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Brain Drain: Putting Africa between a Rock and a Hard Place
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Brain Drain:
Putting Africa between a Rock and a Hard Place

The migration of highly trained people out of Africa, often called brain drain or brain loss, leaves many nations short of the skills needed to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. This phenomenon is not new to Africa. It began in the 1960s following independence and has continued ever since. Every year, thousands of Africans head overseas looking for better opportunities. The numbers were small initially, but they later increased as political, economic, and social conditions in Africa deteriorated. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that twenty-seven-thousand highly educated Africans migrated to the West between 1960 and 1975. In the following decade, migration soared to about forty thousand annually. It peaked at about eighty thousand in 1987 but since 1990 has leveled out to about twenty thousand a year.1

Reasons for migration follow several patterns, as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development annual report for 2001 reveals. Some Africans prefer to migrate to former colonial powers because of their familiarity with the language and culture. Other factors influencing destination choices are geographical proximity and having support networks in the host country to help with adjustment to the new life and with finding temporary employment. Thus, immigrants from Angola, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau [End Page 37] are found in Portugal. Those from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia usually settle in France.2

Others choose the United States as a destination not because of its colonial past but because of its strong economy and the availability of employment. The United States, the largest recipient of new immigrants, tends to attract talented and educated migrants. Africans are said to be the most educated ethnic group in the United States. In fact, there are more African scientists and engineers working in the United States than there are in Africa. As shown in table 1, African immigration to the United States doubled between the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, and South Africa dominated immigration flows to the United States during that period.

The high rate at which trained professionals are leaving Africa has created a crisis. African governments and the African Union have tried to pay attention to this loss of human capital on a continent that already suffers from a lack of development. But global competition is heating up because of the growing demand for highly skilled workers in Europe and North America. While Africa is trying to hold onto its professionals, some industrialized countries are offering lucrative packages to recruit Africans with specific skills and competencies to fill staff shortages in certain areas. As a matter of fact, African governments and businesses cannot compete with the high wages offered by Western recruiters. As a result, Africa's brain loss quickly becomes an American or European brain gain.

To solve problems pertaining to Africa's brain drain, one needs to understand its nature and its implications. This is not an easy task, because analysis of the migration of the highly skilled is based on little data and much conjecture. Furthermore, scholars have mainly addressed migration flows from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States and have not paid as much attention to Africa. Consequently, African immigration is hardly covered in the literature. To fill the void and to make contributions to the debate, in this article I focus on answering the following questions: What are the causes of Africa's professional brain drain? What impact has it had on [End Page 38] the continent? What is being done to halt the outflow of African professionals? Can it be reversed to allow for capacity building?

Table 1. African Immigrants to the United States by Country of Birth (thousands) 1981-2000
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Table 1.

African Immigrants to the United States by Country of Birth (thousands) 1981-2000

Causes of Brain Drain

The causes of brain drain are generally understood according to a push-pull theory. The push factors refer to the unfavorable conditions in Africa that motivate people to leave. They include, among others, job scarcity, low wages, crime, armed conflicts, political repression, and poor educational systems. The pull factors describe the favorable conditions in the...