Africa's brain drain may have hidden benefits

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14194_254x191.jpg Each year, untold numbers of bright young Africans — doctors and nurses, scientists and programmers — leave their home countries to live and work abroad. This continental “brain drain” has the predictable effect:

Many experts believe the flight of health workers, scientists, and teachers hinder the continent’s development. “It will be impossible to achieve an African renaissance without the contributions of the talented Africans residing outside Africa,” writes Ravinder Rena of the Eritrea Institute of Technology. ….

But a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “Is Brain Drain Good for Africa?”, suggests two upsides. First, it points out that remittances — the money that expatriate workers send home to their families — have become a meaningful part of some African economies:

A March 2008 paper by economists William Easterly and Yaw Nyarko says remittances to Africa are likely undercounted, but on average they are equivalent to 81 percent of the foreign aid (PDF) received by an individual country.

And second, the report suggests that a significant number of expatriates eventually return home to work, envigorated by exposure to global markets and ideas, and often charged with a mission to improve the lives of their compatriots. (Sociologist Rubin Patterson calls this phenomenon “brain circulation.”) Several TEDTalks speakers are examples of this — like Patrick Awuah, pictured above, who left Seattle (and a career at Microsoft) to found the first liberal arts university in his native Ghana. Watch Patrick Awuah’s TEDTalk >>

Ideally, the efforts of these returning expatriates will help African states to, eventually, nurture and keep homegrown talent. Earlier this year, 2008 TED Prize winner Neil Turok spoke with CFR’s writer on one way to stop the brain drain: by promoting math and science education throughout Africa. Listen to the podcast interview >>