"Brain-drain", or the loss of skilled professionals to other parts of the world, is a major contributor to the slow pace of development on the African continent. According to estimates by the International Organization for Migration, the continent was already losing in excess of 20,000 skilled individuals per year in the decade of the 90s. This loss of human capital continues to negatively impact the continents ability to nurture autonomous development, given that the brain drain tends to a...read more
"Brain-drain", or the loss of skilled professionals to other parts of the world, is a major contributor to the slow pace of development on the African continent. According to estimates by the International Organization for Migration, the continent was already losing in excess of 20,000 skilled individuals per year in the decade of the 90s. This loss of human capital continues to negatively impact the continents ability to nurture autonomous development, given that the brain drain tends to apply more to the professional skills that are most in need. Ironically, Africa, in turn spends US$ 4 billion per annum to recruit foreign experts to meet skills shortages. This amounts to 35% of development aid given to Africa.
The issue of labour migration is indeed complex, and there are a number of factors that contribute to the exodus of skilled and unskilled individuals from their home countries. Aside from the proverbial 'greener pastures', many individuals leave due to underdeveloped and exploitative labour markets in their countries, corruption and mismanagement in recruitment procedures both in the private and public sectors, as well as unfavourable social, economic and political conditions. The stark reality is that more people would probably leave if they were able to.
Beyond the din of political leaders decrying the loss of skilled people while condemning the developed world for robbing the continent of its human capital, there are no easy solutions to the problem. The introduction of oppressive emigration policies that curtail citizens' freedom of movement increases extra-legal movement of people across borders, with all the attendant risks. Until the economic, political and social conditions improve in countries, the brain-drain will continue.
Research is increasingly focusing on 'virtual participation' by citizens abroad in the development of their countries. This refers to the ability of foreign-based citizens to contribute to the development of their countries. The primary way in which this occurs is through financial remittances. According to World Bank Data, global remittances amounted to US$80 billion. In Africa alone, they amounted to US$17 billion per year, US$2billion more than the amount the continent received in foreign direct investment. Research studies have shown that although remittances have a significant impact on development, a lot more needs to be done before the true benefits are recognised.
Firstly, there is not enough widespread information on remittance patterns on the continent. This is crucial from a policy stand-point, since it gives and indication as to whether there is sufficient economic benefit from the labour migration to mitigate the brain-drain. Secondly, most countries lack the mechanisms in place to formalize and adequately exploit the potential developmental value of the remittances. As a result of this a significant percentage of remittances are informal and difficult to quantify, or positively harness.
Remittances have the potential to generate savings and investment, and overall development, but there needs to be an enabling regulatory and policy framework in place. This would allow for cost-effective and accessible money transfer facilities, rational currency exchange rate regimes and institutions that offer support to the optimal deployment of these funds. The formalization of remittances would also help to head off the potential negative effects such as unsustainable modes of consumption, economies of affection and dependency relationships, all of which impact negatively on sustainable development.
Whereas the ultimate goal is for the continent to be able to nurture and keep its human resources by creating an enabling environment, the short-term aim should be to harness this potential by opening up more channels for virtual participation. The issue of remittances must not however detract from the discourse on addressing the brain-drain, nor worse yet, be seen as an excuse for the deliberate raiding of the continent's brain-basket. If participation in the global economy is inevitable, it must benefit Africa as a major contributor.
World Bank - Africa Region Working Paper No. 64
United Nations - Remittances and FDI
Global Development Research Centre
Institute for Security Studies
International Development Research Centre