Reversing brain drain

April 02, 2003

AFTER MANY years of steady brain drain, South Africa and some of its neighbors have decided to fight back. They realize their future is doomed if they keep losing their best and brightest to richer countries.

"The crM-hme de la crM-hme of our country in terms of skills, qualifications and financial resources has bled out of South Africa," said that country's home affairs minister, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. He recently announced a "Come Home" campaign to recruit back professionals who have emigrated. Meanwhile, 160 major corporations sponsored a London career fair, also trying to lure lost talent back to African countries.

These efforts are welcome. But success will not come easily. For three decades now, great numbers of Africans, after acquiring specialized skills and education, have decided to sell their talents to the highest bidder in wealthier industrialized countries. The brain drain has bled Africa badly.

For example, at a time when Nigeria's health system suffers from an acute lack of medical personnel, more than 21,000 Nigerian doctors are said to be practicing in the United States alone. Similarly, Ghanaian physicians are easier to find in wealthy countries than in their homeland.

If African countries truly want to reverse the brain drain, they must create conditions that professionals regard as essential for success. High salaries are not enough without political stability, sound and consistent economic policies and rule of law. Particularly important are assured property rights and human rights.

Instability makes selling many African countries difficult. That's why the "Come Home" campaign's Web site includes testimonials from South Africans who tried their luck elsewhere but decided to return. Their message is that their own country can become a happy and prosperous place to live more quickly if skilled problem-solvers come home to be part of the solution.

Africa desperately needs its homegrown talent to break a destructive cycle. So many skilled Africans have left for greener pastures that the continent is estimated to spend $4 billion each year to employ 100,000 foreigners in key medical, technical, legal and finance-sector jobs.

If those jobs were held by Africans, much of that money would stay in the local economies. There, it might contribute to upgrading the failing political, legal and economic infrastructure that drove Africans away in the first place.

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