FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – When Stephen Macauley—a lifelong resident of Freetown, Sierra Leone—wanted to pursue a graduate degree, he immediately began researching programs in the United States. Macauley knew he wanted to become a college professor and didn’t think the educational opportunities available in Africa would help him accomplish this goal.
“I received my undergraduate degree in Sierra Leone, but my options for graduate school were extremely limited,” Macauley said. “I’ve always wanted to be a professor and I knew an African university couldn’t provide me with the education I needed to succeed professionally. I decided to go to the (United States) to further my education.”
Similar to Macauley, many Africans are leaving their home countries to pursue education or work opportunities abroad. This phenomenon is known as brain drain. Although not a new phenomenon, brain drain is becoming particularly detrimental in Africa as thousands of educated individuals are leaving the continent in search of better opportunities overseas.
The Magnitude of the Problem
Between 1990 and 2000, the number of skilled Africans migrating to other countries more than doubled from 650,000 to 1.4 million, according to Abdeslam Marfoul, a guest scholar at The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies in San Diego.
Africa has already lost nearly one third of its skilled labor force and more continue to leave every year. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 20,000 doctors, engineers and other professionals have left the continent annually since 1990.
Countries with the highest rates of emigration of skilled labor include Gambia, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda. Sierra Leone has one of the continent’s most critical brain drain problems, with 53 percent of the country’s skilled labor force seeking employment abroad.
The industry that has been most affected by brain drain is the medical field. According to the Center for Global Development, out of more than 340,000 doctors that received their training in Africa, 19 percent have left to work in other countries.
Why are Africans Leaving?
Macauley chose to leave for better educational opportunities, but why are so many other skilled Africans deciding to leave?
Many people choose to leave because of high unemployment rates, said Bernard Lututala, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.
Some of the most skilled Africans cannot find jobs in their home countries, prompting them to look elsewhere. Individuals who can find jobs often leave in the hope of finding a better paying job abroad.
The large amount of people seeking employment abroad is a huge component of the brain drain problem. However, just as noteworthy is the number of students who leave to attend college in other countries and don’t return home after completing their studies. According to Lututala, graduates don’t return home for numerous reasons, the most common being economic.
Macauley recently graduated from the University of Utah with a doctorate in English and plans to stay in the U.S. because of the job opportunities.
“There aren’t many jobs for professors in Sierra Leone and the few jobs that are available don’t pay well. I can make much more money in the United States,” Macauley said.
Macauley also doubts he could obtain a position in Sierra Leone that would allow him to conduct research and publish influential academic articles. Macauley’s concern, according to Lututala, is not unfounded.
There is very little academic research coming from Africa. In 2004, the continent contributed less than two percent of the world production of social scientific knowledge. This lack of research can be largely contributed to the inadequate facilities and resources available to academics. Many universities have old lab equipment, poor libraries and a chronic lack of funding.
“Professors in many African universities are reduced to simply reciting notes in packed lecture halls,” Lututala said. “(Professors) believe they’re wasting their time, especially since the results of their research, when they are able to do research, do not generally interest policy makers and are therefore not valued.”
But it is not just economic and professional factors that keep Africans from returning home after graduation said Lututala. Issues like social unrest and political corruption in their home countries are also big factors. Even relatively small concerns like the challenges of reintegrating back into society also factor into the decision.
The Consequences for Africa
No one can blame Macauley for pursuing employment where he can make a comfortable living. However, his story is all too common and is causing significant problems in Africa.
According to Lututala, the most detrimental consequence of brain drain is that it deprives Africa of its most important resource: human capital. If the continent is consistently losing its most educated citizens to emigration, it is understandable that solutions to problems like lack of access to clean water and adequate healthcare services cannot be found.
The financial consequences of brain drain are also immense. It is estimated that Africa loses at least $2 billion due to brain drain, while host countries profit by using these trained individuals in their labor force. The United States has gained about $850 million from skilled African workers, said Edward Mills, Canada Research Chair in Global Health.
Brain drain also has a significant impact on the continent’s poor input to global GDP, hurting not only Africa, but other continents as well. Africa contributes only one percent of global GDP, two percent of world trade and three percent of direct international investment.
According to Lututala, while poor political leadership is a primary cause of the continent’s lack of development, the “lack of a critical mass of qualified managers within African infrastructure is equally influential.”
Looking to the Future
There are many potential solutions to Africa’s brain drain problem. These solutions include rehabilitating failing local universities and providing financial incentives for people educated abroad to return home to work, explained Lututala.
Even though many experts agree that addressing Africa’s brain drain problem will take years, Macauley is optimistic.
“Even though I can’t return home immediately, I hope to go back eventually. I want to contribute my skills back home in Sierra Leone and even run for office someday,” said Macauley. “Africa has a lot of potential to succeed economically and I want to do my part to ensure that happens.”
– Allison Johnson