Hundreds of young Africans crammed into rickety fishing boats, destitute and half-dead from hunger and illness, wash up onto European shores. Many others are found dead on the beaches.
These images of desperate Africans trying to reach a “promised land” in the rich West make headlines. But thousands of others are quietly being welcomed through the front door.
It is estimated that some 20,000 skilled professionals are leaving the continent every year, depriving Africa of the doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers it needs to break a cycle of poverty and under-development.
Oil and gas-producer Algeria has lost 45,000 of its academics and researchers over the past decade because of a war with Islamic insurgents and a poor scientific environment.
“We must find a way to reduce the brain drain. It is an open wound that infects our nation,” President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said.
In some countries the rate of skilled migration exceeds 50 percent, the World Bank says, citing Cape Verde, Gambia, Seychelles, Mauritius and Sierra Leone.
Stymied by conflict, poverty, killer diseases and corruption, much of Africa is in no position to compete with richer countries that promise bigger salaries, better working conditions and political stability.
“Most people want to and do plan to return home, but you have to ask yourself what are the opportunities? Is the future secure?,” said David Orgut, a Kenyan who went to Britain to study nine years ago and stayed to work as a consultant in the construction industry.
“As it is, there are scores of university graduates struggling to find jobs in Kenya. Until the government begins to address the state of affairs in the job market, more and more migrants will prefer to stay abroad to seek employment.”
Flight of intellectuals
While emigration is not a new phenomenon, its acceleration since the independence era of the 1960s has cost Africa dearly.
Brain drain deals a double blow to weak economies which not only lose their best human resources and the money spent training them, but then have to pay an estimated $5.6 billion a year to employ expatriates.
Development experts say the talent drain not only undermines Africa’s economic growth, but also damages prospects for political transformation.
Repressive regimes persecute and drive away the political dissidents and intellectuals most likely to bring change.
Experts say a deficit of thinkers and intellectuals slows Africa’s progress towards good governance, greater democracy and improved human rights.
“The political and social impact is bigger in the long run,” Soumana Sako, executive secretary of the Harare-based African Capacity Building Foundation, told Reuters.
“How can you talk of home-grown reforms if these intellectuals who should be at the forefront of change are leaving?”
Virtually every walk of African life is affected by migration — from Ivorian soccer players signed up by wealthy European clubs to Kenyan pilots flying for foreign airlines.
But the health sector is the biggest casualty.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says sub-Saharan Africa bears 24 percent of the global burden of disease including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. To face that challenge it has just 3 percent of the world’s health workers.
Many doctors and nurses leave to work in countries like Britain, the United States and Australia, which are growing increasingly dependent on migrants to tackle staff shortages in hospitals and to cope with an aging population.
In Malawi, only 5 percent of physicians’ posts and 65 percent of nursing vacancies are filled. In the country of 10 million, one doctor serves 50,000 people compared with the British ratio of one doctor for every 600 people.
A recent report on Zambia showed that about one-third of its doctors work abroad. British-based charity Oxfam says there is one doctor per 14,000 people in Zambia.
Officials warn that unless the shortages are remedied, Africa will fail to reach goals set by the United Nations to halve poverty by 2015 and improve health services.
“Our approach is that if you (the West) poach one, then you must help us train four so that we can increase our numbers,” said senior Zambian health ministry official Simon Miti.
“If they don’t help us train more workers, we will not reach the (U.N.) Millennium Development Goals on health,” he told a meeting of African countries and donor aid agencies in Lusaka.
Reversing the trend
Despite the gloomy forecasts, analysts say the brain drain can be effectively tackled.
Last year, Britain launched a $175 million aid initiative for Malawi to improve conditions for medical staff and mitigate the brain drain. The six-year program aims to double the number of nurses and triple the number of doctors.
“What the international community needs to do is recognize that migration and migrants play an important part in development,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The IOM says rich countries should embrace skilled migrants, invest in furthering their knowledge to avoid “brain waste,” and encourage them to return home temporarily to share their skills.
“Until there’s acceptance that it’s an advantage for everyone, you’re going to be stuck with the brain drain,” Chauzy said.