Out of Africa

July 1, 2005

On the eve of the G8 summit, Karen MacGregor considers the exodus of a continent's brightest

In 1979, six African scholarship students met at Oxford University. A South African medical doctor, a Kenyan zoologist, a Malawian land surveyor, a Sudanese political scientist and two Ghanaians - an agriculturalist and an English scholar. They soon became firm friends.

"We used to discuss whether we would go home after Oxford," recalls Malegapuru William Makgoba, vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who is relaxing in his office at the Westville branch of the recently merged institution.

The road back for Makgoba was not easy. The university he heads is his alma mater and it used to be the University of Natal. In his student days, Natal was classified "white" under apartheid, but its medical school was for black students. Most of South Africa's black doctors trained there. But there was a lack of scholarly opportunities, and the brilliant young Dr Makgoba became the first black African to win a Nuffield Oxford Dominion scholarship and a ticket to the UK.

Only one of the six Oxford friends was keen to return home. The Kenyan, who did his PhD on sexing birds, went on to become a professor in Nairobi, the capital of his wildlife-rich country. The mixed-race Malawian had identity problems and was unsure about going back to his homeland, though he too returned.

The others said "no way". The Sudanese was from the south, which was politically unstable. Ghana was in a similar state and it would have been especially dangerous for Abena Busia to return - her late Oxford-educated father had been the country's Prime Minister but he was toppled while visiting Britain in 1972. Makgoba had no intention of returning to South Africa, where apartheid was in full swing and the country in the grip of an academic boycott.

And so Africa lost four of its brightest minds, part of a brain drain that has devastated the continent for half a century. Three of the friends became scholars: the Kenyan, the deposed Ghanian leader's daughter and Makgoba, who felt born to academe but who knew his job opportunities were severely limited back home.

Politics, poor governance and corruption lie at the heart of Africa's problems. They have led to conflict and instability, the siphoning-off of riches to political elites and the devastation of economies, the oppression of academic voices and the devaluation of higher education. Starved of resources, universities shed jobs and offered pathetic salaries on which academics could barely survive. Those who could, left.

"What our reluctance to return to Africa boiled down to was political instability, which created difficult environments and severely limited opportunities to practise scholarship and achieve recognition," Makgoba says. "Academics sacrifice a great deal, including money, for scholarly pursuit. When a system of recognition is not available at home due to politics, it's a big problem."

After obtaining a doctorate in human immunogenetics, Makgoba became a visiting associate at the National Institutes of Health in the US, and by 1988 was head of molecular endocrinology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London. Like many of apartheid's exiles, he returned to South Africa when political reform ushered in democracy and economic and academic opportunities re-emerged.

Hundreds of thousands of other Africans have been lost for ever. Among them are renowned scientists such as Nigerian mathematician Philip Emeagwali and South African Sydney Brenner, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Of six South African Nobel laureates in scholarly fields, only one lives in Africa.

A revival of African universities has been proposed by African and Commonwealth university bodies and backed by Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. The commission's aim is to stem the haemorrhage by, among other things, encouraging political reform and economic development on the continent. The commission has also called for $500 million (£5 million) in aid a year for ten years to revitalise the continent's higher education, through home-run programmes. The hope is that a stronger and better-resourced higher education sector will offer the job opportunities and financial remuneration that African academics have to seek abroad.

Universities are at last being seen by leaders such as South Africa's Thabo Mbeki as key to an African renaissance and "at the heart of any sustainable effort to rebuild our continent", as he said last year. Not a moment too soon.

It is estimated that Africa has lost a third of its professionals, with up to half a million of a tiny middle-class working abroad. The UN Economic Commission for Africa reports that 1,000 highly qualified Africans left between 1960 and 1989. The International Organisation for Migration believes that more than 20,000 professionals a year leave the continent.

Each migrating professional represents a loss of at least $184,000 to Africa. Countries never recoup the money spent on educating those who leave. To fill the human resource gap, or comply with the many aid programmes that insist on the use of Western experts, Africa employs more than 100,000 foreigners at a cost of $4 billion a year. The IOM calculates that a third of overseas development aid to Africa is spent on importing expertise.

The UN believes brain drain is one of the greatest obstacles to Africa's development. As the African middle classes crumble, so does the continent's tax base, rendering governments less able to deliver basic services. This exacerbates the problem of a huge jobless underclass led by a tiny, corrupt rich political elite. Emeagwali argues that a healthy middle class would help ensure that political power were transferred by ballot, not bullet.

South Africa's National Research Foundation calculates that African universities have "exported" a third of their scholars - not just ordinary graduates but also many postgraduate students heading for academe, as well as professors. Ironically, many of them have been lost through scholarship schemes, which were intended to help Africa develop, that have taken them overseas. The continent's share of global scientific output fell from 0.5 per cent in the mid-1980s to 0.3 per cent in the mid-1990s.

In Nigeria, a presidential committee on brain drain calculated that 30,000 academics left the country between 1986 and 1990, including 10,000 from tertiary institutions. The Institute for Public Policy Research reports that 40 per cent of Moroccan graduates and a third of those from Ghana have emigrated. In Ethiopia, during the tumultuous 1980s, fewer than 6,000 of nearly 23,000 students who studied abroad ever returned home. Until recently The Gambia did not have a university and spent a fortune sending students abroad.

Aside from lack of opportunities, African students and academics join the exodus for many reasons, ranging from conflict and terror to poor working conditions and paltry pay. In Kenya, some professors earn just $300 a month. Some scholarship students meet partners abroad and their spouses do not want to move to Africa - who can blame them?

Last year, BBC Africa Live asked Africans studying in the West to tell their stories on the internet. Most of those who responded had no intention of going home, usually citing poor salaries, unemployment and the political situation in Africa as reasons.

One of those who responded was Joseph Musembi, a Kenyan studying in Italy. He wrote that he was "working part time earning the equivalent of triple the monthly pay of a senior professor in Kenya... though I'm planning to work in Africa in the future, it will be as a missionary in my old age".

Emmanuel Aigbokhan, a US-based Nigerian with a PhD in ecological sciences, wrote: "I applied to a British company for an environmental scientist job in Abuja, Nigeria, and received a reply that unless I have a British residency and work permit I couldn't qualify to work in my own country." He turned down a job as a lecturer at a Nigerian university when he was told he would have to pay all relocation costs.

The loss of postgraduates and academics from Africa is disastrous not only because they are often the continent's most able scholars, but also because some might have taken on work in key areas such as government, private-sector laboratories, product innovation, engineering, conservation or medicine. In areas such as philosophy, literature and social sciences, they might have provided the critical voices that challenge governments and underpin social and cultural development. Academics are essential for the health of a nation's civic society.

Makgoba observes that rather than stanching the flow of African scholars abroad, from the late 1950s, the end of colonialism speeded it. "Where people have been oppressed, they value those who fight for freedom," he says. "Postcolonial Africa valued its political leaders more than scholars, and the diminished value of scholars was accompanied by fewer resources for higher education and fewer academic opportunities. Some academics who returned found they were less valued in their own countries than they were abroad, so they left again. Many other scholars left in search of jobs."

A similar phenomenon took place in South Africa post-1994. Funding for research fell and jobs were cut. This, along with fears of affirmative action, pushed many scholars, especially white ones, out of work and overseas.

Subsequent strong economic growth and more spending on research have stemmed the flow, says Michael Kahn, director of the Knowledge Management Research Programme at South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council. "We were suffering heavy losses," Kahn says. "During the 1990s you couldn't visit a university without hearing that a whole lot of academics had left. We believe that the tide has slowed, and that most people who considered leaving are now gone. Today, many young graduates going abroad to work intend returning, and will be the kind of migrants who add value to South Africa."

Last year, Kahn co-authored a study on the mobility of researchers, titled Flight of the Flamingos . It found that emigration to popular destination countries such as the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand was four times higher than official figures suggested. Nearly 17,000 science and technology workers officially left South Africa between 1994 and 2001, which represented less than 1 per cent of the science and technology workforce. At the same time, the number of people with science and technology qualifications grew from 1.64 million in 1996 to 2.15 million in 2001.

Kahn's survey found that people quitting research to pursue alternative careers was a bigger problem than those quitting because they no longer wanted to live in the country. Half of researchers who resigned from science councils said they were moving to other jobs in South Africa, while only one in ten planned to go overseas.

The South African experience is very different from that of other sub-Saharan countries, as it has by far the most developed tertiary sector - and it is now the recipient of foreign students who are swelling its scholarly base. Their number has soared from 12,600 in 1994 to more than 40,000, three quarters of them from other African countries. Many of those foreign students are likely to remain in South Africa, but at least their talents will not be be lost to the continent.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the US, argues that a "complex web of dependent institutional, intellectual and ideological linkages between Africa and the North facilitates and sustains the flow of migrant African intellectuals". He says that universities in the northern hemisphere provide a model for African institutions, train large numbers of African students, influence research themes and dominate publications.

In the journal Feminist Africa , he writes that the extent of the brain drain will become clear only if this little-known community of African academics in the North is researched. Policies might then be devised to tackle the problem. Zeleza says of these expatriate scholars: "Even if they are not the advance armies of Edward Said's Third World 'voyagers into' the belly of the North, or Ali Mazrui's pan-African forces of 'counter-penetration', Africa's migrant intellectuals constitute a presence that reflects, and can promote, Africa's global intellectual presence." He calls on Africa to creatively mobilise expat scholars, using new technologies, partnerships and networks to strengthen African research and turn brain drain "not just into a potential 'brain gain' but into 'brain mobility'. This is essential for Africa's revitalisation and renaissance."

Indeed, after long ignoring the problem, African countries have begun to design strategies to retain professionals. Initiatives range from restrictive emigration policies and taxes to including community service in training for students in key fields such as health. Some have persuaded rich countries not to recruit their skilled people, and others are developing ties with those members of the diaspora seeking repatriation or who want to contribute to Africa's development.

The South African Network of Skills Abroad is a recently revived internet scheme that invites expatriates to offer services ranging from helping local scholars conduct research to offering expertise, sharing contacts and transferring knowledge. The African Union, a pan-continental organisation of governments that styles itself on the European Union, has amended its constitutive act to encourage "the full participation of the African diaspora" and is building an African human resource bank. The database will encourage collaboration between professionals at home and abroad.

Increasingly, African scholars abroad have begun to revisit the continent. One is Mammo Muchie, visiting professor at Middlesex University Business School. He is an Ethiopian who returned home after obtaining a physics degree from Columbia University, in the US, in the 1970s - only to become the target of a government terror campaign that claimed the lives of eight of the nine Ethiopian students he had befriended in New York. He fled for Europe and obtained his masters and doctorate from Sussex University.

Academics, he says, are contributing to government efforts to pursue an African renaissance, but "not surprisingly, Africans are sceptical of the ability of states and their leaders to deliver peace, freedom or prosperity, or the reforms that are their precondition". It is here that scholars can make a real difference. Without their support, civil society is in trouble. But if the brain drain can be reversed and if the African academic can be persuaded to stay, then a strengthened academe can help make the African renaissance blossom.

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