When people talk about a brain drain, they almost always mean international academics moving to the west.
But when it comes to policy specialists who work alongside western governments and help develop Africa’s long-term growth strategy, few speak about a brain drain.
These African working groups or experts may leave the continent, but they go in the opposite direction – to the west.
A new book argues that this has happened a number of times in the past. It says that Africa’s human capital resources – professionals educated in Africa – have a wider global impact than is generally realised.
The publication – a compilation of 35 journalistic stories – shows how they have often moved further afield, often times to the UK, even before the Human Resources Council Act was passed.
Simon McBurney, the founder of Centre for Land Use and Resource Management, who moved from Addis Ababa to London as a university student, said: “I noticed how there seemed to be an underlying narrative about Africans who went to the west, rather than Africans coming to the west.”
As well as the importance of a common language and cultural understanding, the reasons for African professionals returning are diverse. Hui Li, a social and environmental economist, moved from Addis Ababa to London after his PhD. He said: “It was a combination of a professional and personal consideration that persuaded me to come back to London.”
The Cuban migration model has proved controversial, with Kenyans being less enthusiastic.
Zoe McLaughlin, who is Kenyan, says: “I was afraid to leave Nairobi and come to London because I had been working in a foreign environment and it was not comfortable. People might have misunderstood what the Cuban experience was like. People didn’t have clean water or toilets or clean housing. Cuba had to walk for miles to get to the nearest clinic. But that experience has given people in the developing world a lot of self-respect.”
Sarah McDonnell, who moved from Kigali to London as a policy analyst, said: “Although I received great support while in Kigali, I think I may have done better staying in Africa for a while longer. I may have benefited from international experience.”
The Zambian director of the World Bank’s energy division, Harby Beynon, who is also an advisory board member to the African Development Bank, said: “I’ve seen and used the UK public and non-profit sector and see more and more global opportunities available to my colleagues in Africa.”
Despite popular belief, a central role of the Human Resources Council Act and how it was implemented was the ensuring that people come back. “We have institutions but we don’t have an institutional framework to use it as our own. By and large, we are lacking, a sense of direction. To me, this is a way forward,” said Mike Scott, the founder of the Centre for Human Resources Policy.
The new book, Cross Cultural Development for Africa, with essays written by seven African working groups, also shows that there has been a tendency for organisations set up in the west to recruit Africans and fund them. McBurney said: “It’s somewhat ironic to see these institutions coming to us to build capacity and then seeing us as a potential source of recruits.”
He argues that a “receptive and educated labour force” will help development in Africa – a view shared by Kerry Meredith, who retired from his post as head of international policy advising at EU General Directorate for Economic Affairs and Enterprise to head up UK government’s EU Structural Funds department, which includes foreign direct investment policy and organisation. “We need more of it. This is a global situation,” he said.
Although Scott added that the UK had “a lot of deficits to fill”, in terms of recruitment, he hoped it would learn some good lessons from the potential brain drain. “Having left the UK for South Africa, I’d rather do the skills necessary for UK jobs than leave the UK to do the skills needed in Africa.”
• Kate Duguid is a journalist at Global Conversation