Brain drain, gain & circulation in international education

Brain drain, gain & circulation in international education

One-third of all African scientists live and work in developed countries, according to a statement released by NASAC, entitled ‘Brain Drain in Africa’. This figure represents a significant loss of economic potential for the continent, especially in today’s global society where scientific and technological knowledge drive development. Higher education throughout Africa must be revitalised as universities affected by decades of brain drain now find themselves severely disadvantaged.

In the joint statement released through the members of the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), emphasis was placed on African governments taking responsibility for charting their own path in stemming brain drain so as to guarantee Africa’s sustainable economic future. The statement however acknowledges that migration of African scientists to developed countries represents a personal decision shaped in large measure by an individual’s assessment of where the best career opportunities lie. However, governments can help influence this decision by developing and implementing policies for African scientists that improve their living and working conditions at home and that offer realistic prospects for secure and rewarding professional careers.

Brain circulation

Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister of India, once observed, “Better brain drain than brain in the drain”. It can be argued that the migration of African scientists has not only benefited those who leave their countries but global science as a whole. The NASAC statement articulates that while Africa has paid a high price for this trend (due to the on-going loss of its most educated and skilled citizens), denying talented individuals adequate education and training opportunities elsewhere carry significant costs too. A new approach is therefore encouraged in dealing with brain drain. There are indeed challenges, but the opportunities also do exist. It is therefore viewed that capacity building for science and technology, afforded by the migration to developed countries of well-educated, productive scientists with great drive and ambition, is actually a positive thing. But, for both developed and developing countries to mutually benefit, international exchange and genuine partnerships should happen while the poorest nations retain a critical mass of talented scientists and technologists.

The statement explains that Africa remains the world’s least scientifically proficient region and, not coincidentally, the world’s poorest continent. The primary responsibility to address such critical problems rests with African governments, but external assistance remains instrumental for poor countries that do not have sufficient resources to adequately invest in systems of higher education and research.

Reversing the trend

The ‘diaspora effect’ can be termed as a game changer in how brain circulation is viewed globally. Skilled emigrants’ networks and knowledge can generate important benefits in their home countries, especially when they return with accumulated skills and experience. South Korea, Taiwan and China are countries that have worked to attract returning emigrants to fill key roles in what were already advanced research and development environments. This unfortunately is not yet the case in Africa. The pre-requisite for reverse-brain drain is the existence of a considerable ‘absorptive capacity’ to utilise and pay for skills provided by the diaspora.

Using a returns-on-investment perspective, while there are substantial flows of skilled scientific and technological capital from poor to rich countries, poor countries register poor returns in investing in that human capital, especially since it is their taxpayers’ money spent on it. To mitigate this, countries could develop voluntary codes and agreements whereby rich countries limit recruitment from developing nations, or take steps to promote a return-migration policy.

Actionably, immigration laws should encourage and offer dual/multi citizenship or issuance of permanent residency to foreign graduates and hence allow for voluntary brain-circulation. For the diaspora, creation of a collective fund from their incomes from rich countries may be also a possible incentive to reverse the trend. Such a fund could promote ‘diaspora’ contributions to development and measures to accelerate return migration. For this to work however, a long-term view must be taken with an aim of primarily strengthening capabilities in developing countries to offset losses from asymmetric brain circulation. Specifically for the scientific community, for instance, the fund could focus on innovative ways to strengthen capacity in engineering and related management skills, and on developing infrastructure, manufacturing, agriculture, mining and other industries.

Taking action

In the final analysis, for African in particular and poor countries in general, five critical things will need to happen for brain-gain to be realised:

  • Investment in rebuilding universities and research centres so as to create research infrastructure that facilitates world-class research.
  • Provision of financial support to young scientists and entrepreneurs that will target relevant research for their home countries’ development priorities.
  • Elevation of local institutions to centres-of-excellence-status and ensuring multi-sectoral-collaborative research is undertaken for global challenges.
  • Encourage diaspora participation in initiatives that address critical issues in their home countries.
  • Governments investing on local institutions and providing an enabling environment for skills-exchange with international institutions/persons.

By Jackie Olang, The Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), Kenya