How do We Reverse the Brain Drain?

How do We Reverse the Brain Drain?

Written By

Philip Emeagwali

For 10 million African-born emigrants, the word “home” is synonymous with the United States, Britain or another country outside of Africa. Personally, I have continuously lived in the United States for the last 30 years. My last visit to Africa was 17 years ago.

On the day I left Nigeria, I felt sad because I was leaving my family behind. I believed I would return eight years later, probably marry an Igbo girl, and then spend the rest of my life in Nigeria. But 25 years ago, I fell in love with an American girl, married her three years later, and became eligible to sponsor a Green Card visa for 35 of my closest relatives, including my parents and all my siblings, nieces and nephews. My story of bringing 35 people to the United States exemplifies the way 10 million skilled people have emigrated out of Africa during the past 30 years. We came to the United States on student visas and then changed our status to become permanent residents and then naturalized citizens. Our new citizenship status helped us sponsor relatives, and also inspired our friends to immigrate here.

Ten million Africans now constitute an invisible nation that resides outside Africa. Although invisible, it is a nation as populous as Angola, Malawi, Zambia or Zimbabwe. If it were to be a nation with distinct borders, it would have an income roughly equivalent to Africa’s gross domestic product. The IMF estimates the African Diaspora now constitutes the biggest group of foreign investors in Africa.

According to Western Union, it is not atypical for an immigrant to wire $300 per month to relatives in Africa. Assuming that most of the 10 million Africans living outside Africa send money each month, it is easy to agree with the IMF that the African Diaspora is indeed the largest foreign investor in Africa.

What few realize is that African professionals who immigrate to the United States contribute 40 times more wealth to the U.S. economy than to the African economy. According to the United Nations, an African professional working in the United States contributes about $150,000 per year to the U.S. economy. On a relative scale, that means for every $300 per month a professional African sends home, that person contributes $12,000 per month to the U.S. economy.

Of course, the more important issue than these facts and figures is eliminating poverty in Africa, not merely reducing it by sending money to relatives. Money alone cannot eliminate poverty in Africa, because even one million dollars is a number with no intrinsic value. Real wealth cannot be measured by money, yet we often confuse money with wealth. Under the status quo, Africa would still remain poor even if we were to send all the money in the world there.

Ask someone who is ill what “wealth” means, and you will get a very different answer than most other people would give. If you were HIV-positive, you would gladly exchange one million dollars to become HIV-negative. When you give your money to your doctor, that physician helps you convert your money into health - or rather, wealth. Money cannot teach your children; teachers can. Money cannot bring electricity to your home; engineers can. Money cannot cure sick people; doctors can.

Because it is only a nation’s human capital that can be converted into real wealth, that human capital is much more valuable than its financial capital. A few years ago, Zambia had 1,600 medical doctors. Today, Zambia has only 400 medical doctors. Kenya retains only 10% of the nurses and doctors trained in their country. A similar story is told from South Africa to Ghana.

I also speak from my family experiences. After contributing 25 years to Nigerian society as a nurse, my father retired on a $25-per-month pension. By comparison, my four sisters each earn $25 per hour as nurses in the United States. If my father had had the opportunity my sisters did, he certainly would have immigrated to the United States as a young nurse.

The “brain drain” explains, in part, why affluent Africans fly to London for their medical treatments. Furthermore, because a significant percentage of African doctors and nurses practice in U.S. hospitals, we can reasonably conclude that African medical schools are de facto serving the American people, not Africa.

A recent World Bank survey shows that African universities are exporting a large percentage of their graduating manpower to the United States. In a given year, the World Bank estimates that 70,000 skilled Africans immigrate to Europe and the United States.

While these 70,000 skilled Africans are fleeing the continent in search of employment and decent wages, 100,000 skilled expatriates who are paid wages higher than the prevailing rate in Europe are hired to replace them. For example, the Nigerian petroleum industry hires about 1,000 skilled expatriates, even though they could find similar skills within the African Diaspora. Instead of developing its own manpower resources, Nigeria prefers to contract out its oil exploration despite the staggeringly high price of having to concede 40% of its profits to foreign oil companies.

In a pre-independence day editorial, the Vanguard Newspaper (Nigeria) queried: “Why would the optimism of 1960 give way to the despair of 2000?” My answer is this: Nigeria achieved political independence in 1960 but, by the year 2000, had not yet achieved technological independence.

During colonial rule, Nigeria retained only 50% of the profits from oil derived from its own territory. Four decades after this colonial rule ended, the New York Times (December 22, 2002) wrote that “40 percent of the oil revenue goes to Chevron, [and] 60 percent to the [Nigerian] government.” The United States would never permit a Nigerian oil company to retain 40% of the profits from a Texas oilfield.

Our African homelands have paid an extraordinary price for their lack of technological knowledge. Because of lack of knowledge, Nigeria has relinquished 40% of its oilfields and $200 billion to American and European stockholders since it gained independence in 1960. Due to lack of knowledge, Nigeria exports crude petroleum, only to import refined petroleum. Because of lack of knowledge, Africa exports raw steel, only to import cars that are essentially steel products.

Knowledge is the engine that drives economic growth, and Africa cannot eliminate poverty without first increasing and nurturing its intellectual capital. Reversing the “brain drain” will increase Africa’s intellectual capital while also increasing its wealth in many different ways.

Can the “brain drain” be reversed? My answer is: yes. But in order for it to happen, we must try something different. At this point, I want to inject a new idea into this dialogue. For my idea to work, it requires that we tap the talents and skills of the African Diaspora. It requires that we create one million high-tech jobs in Africa. It requires that we move one million high-tech jobs from the United States to Africa.

I know you are wondering: how can we move one million jobs from the United States to Africa? It can be done. In fact, by the year 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor expects to lose an estimated 3.3 million call center jobs to developing nations.

In this area, what we as Africans need to do is develop a strategic plan – one that will persuade multinational companies that it will be more profitable to move their call centers to nations in Africa instead of India. These high-tech jobs include those in call centers, customer service and help desks, all of which are suitable for unemployed university graduates.

The reason these jobs could now emerge in Africa is that recent technological advances such as the Internet and mobile telephones now make it practical, cheaper and otherwise advantageous to move these services to developing nations, where lower wages prevail. If Africa succeeds in capturing one million of these high-tech jobs, they could provide more revenues than all the African oilfields. These “greener pastures” would lure back talent and, in turn, create a reverse “brain drain.”

We have a rare and unique window of opportunity to convert projected American job losses into Africa’s job gain, and thus change the “brain drain” to “brain gain.” However, aggressive action must be taken before this window of opportunity closes. We need to determine the cost savings realized by outsourcing call center jobs to Africa instead of India since India is a formidable competitor. That cost savings will be used as a selling point to corporations interested in outsourcing jobs.

A typical call center employee might be a housewife using a laptop computer and a cell phone to work from her home. As night settles and her children go to bed, she could place a phone call to Los Angeles, which is 10 hours behind her time zone. An American answers her call and she says, “Good morning, this is Zakiya.” Using a standard, rehearsed script, she tries to sell an American product. Now that USA-to-Africa telephone calls are as low as 6 cents per minute, it is economically feasible for a telephone sales person to reside in Anglophone Africa while virtually employed in the United States, and – this is important - paying income taxes only to her country in Africa.

I will give one more example of the way thousands of call center jobs can be created in Africa. It is well known that U.S. companies often give up on collecting outstanding account balances of less than $50 each. The reason is that it often costs $60 in American labor to recover that $50. By comparison, I believe it would cost only $10 in African labor (including the 6 cents per minute phone call) to collect an outstanding balance of $50.

A wide variety of high-tech jobs can be performed from Africa, but may instead be lost to India. We must identify the millions of jobs that will be more profitable when transferred from the United States to Africa. Doing so will enable us to reverse the brain drain and convert it to a brain gain for Africa.

Philip Emeagwali is a computer scientist who won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize for the work he did on oil-reservoir modeling. For more information on his work, please visit his website.

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Ajayi Olutayo

Ajayi Olutayo

11. October, 2012 |

People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!

Marcus Edibogi Akor

Marcus Edibogi Akor

11. October, 2012 |

Thanks for this powerful article. I am very glad I read it. Keep up your great work and remain Blessed Law!

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