Of Africa’s ‘Brain Drain’ and ‘Brain Gain’


A few decades ago, Africa, as a continent, witnessed a startling exodus of its people to Europe and other continents, for one reason or another. For many, the desire to leave the shores of their countries had acquired a tangibility that was as gigantic as their dreams. 

The West, in their estimation, had come to represent the holy grail they thought was providing opportunities for some mighty undertaking. An interest in staying in Africa was waning.

Though it is reasonable to locate the motivations of the people who left for political and other reasons, it is hardly an exaggeration to point out the fact that a handsome chunk of those who made the journeys based their cases on purely economic premises. 

Throwing a bit of empathy into the analysis makes me realise that it is rational to look for opportunities elsewhere, if they are veritably scant in your own country or continent. 

Even though it behoves us to acknowledge the few that returned after very short stints abroad (to pursue further education or other ventures), it is worth stating that Africa suffered enormously from the loss of some of its brightest people. 

As a matter of fact, the numbers that never returned far outweighed those that did. I am not in the enterprise of questioning their intent or unleashing my criticisms on the loyalty of those who did not return. 

In fact, I do not even want to come any close to giving it a shot. I surmise it is okay to do what you deem expedient to survive, further or achieve your goals. 

Come to think of it, if the hefty remittances and other tangible things that are frequently sent home come within good reaches of things to go by, then it is well to say that they are playing significant roles in the welfare of their families and, by extension, their countries and their continent. 

I suppose some in the diaspora had bitten too deep (made families, set up businesses or other reasons) to suddenly let go and make that journey back home.

 Though they might nurse that idea every so often, it will take time and a lot of preparation. Some might also be forever lost in a welter of the Western life.

The emerging economic development in most African countries, necessitated by new-found natural resources, an increasing bend toward more democratic governance systems, improved leadership, an increasing investment by foreign multinationals and business moguls, fast growing economies, to count a few, are turning the tides. Events are seeing a critical shift and are rhyming quite well these days.

<p>  The number of well-meaning, well-educated and ambitious Africans beaming with all the verve to leave an ink of their pens in writing the story of the elevation of Africa to its rightful place is, without a shred of doubt, in the ascendancy. 

As such, a lot of them are pursuing this business with great assiduity. It is worth emphasizing that this is, by no means, an attempt at a mockery of the quality of education back home.  If I may stress it, I think such an assumption will be unfounded and rest on a clear fallacy. 

There are educational institutions that can, no less doubtfully, give their Western counterparts a deserved run for their money. 

This new economic might has helped transform some African countries from perennial also-runs to recognizable contributors to the global economy. That notwithstanding, we cannot shy away from the nucleus of the fact that some of our neighbours still require tremendous work to help them get on par with the others, so as to elevate their citizenry to the status they deserve. 

My “cautious optimism” hangs on that thread of hope, but I am of the conviction that with time they, too, will show up and prove the sceptics wrong. 

This is, absolutely, a challenge we must all accept in good faith and with an unhesitating aplomb.  It is that magic thread of fellow-feeling that will unite our lives with theirs.

There is still a fraction of people who have a romanticised view of life in the Western world; nevertheless, there is a growing number who no longer hold the pursuit of life in the West in such high regard. 

They are doing well in their own backyard and you cannot fault their reasoning. 

You only need to take a look at the crippling economic conditions in some parts of Europe and North America to see the iota of sense in this line of reasoning. Quite frankly, and rightly so, the reverse is also happening.

A visit to Angola and Mozambique reveals an increasing presence of Portuguese who see these places (by virtue of sharing a common language and the booming economies in both former colonies) as oases in the desert of economic uncertainty in their own country.

 Several other African countries boast a good blend of domestic and foreign workforce. There is nothing particularly wrong with this symbiotic relationship in the current global economic milieu. It is not uncommon at all. Quite tangential, but the same can be said for Portuguese presence in Brazil or Spanish presence in other Latin American countries.

The decision to return home comes with its own challenges and it is important to bear that in mind; even so, it is one you may not regret. Some returnees have expressed their displeasure with the sometimes lack of urgency in the approach to work, the prevalent bureaucracy, corruption, and the slothful nature of some public and private workers. 

Well, it is important to realise that this is an entirely different society and while I will not vouch for an imperviousness to change, I am certain that change will not happen overnight. 

With time, things may pan out well. 

Though some returnees sometimes long for a continuation of their Western lifestyles, there is no denying the fact that it is possible to live like that, albeit at an extremely high cost. 

Besides, it is worth learning how to be at ease with the seemingly different infrastructural facilities (this is not the case for all African countries, as some have above par infrastructure). 

You might want to refrain from making constant comparisons to what you are used to in the West, if you happen to find yourself in a country that does not quite measure up in that respect. 

That being recognized, there are certainly cases where you might even find some things in Africa far better than in the West. Moreover, those who cling too tightly to some Western views may find some opposition. 

In the Western world particularly in the United States, there is that encouragement to speak up and express your thoughts freely.  It is not at all surprising if some Africans imbibe a bit of that culture by virtue of having lived there. 

There are cases of returnees who have landed into trouble for their inclination to frequently challenge the status quo. You do not want to always walk around in that nimbus of “I have come to change things for the better”. 

With the majority of the African countries on the collectivistic side of the culture spectrum, they are high power distance cultures that place excessive premiums on hierarchy, titles, and respect for authority. 

That is certainly not to be sniffed at. It is good to pay attention to that in your interactions with people. 

This is surely not an attempt at suggesting that everyone who makes this journey has had to endure this sort of reception. 

It is also not always the case that everyone back home is waiting to be at loggerheads with their fellows who return.  Of course, there are countless cases of people who have had a peculiarly smooth transition, totally devoid of any such problem.

Even though I believe it is vital to voice your disagreement with the way things are done sometimes, it is important to realize that you are in a different culture and finding that middle ground will serve you well.

 It is also important to employ a great deal of tactfulness or diplomacy in airing your views. Experience has shown that some of our people do not seem to differentiate between confidence and arrogance. 

The lines between the two are quite blurry. An excessive tendency to criticize everything might make them regard you as arrogant or a know-it-all. I urge our fellow citizens to accommodate, to a reasonable extent, valid suggestions and criticism from returnees.  If we are going to develop together, we need to learn to unlearn some of our old ways of doing things that might be detrimental to our development.

 Despite the fact that I am not making a case for a total overhaul of our approaches to doing things (I doubt if that is at all possible or even necessary), if we are going to effectively use the expertise of the returnees, we need to listen to them to decipher what aspects of their suggestions we might be able to effectively incorporate into our ways of doing things. 

This is not to suggest that we are not already doing this. Many of our returning folks (I cannot speak for all them, though) have good intentions and genuine interests in leaving their footprints on the shifting sands of the continent.

When returnees experience such objection, it is very tempting for them to fall prey to reverting entirely to the oft-pervasive old ways of doing things (though not always the case), in order to avoid the problems that might ensue.  It is important to stand your ground a bit and to know that you play a critical role in ushering in change.

As long as you work as a change agent in a gentle and respectful manner and avoid a push to the extremity of imposing your views on people, you may make a significant difference. It is necessary to lessen our complaints about things and to focus more on how we can use our expertise to find solutions. 

We should let an obsession with the prosperity of our continent tax our problem solving abilities. 

At the end of the day, if we are willing to invest our energies into working in tandem, continuously striving to find that common ground for the fusion of perspectives and striking that delicate balance (if we are not already doing these), we can all contribute our quotas toward the development of our beloved mother Africa. God bless Africa! ‑ GhanaWeb

February 2014
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