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Brain drain or brain gain? The remittances of 10 million African professionals who have left the continent in search of greener pastures abroad, have become one of the main planks holding the home economies together. So, is it brain drain or brain gain?, asks Gilbert Manda.

Philip Emeagwali, the Nigerian mathematician and computer scientist, is a scion of his field. Bill Clinton, the former US president, once described him as "one of the greatest minds of the information age". CNN called him "a father of the internet", and he was voted 35th in the 100 Greatest Africans list by New African readers in September of this year.

But like many brilliant Africans, Emeagwali does not live in Africa. Residing in the US, he is among the 10 million Africans professionals who have left the continent in the last 30 years.


The equivalent population of Zambia or Malawi now make up an obscure collective currently living outside the continent. According to Emeagwali, if this were a nation with distinct borders, it would have an income that would rival Africa's total Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

While the departure of these African professionals sounds retrogressive, as it stifles development, the World Bank, IMF and some scholars and politicians are beginning to argue that it is good for the developing world.

Jeffrey Frankel, a professor of capital formation and growth at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy's School of Government, responding to a query argued that brain drain could be transformed into brain gain. "I do agree that brain drain can be a possible source of gain. In any case, there is little that countries can or should do to stop it," Prof. Frankel said.

Both the World Bank and IMF now estimate that the African Diaspora has become the largest foreign investor in Africa. "Poor countries gain from remittances that accrue from immigration," according to the World Bank in its 2004 Global Economic Prospect. "In 2001, worker remittances alone provided some $70bn to developing countries, nearly 40% more than all the development assistance, and significantly, more than the debt flows to developed countries."

But for countries like South Africa, gains from remittances do not offset the adverse effects of the flight of skilled labour, especially in the medical field. In 2002 alone, the number of South African-trained physicians practising in Canada swelled from 174 to 1,738, a 10-fold increase.

Many more left for the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US. The South African Health Review reveals that the public-doctor ratio declined in 2002 from 21.9 physicians to 100,000 patients, compared to 19.8 per 100,000 in 2001.

Zambia's situation is even more desperate. With a mass exodus of medical personnel, there are now seven physicians for every 100,000 patients. By any standards, that should be worrisome. But the country's president, Levy Mwanawasa, does not think so. "I know you expect me to say come home. I am not going to do that. I have no jobs to give you. Work here and send money home," Mwanawasa said when addressing the Zambian community in the US during a recent visit.

There is growing consensus that one of the main gains of globalisation for Africa is remittances. Scott Wallsten, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, agrees. "They have become crucial to development and poverty reduction," he wrote recently. "Remittances also act as safety nets that governments typically need but cannot afford to provide."

But there are still those who believe that no matter how much poor countries gain from remittances, the brain drain remains retrogressive. In an interview with Africa Recovery, Emeagwali proposed that for Africa to stop the flight of professionals, their conditions of service needed to improve. "To make ends meet, most African professionals have extracurricular occupations," he said.

"I know a Nigerian professor who raises poultry, a doctor that manages a beer parlour, and an engineer who manages a kiosk," Emeagwali said.

Last year, when he addressed the Pan African conference on brain drain in Elsah, Illinois, (USA), Emeagwali said no matter the positives about remittances, African emigrants to the US contributed 40 times more to America than to the African economy.

Conversely, brain drain costs countries like South Africa $5bn per year. But to promote the export of skilled labour, the World Trade Organisation is facilitating the movement of migrants under the General Agreement on Trade and Services, which is designed to facilitate the movement of people in a way analogous to the movement of goods and capital.
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Title Annotation:Debate
Author:Manda, Gilbert
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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