Brain drain? Just give them incentives to stay

Sunday December 22 2019

The demand that a professional African should stay at home and make her brain hostage to so-called national interest is increasingly becoming an untenable. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


There is an unquestioned but common view that the departure of African people from the continent is harmful to its development. The idea is taken as a serious one and comes under the dramatic summary of “brain drain”.

The most serious form of this “brain drain” is the part that a substantial but not majority of Africa’s medical health professionals are based in countries other than those in which they were born and sometimes outside the continent. This argument does not make sense for many of these professionals, and especially for those who depart because of persecution or even state collapse.

From this foundation, the loss of scholars, medical professionals, or others in pursuit of opportunity or refuge does not fit the description of “brain drain”. The demand that a professional African should stay at home and make her brain hostage to so-called national interest is increasingly becoming an untenable, if not altogether ridiculous, claim from a political leadership that makes these professionals to run away to begin with. The factors that create the preference for African scholars and medical professionals to establish their lives outside the continent cannot be stopped by entreaty and attempts to shame them for choosing safer and higher productivity jobs that come with better income.


At the rudimentary level, there are three types of emigrants from African countries. The first and most common kind are the ones who are compelled by disaster or serious political breakdown to move across borders from one African country into another that is safer. This is the most vulnerable kind of refugee and their migration is never out of choice. Needless to state, this kind of migrant must rely on international protections for refugees, which neighbouring African countries provide in an imperfect form. Migrants of this kind often are constrained by money and therefore travel across a border to a neighbouring country. These are people whose condition reflects the state fragility that is still prevalent in Africa.

The second type of migrant would be the one who moves from one African country to another in order to undertake professional services because terms are better or because employment becomes available after education. This type of migrant has also moved away from “home” and endeavours to build a professional life in another area. This group may include professionals such as physicians, nurses, or even teachers, but a far larger number may be those who relocate to offer labour on farms or even to work in labour-intensive constructions sites or mines, as is common in South Africa. Individual countries in eastern Africa also receive departing professionals from other countries based on conflict or the search for economic activities. This group has a mix of professionals and semi-skilled people, but the common purpose for their relocation is the search for better economic opportunity. The professional kind are often licensed and allowed to work but the semi-skilled are sometimes engaged in work but may not be fully compliant with immigration law.


The third kind of emigrant from the African continent are similar to the second type and are a mixture of professionals and semi-skilled people who proceed outside of Africa. Often their intention is to find employment that would provide better remuneration and opportunity for advancement than they could find at home. Recipient countries in Europe and North America have established mechanisms to tap into the professionals who wish to leave Africa and especially engineers, medical professionals, and selected occupations, but are completely opposed to lower-skilled people even where they are also needed.

Recent scholarship on the economics of migration demonstrates that the whole world would be more prosperous if migration policy was more tolerant and designed to allow people who wish to work to find more productive occupations in other countries. Based on this analysis, it is clear that the use of the phrase “brain drain” in reference to migration by Africans to other countries is misplaced. This is not only because for a country such as Kenya, remittances from migrants is a leading and stable source of foreign exchange, but also because the ability of professionals to find the best conditions to work results in improved welfare for all.


In 2017, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development showed that most movement by African migrants was from one country to another within the African continent. Specifically, of the 41 million migrants, 19 million moved from one African country to another, with 17 million residents outside the continent, and the continent accommodated 5.5 million from the rest of the world. The global nature of migration is that it is linked to political and economic activities which make it necessary to change residences for a while and sometimes permanently.

Since the issue of “brain drain” concerns many African governments, they may have to contend with the fact that more migration will follow from the border liberalisation implied by the African Continental Free Trade Area. What this means is that skilled people will find opportunities across the border and create value where they may exploit existing chances. That result is good for individuals because countries should care about the productivity of its people. To prevent this movement, then African countries that are most affected by departure of selected professionals such as teachers, medical workers, and engineers should expand the supply of these professionals through investments in medical and engineering academies. It is not possible to keep these professionals in a country and within the continent by merely enumerating the losses that come from their departure.

The concept of “brain drain” is an oxymoron and governments in African countries should understand what part of the problem they can solve. The economic incentive for people not to depart is not possible because many African countries have constitutions that permit dual citizenship and this means that when domestic policy and political conditions are not ideal, then professionals will depart. Keeping countries stable, secure, and with facilities able to match the aspirations of the ambitious professionals must be the main political aim of African governments. The solution to Africa’s ability to keep its most productive people in the continent is both economic and political. If it fails in both, then African countries will have to be content with the remittances from professionals who left, and this is the dividend of the brain drain. Brain drain is not a problem, but development is.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Leo Kemboi is an economist at IEA.