African expatriates look homeward

Skilled professionals answer NEPAD call to lend expertise
From Africa Renewal: 
page 12

Just a week after defending his doctoral thesis, Hailay Teklehaimanot boarded a flight out of the United States, back to Ethiopia. The 36-year-old physician is one of the few African emigrants who take that journey back home. Many more remain abroad.

More Africans living abroad are keen to use their skills for Africa’s development More Africans living abroad are keen to use their skills for Africa’s development.
Photograph: Panos / Giacommo Pirozzi

“I defended my thesis on the 7th of August 2004 and flew out on the 15th. I didn’t even go back for the ceremony,” Dr. Teklehaimanot said. “If all the people with skills permanently migrate to the developed world, Africa will go down. America is what it is because of Americans. If we don’t do something for Africa, who will do it for us?”

Some 20,000 professionals migrate out of Africa each year, estimates the International Organization for Migration (IOM), based in Switzerland. This loss of skilled manpower, termed the “brain drain,” is one of the greatest obstacles to Africa’s development.

The vision to lead the continent out of poverty has gathered momentum, spearheaded by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Governments are calling on all Africans, including those in the diaspora, to help claim the 21st century for Africa. More and more professionals are heeding the NEPAD call, leaving thriving careers overseas to bolster a middle class that can help accelerate development in Africa.

The power of an idea

“There is no greater power than an idea whose time has come,” said Mr. Blessing Rugara, a prominent 35-year-old lawyer who left a large law firm in the US and headed to South Africa after 15 years abroad. “I couldn’t think of a better place to be than home at this point in history,” he told Africa Renewal. “The African renaissance vision got hold of leaders across Africa and they, through NEPAD, are insisting on good governance amongst themselves. You see the same vision in that 10-year-old child orphaned by AIDS, but stubbornly insisting on going to school, hoping for something better.”

It is a rare pleasure, Mr. Rugara said, to be part of this developmental transformation. Africa’s future lies in its people, he pointed out, emphasizing that “unless empowered by the people of Africa, the renaissance is largely empty.” In South Africa, he co-founded Cicap Global, a venture that invests additional capital and management into fledgling companies, among them a pharmaceutical firm that manufactures essential drugs.

“The pharmaceutical company will enable an extraordinarily gifted African scientist, Collen Masimirembwa, who returned to Africa from Sweden, to put his medical degree and two PhDs to work for his people. We invested in him, he will invest in others and so the circle grows,” says Mr. Rugara.

‘You cannot eat patriotism’

Not everyone is ready to pack up just yet. Mr. Gichure wa Kanyugo, a Kenyan-born psychiatrist working in Boston, says Africa does not offer him, or colleagues like him, much hope. Now a naturalized US citizen, he said, “We would like to return home, but domestic conditions don’t allow us to do so. You cannot eat patriotism, can you?”

The often-cited deterring conditions, says the IOM, include failing economies, armed conflict, unemployment and poor health care. These, among other reasons, propel one out of every three professionals to migrate, mostly to Europe and North America.

“We are operating one-third of African universities to satisfy the manpower needs of Great Britain and the United States,” said world-renowned computer scientist Philip Emeagwali, putting the figures in context. “The African education budget is nothing but a supplement to the American education budget. In essence, Africa is giving developmental assistance to the wealthier western nations, which makes the rich nations richer and the poor nations poorer.”

Depending on the course, the UN Development Programme says it costs African countries about $10,000 to $15,000 to train a student for four years. For medical doctors, this cost can shoot up to $40,000. And these are the people most prone to the brain drain.

Money, Mr. Emeagwali says, is the primary reason Africans do not go back home. “In theory, we are morally obliged to return to Africa. But in reality, an African professional will not resign from his $50,000-a-year job to accept a $500-a-year job in Africa.”

Speaking of his own expatriation, Mr. Emeagwali, Nigerian-born but now a US resident, said his American wife and son are his primary reasons for not returning to Africa. “It would be inconsiderate of me to disrupt my wife’s career and my son’s education. Second, I never received invitations from government officials.”

Values matter

African leaders have already planted the seed for change, Mr. Rugara argues, but that seed has to take root in each individual. He said whether the reasons are purely economic or include other personal factors, the decision comes down to values.

“The idea that any African abroad should get red-carpet treatment to come back home is obnoxious and downright ridiculous,” Mr. Rugara said. “It’s okay to live overseas and not do anything about Africa as an individual choice. However, you are making a value judgment on what you consider important and it has an impact on the continent that invested in you during your unproductive years.”

To fill the human-resource gap created by the brain drain, the IOM says, African countries employ up to 150,000 expatriates from the West at a cost of $4 bn a year. Governments are now seeking to reverse this unsustainable trend. The African Union, the NEPAD parent body, amended its charter in 2003 to say that part of its mission is to “encourage the full participation of the African diaspora as an important part of the continent.”

The Ethiopian government, for example, provides some relocation incentives. Dr. Teklehaimanot said he was allowed to bring in his car and property duty-free. While he hopes this type of incentive encourages others to return, he says, for him the stakes involved more than personal gain.

“If I had stayed in America, I would be earning five, maybe 10 times more,” he said. “But when I heard about the Millennium project led by Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, and with the momentum built by NEPAD, I thought I have to be a part of these efforts to pull Africa out of poverty in an integrated way. Why deny yourself such value?”

The same week he left the US, Dr. Teklehaimanot joined the Center for National Health Development in Ethiopia, which is a project of Prof. Sach’s Earth Institute at Columbia University, in New York City. When he practiced as a medical doctor before going to the US, most of the diseases he treated were preventable. Now back home with a PhD in epidemiology, he says that he “feels privileged to help end unnecessary suffering by injecting technical expertise into Ethiopia’s efforts to meet its development goals.”

Helping from abroad

The Ethiopian diaspora is one of the largest in Africa. The IOM says there are more Ethiopian doctors practicing in the US city of Chicago than in Ethiopia. But geographical location, for immigrants such as Zimbabwean-trained physician Dr. Pride Chigwedere, has become irrelevant in today’s interconnected global village.

“Some of the more vital decisions that determine the fate of African countries are made in Washington, London and Tokyo,” he points out. “It is strategic to have Africans at top institutions around the globe to make sure Africa is on the agenda, and favourably so, when critical decisions are made and resources allocated.”

The measure, Dr. Chigwedere said, is not where you are, but what you are doing for Africa. He moved to the US in 1999 to join the Harvard AIDS institute as a research fellow and later as a PhD student. He has been proactive, he said, in increasing recruitment of African students into Harvard, channeling projects to Africa and setting up research partnerships with colleagues in Africa.

“My presence in America is a gain, not a loss for Africa. I’m part of the NEPAD vision,” Dr. Chigwedere says. “Brain drain is not necessarily defined by where one resides; it is the loss of focus, the loss of will to contribute to a better Africa.”

NEPAD needs greater momentum

Five years after it was launched, there has been progress in implementing the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has reported to the General Assembly.* This reflects efforts by both African countries and their external partners. But, Mr. Annan added, “the momentum of international support for Africa is not yet strong enough to be irreversible.”

Financing agencies have provided more than $2 mn for NEPAD road, power and other infrastructure projects, and programmes are under way across Africa to improve farm productivity, better protect the environment and strengthen social services. On the external front, Africa’s greatest gain has been in debt relief. There has been much less progress on trade. And while the Group of Eight industrialized countries promised to boost aid flows, reports Mr. Annan, the amount “is not rising nearly fast enough in G-8 countries . . . to be able to deliver on their pledges.”