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Why Africa is losing its best

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Finally, I have settled down at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut where I will be a post-graduate fellow for the next couple of months. The place is below freezing but it offers the best environment for someone to indulge in intellectual speculation. With few public lectures to give, I have enough time to read and think.

Sitting in my spacious office here, I notice that many of my Ugandan friends have gone through some of the best universities in the world ‘ Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, NYU, ‘ name it. After their studies, few return home. Today, they work at the best global firms such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Google, etc. Surely this is good news.

However, the exodus of the best brains, the best educated and the most skilled should also raise a major concern. If our best human talent are staying away from home, how are we going to build capacity to develop our country? For a country suffering from a chronic shortage of skills, it should cause national alarm when its most skilled are surrendered to other nations. Uganda is not alone.

On October 25th, 2005, the World Bank published a study titled International Migration, Remittances and the Brain Drain. The study revealed that from a quarter to almost 50 percent of college educated graduates from countries such as Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, Kenya and El Salvador leave their countries to work in Western democracies. For countries like Haiti and Jamaica, the report said, the fraction raises to 80 percent.

The study also showed that only less than 5 percent of the skilled nationals of countries like India, Brazil, China and Indonesia live abroad in an OECD country. ‘For a country with one third of its graduates missing, one has to worry,’ The New York Times quoted Allen Winters, director of the World Bank’s development research group, saying the day after the study was published.

Earlier, the Centre for Global Development published a book by Devesh Lapur and John McHale titled Give Us Your Best and Brightest in which they had argued that the loss of institution builders ‘ hospital managers, university department heads and political reformers among others could help trap poor countries into a vicious cycle of poverty.

The World Bank had suggested that policies may be needed to bolster the incomes of professionals in their home countries. Kapur and McHale on the other hand suggested that rich countries consider setting up limited visas that would allow professionals to work for a few years before taking their expertise and savings back home.

As usual, the solution to Africa’s internal crisis is sought from outside of the continent. In the above case, it is what the rich countries should do rather than what the poor affected countries should do that forms the solution. Before the outside world can save us, possibly we should ask why the best trained Africans leave.

Africa has produced software engineers, neural surgeons, biotechnologists, financial wizards, economists, marketers, name it. Some of my friends have done PhDs in solid mechanics and others have developed micro chips that can diagnose disease. But visiting intellectual Uganda is like visiting a ghost town ‘ it is a desolate desert of brain power.

Thus the quality of debate on public policy is depressingly poor. This is one reason the World Bank and IMF dominate most discussion of the future of our countries. The effects of brain drain on skills development and democracy have been debilitating.

Most people think skilled Africans leave the continent in search of greener pastures.  I was once an adherent of this view. But I have come to learn that although economic factors play an important role, they are often secondary. Nearly every skilled worker I have interviewed says that lack of incentives to reward and retain merit, collapsing infrastructure, poor social services, political repression etc were the reasons they quit. Africa’s brain drain is largely a form of political protest.

Globalisation has created opportunities for people to move and work anywhere. Developed countries are hungry for skills. They are hostile to migration of unskilled and semi-skilled people. However, no one worth their brains is excluded from these labour markets. This selective attraction of our best talent needs to be taken seriously.

In attracting the best brains any part of the world has to offer, rich nations are setting the stage to extend the income gap with poor countries. East Asia has rapidly closed this gap because those countries have not only invested in skills vigorously but they have also created the right incentives for their skilled citizens to remain home.

In a highly stimulating book, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, Chalmers Johnson argues that part of the reason Japan enjoyed rapid economic success after the World War II was the brain power invested in its bureaucracy. According to Johnson, Japan would get the best graduates from the best universities to sit a civil service entry exam. Only 2 to 3 percent of those who sat the exam every year passed.

Johnson called MITI (the ministry of international trade and industry), ‘the highest concentration of brain power in Japan.’ Lee Kwan Yew in his autobiography, From Third World to First and Alice Amsden in Asia’s Next Giant reveal a similar pattern in Singapore and South Korea respectively. It is not sending people to school per se that does the magic; it is learning to value professional merit.

Therefore, the ability of a country to build professionalism in its bureaucracy has powerful implications on its development potential. Yet in Uganda, and Africa, we see people of limited intellectual ability hired to run affairs of state. In seeking to reward narrow tribal and political loyalty, we have disregarded this lesson.

Africa lost its most healthy people through slave trade ‘ a forced exodus. Today, we are losing the best of our brains through a voluntary exodus of the skilled. President Yoweri Museveni has always argued that Africa is a major donor to the world by exporting primary products. Well, it is even a bigger donor of its best human talent. When will merit become a treasured attribute in our state-building efforts?

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