Sub-Saharan Africa Bleeds Skilled Labor as ‘Brain Drain’ Continues

A vendor selling souvenirs waits for customers, in front of a wall painted with a picture and a famous saying of late President Nelson Mandela on which mourners have written their messages of condolence and support, in a street near Mandela's old house in Soweto, South Africa, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)


Some African nations are having a hard time retaining skilled labor.


Buried in the International Monetary Fund’s massive 289-page World Economic Outlook report released earlier this week is a small line about a big problem for the labor markets of sub-Saharan Africa.

A region of the world that the World Bank believed was home to more than 1 billion people in 2015 is suffering from what the IMF refers to as a “brain drain” as young, skilled workers depart from the region, leaving educated and technically proficient professionals in short supply.

The exodus of young, educated workers is taking a toll on a region where human capital is scarce, the report said. “The migration of highly skilled workers entails a high social cost, as is evidenced by the departure of doctors and nurses from Malawi and Zimbabwe, which may mean welfare losses beyond those that are purely economic.”

Reasons for migration vary by country. The refugees that in recent decades have fled violence in Rwanda, for example, would be considered “humanitarian” migrants by the IMF. Those leaving countries such as Zimbabwe for better employment opportunities would be classified as “economic” or “voluntary” migrants.

It’s unfair to paint the diverse economies of sub-Saharan Africa with the same brush. But regardless of one’s reason for leaving, data clearly supports the notion that sub-Saharan African populations are shedding workers that could potentially serve as doctors, engineers and skilled employees domestically.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2013 estimated that one in nine people born in Africa with a post-secondary education had migrated to a developed nation outside of the African continent. The United State’s own African-born population is believed to have doubled in each decade since 1970, according to the Census Bureau.

As a result, there aren’t enough skilled workers to go around in many sub-Saharan African countries. The World Health Organization estimates Zimbabwe held only 0.08 physicians per 1,000 people in the country’s population. Malawi in 2009 held only 0.019 physicians per 1,000 people, while Mauritania’s concentration sat at 0.13.

For comparison’s sake, the U.S. held 2.45 doctors per 1,000 people in 2011. A general lack of skilled and technically advanced workers such as doctors leaves countries susceptible to medical and infrastructural emergencies. This was highlighted in 2014 when the deadly Ebola virus ravaged Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – which didn’t have nearly enough in-house medical personnel to effectively treat and contain the epidemic. The most recent data from these three countries indicates they held no more than 0.1 physicians per 1,000 citizens.

Scott Firsing, who’s currently an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina’s Wilmington campus and who spent nearly a decade working and conducting research in South Africa, broke down World Bank data in a January blog post for the London School of Economics and Political Science, noting that African migration doubled between 1980 and 2010, while the percentage of those migrants who elected to stay in Africa steadily declined.

But he says those estimates are far from all-encompassing.

“The problem is, the data is difficult to break down. The immigration between a lot of these countries is really nonexistent,” Firsing says, “It’s a statistical nightmare, this movement. People say there are more and more opportunities back in Africa, but what I found, particularly among my friends who went off to work in Australia … they’re getting picked up left, right and center from Africa.”

Part of the reason for migration, he says, is a lack of opportunity – both professionally and in the realm of education. He says it’s common for young, aspiring professionals to travel to Europe, the U.S. or Australia to further their education.

“In Africa, you don’t really see that connection between the private sector and the universities. You don’t have government funding poured into the universities. You don’t have the skilled professors at the universities,” he says. “They don’t have people to actually teach them. And if they do, they end up just leaving.”

Even South Africa – a country that serves as a destination point for many African migrants from the north – is suffering the effects of a brain drain. Competition from China has “decimated” the country’s once vibrant manufacturing sector, Firsing says, and other opportunities for skilled workers have left the country as industries requiring such expertise have dried up.

And for those who already left for school or work in other countries, it’s often difficult to justify returning, he says. Remittance payments are still an important source of cash for many in sub-Saharan Africa, but even the most homesick and patriotic expats may find it difficult to return home.

“If they’re in a pretty decent paying job and they’re pretty settled, you know how it is. It’s tough to say, ‘Ok, let’s pack up and make the move again.’ It’s taxing on money and emotions and all that,” Firsing says.

The IMF report notes that there is some evidence of skilled African expatriates eventually trickling back to their home nations, bringing with them “new skills” to those economies. And the remittance payments others provide allow those living overseas to help address poverty and support their families in their home nation, even if they’re not personally stimulating that labor market.

But the outflow of skilled labor and young people seeking higher levels of education is still worrying enough for the IMF to highlight. And migration out of Africa shows few signs of slowing down.

“[IMF calculations] suggest that [sub-Saharan Africa’s] migrants in OECD countries could increase from about 7 million in 2013 to about 34 million by 2050,” the report said, noting that slow population growth in developed nations means the ratio of such immigrants to a given country’s population could “increase sixfold” over the next few decades.


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