nurses from Africa were recruited. More dramatically, a 2008 study, New Data on African Health Professionals Abroad, says some 65,000 African-born physicians and 70,000 African-born nurses were working in developed countries by the year 2000. They represented about one in five African-born physicians and about one-tenth of African-born professional nurses.

Positive Aspects

Some experts say that as more foreign businesses look to Africa talented expats may boomerang back to their home countries to work for or start businesses. In an essay in the book, African Brain Circulation: Beyond the Drain-Gain Debate, Rubin Patterson proposes that Africans could lead an environmentally conscious industrial surge similar to the information economy wave pioneered by Asian nationals in Silicon Valley during the 1990s. That remains to be seen.

But one example of a credentialed expat moving back is Cheick Diarra. In 2003 the mechanical and aerospace engineer, who spent years working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US, returned to his native Mali.

The PhD, who was featured as an HBCU alumnus that-you-need-to-know, in the recent issue of US Black Engineer & Information Technology went back to his family farm and advocated using technology-centric solutions to address Africa's food security and nutrition problems.

News of his personal quest travels. In 2006, Bill Gates appointed Diarra chairman of Microsoft Africa and an unofficial ambassador of technology to the continent. That's a grand gesture, and will surely be helpful. But the Catch-22 that bedevils too many African countries is that they lack the political and economic stability, financial controls, agricultural base, and basic technical infrastructure to keep many of their best and brightest home or to draw them back from abroad.---MV Greene