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Impact of brain drain on sub-Saharan Africa

The outflow of skilled and semi-skilled workforce from Ethiopia to countries beyond Ethiopia can be linked to the 1974 revolution that dismantled the Solomonic Dynasty and installed the military regime known as the “Derg”.  Between 1980 and 1991, Ethiopia lost 75 percent of her skilled workforce, writes Alem Asres.

We live in two different world—one rich and one poor.  One segment of our world has and continues to enjoy enormous change and progress in almost all spheres of human development while the other is experiencing increasing social, economic and political stagnation characterized by mass poverty, disease, illiteracy, recurring famine, and destructive ethnic and religious conflicts.  The tensions caused by the ever increasing disparities between the “haves and the have-nots” and by the selfish desire of few developed countries to control the non-renewable resources of developing countries, especially Africa, the gap separating the two world is becoming wider and wider.  Given the nature of existing superficial relationship between the rich and poor nations and the immensity of the problems generated by lack of social, economic and political progress in the developing countries, it is not difficult to imagine the inevitability of global confrontation.

One need not present a bibliographical essay to document that the majority of African states are under increasing pressures of one sort or another.  Demands for social change, food-security, health care, better housing, for civil and human rights, for better and meaningful education as well as for representative government are expressed daily throughout the continent and beyond.  One of the most critical problem facing the continent today, has been and continues to be, the scarcity of adequately trained manpower to enhance its social and economic development and meet the ever increasing demands of its citizens.  According to UN Development Programme report, “Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost a tremendous amount of their educated and skilled populations as a result of emigration to more developed countries, which has harmed the ability of such nations to get out of poverty.  Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia are believed to be the most affected nations in Africa.

Most of African countries are in-need of teachers to eradicate illiteracy, scientists to develop the scientific and technological capacity of the continent, health care professionals to improve and maintain public health and managerial staff to engage in a sound and enduring socio-economic development.  Despite the persistent efforts to upgrade their ill-suited social, economic, political, educational and administrative infrastructures inherited from their colonial past, the majority of African states found themselves increasingly unable to create and retain or to attract sufficient numbers of trained personnel from abroad.  The reluctance of Africans trained abroad to return home and the continuing outflow of professionals trained at home, has and continues to have negative impact on social, economic and political progress of the continent in general and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Classical Colonialism has been dead and buried. Neo-Colonialism is very much alive and active in Sub-Saharan Africa.  While Classical Colonialism may be described as direct rule by Imperialist powers, Neo-Colonialism is indirect rule by the same with similar objectives—the exploitation of human capital and material resources of the continent.  Unlike Old Colonialism, Neo-Colonialism has two faces—one that you wine, dine and dance with, the other that conspires against you all the time.  Neo-Colonialism by its nature promotes dependency not interdependency.

There is strong evidence to indicate that Neo-Colonialism, through various and very complicated policies, such as trades and land-lease treaties, not only suffocating viable economic development throughout the continent, but also actively engaged in encouraging the outflow of professionals from the continent.  To meet the demands for medical doctors, scientist, and engineers as well as for other well trained professionals, “the developed countries have been turning to the developing countries of Asia and Africa”.  Due to such “brain drain” any increase achieved in number of medical doctors, nurses, engineers, and teachers continues to be outstripped by the increase in population growth and by the outflow of skilled and semiskilled workforce from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The term Brain Drain was coined by the British Royal Society to describe the outflow of skilled professionals, primarily physicians, engineers and scientists, through emigration from Britain to the United States.  Walter Adams wrote: “The flight of scientific, technical, administrative and managerial personnel from the developing countries to Europe and North America or even from the rich countries to the richer countries has come to be called the brain drain”.  Today, the term brain drain is commonly used to describe the loss of professionals and other skilled and semi-skilled workers from the developing to the developed countries.

For more than half of a century, African states have been trying hard to upgrade and change their ill-suited social, economic and educational systems inherited from departing colonial powers.  Since independence, each nation have been trying to increase the number of institutions of higher education and attempted to Africanize the curriculum as well as to increase home-grown teaching staffs.  Regardless of all their efforts, they found themselves increasingly unable to satisfy the ever increasing needs of their society and to stop the exodus of their skilled and semi-skilled workforce.

The purpose of this article is to examine the cause and the effect of the outflow of skilled and semiskilled workforces and openly to discuss its impacts on social, economic and political development of Sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia.  To that end, the term “Brain drain” is used in reference to the continuing loses of human capital from Sub-Saharan Africa to developed countries.  The compelling reason for my writing this article is to contribute to any discussion aimed at reducing and/or finally reversing the exodus of skilled workforces from the continent.  If Sub-Saharan Africa fails to find peaceful ways and means of reversing the outflow of its trained professionals, the continent will remain a “basket-case” of the world with no light at the end of the tunnel.

The remainder of this article, will focus on how Ethiopia has been unable to increase and retain adequately trained professionals, and how the outflow of human capital in the form of “brain drain”, may impact Ethiopia’s struggle to meet the social, economic and academic needs of her increasing population now estimated to be more than one hundred million and growing.  A brief survey of Ethiopians abroad tells us that, for more than 42 years, highly skilled professionals and semi-skilled workers have been leaving their country in search of meaningful employment, security and better life.  A quick review of pre-and-post colonial Africa, may help the reader to understand and appreciate the Ethiopian experience.

Ethiopia was not subjected to colonial rule like the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa and inherited none of the colonial system.  Ethiopia resisted colonial rule by any means necessary.  However, her resistance against colonial rule is not without price—the price was having her country destroyed and her educated class massacred.  It is truism to state that educational system, ancient or modern, never existed in a vacuum, but is created and influenced by the prevailing conditions and by felt needs of the societies in which it is to function.  Under the feudal system of Ethiopia, what was need was not formal education but reading and writing skills which was provided by Coptic priests, Muslim sheikhs and Western missionaries.  However, seeing the changing needs of Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik II established formal educational institution at home and began to send Ethiopians to study abroad.  Prior to 1894, according to Teshome G. Wagaw and others, “few individuals were sponsored by foreign missionaries to study theology outside Ethiopia”.  After Menelik II’s death, the process of sending Ethiopians to study abroad re-started by Emperor Haile Selassie.  According to number of observers, there were some 200 Ethiopians studied abroad when Italy invaded Ethiopia for the second time.  The first invaders sent by Rome were defeated at the battle of Adowa in 1896.

When Rome heard that its well-armed and well-organized colonizing army was defeated by ill-armed and ill-organized Ethiopian peasants at the battle of Adowa, Benito Mussolini was only thirteen years old.  “The news of the defeat was a severe blow to his impressionable mind”.  Fifteen years later, young Mussolini wrote, lamentingly, the casualty figures of the disastrous battle and the loss of several cannons.  As a child he nursed the national shame.  Determined to colonize Ethiopia and introduce his brand of civilization, the revenge-driven Mussolini sent his mechanized army headed by General Rodolfo Graziani in 1935.  Graziani, who promised to deliver Ethiopia to Mussolini “with or without Ethiopians”, lost no time to fulfil his promise.  Graziani made his mission to let no educated Ethiopians left alive to tell the story.  As noted by Rabbi Hailu Paris: “Graziani's repression of Ethiopia during the occupation was so complete and his gifts of destruction so generous that… He had exterminated virtually all the Ethiopian educated class, and all captured Ethiopian generals”.  It is said, by the end of World War II, Ethiopia's educational institutions were in a state of “shambles, and the country was left without trained personnel or sufficient funds for reconstruction”.

The failed attempt of 1937 on Graziani’s life, gave him additional reason to massacre any Ethiopian in sight by shooting, bayoneting, and/or by locking them up in a house and burning them to death.  According to Wagaw, “At least 3,000 Ethiopians perished in less than three days”.  Both Ethiopian and European observers described: “educated men and women were hunted down and killed in cold blood, and at least 125 of those known to have met their deaths were people educated abroad at great expenses and returned home to modernize their country…More than two hundred ninety monks and 129 deacons of the Debre Libanos monastery were put to death in an orgy of merciless destruction”.  During the five years of occupation, Italians wiped out more than 75 percent of Ethiopians with some formal education.

To meet the needs of post-World War II Ethiopia, and to modernize the appearance of the feudal system, Emperor Haile Selassie found it necessary to re-establish the scholarship program started by Emperor Menelik II.  To that end, Haile Selassie sent selected few to study abroad with this advice and warning: “We hope that you will be wise in choosing those elements from foreign education which are applicable to conditions in Ethiopia and which can be used in our own country…It is in expectation of a rich return that the Ethiopian government has spent freely to send you abroad, hoping that upon your return you will make a generous contribution to the betterment of your country”.  As history shows, in sending Ethiopians to study abroad, the Emperor did not expect them to import western ideas of representative government or to replace the feudal system but to engage in face-lifting and legitimizing the system.  If the function of the educated is to facilitate a genuine change, those Ethiopians studied abroad made no measurable impact on the feudal system run by the Emperor.  They were expected and rewarded for their obedience and absolute loyalty to the Crown and to the Emperor.  Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia with iron fist for more than 50 years and Ethiopia remained a bastion of feudalism until 1974 Revolution.

The outflow of skilled and semi-skilled workforce from Ethiopia to countries beyond Ethiopia can be linked to the 1974 revolution that dismantled the Solomonic Dynasty and installed the military regime known as the “Derg”.  Between 1980 and 1991, Ethiopia lost 75 percent of her skilled workforce.  Mengistu Haile Mariam, like Rodolfo Graziani, made his mission to wipeout professionals, college and high school students, leaving Ethiopia once again, without skilled workforce to meet the needs of the country he left behind.

The focus of this article is not to question the reasons why more than 785,000 Ethiopians left their country, but to examine the impact of their exodus may have on the country’s efforts to meet the socio-economic needs of the society.  The numbers given above include physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, economists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, religious leaders and former military officers all trained at great expenses.  Today, 785,000 Ethiopians are located in the flowing ten countries: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Israel, Saud Arabia and Lebanon, just to name few.

Education, designed to expose all learners to ideas of good citizenship, values of public service and dissemination of useful knowledge among all citizens, is the “only available means for setting the progressive wheels of a society in motion”.  Educators, are key in accelerating that progressive wheels of the society in motion.  It may be said, without contradiction, there will be no physicians, nurses, engineers, economists and trained lawyers to meet the nation’s workforce need without qualified and dedicated teachers supported by the society and by national leadership.  It may sound presumptuous for this writer to suggest what specific actions Ethiopia needs to take in order to reverse the outflow of her human capital.  However, common sense and the objective reality dictates that Ethiopia needs to actively develop and implement programs designed to recruit, retain, and reverse the outflow of her skilled and semi-skilled workforces.

To reduce and eventually to reverse the outflow of human capital, the government, in partnership with key employers, need to implement programs aimed at retaining students attending schools in Ethiopia while actively encouraging those studying abroad to pursue useful and marketable skills the country needs.  Given the ongoing efforts to meet the economic, social and educational, as well as skilled workforce needs of the society, coupled, with understanding that most professionals, like everyone else, wants recognition of the contributions they make and desire to secure meaningful employment, the state and key employers should be able to ensure these wants of home-bound professionals.  Extend an open invitation to Ethiopian teachers and professionals everywhere to return home to teach and learn the needs of their home-land and to examine the opportunities the country provides during their sabbaticals from their respective universities.  In my opinion, a commitment by the government and other employers to help the returnee secure employment, develop their professional skills and to form professional organizations, will not only serve as magnate in attracting those reluctant professionals to return home, but also will serve as encouragement to those who are still attending schools in the country to preparing themselves for employment in Ethiopia.

Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu) earned his Doctor of Philosophy  in  Social  Foundations  of  Education  with  emphasis  on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College  Park. He  received  his  MA  degree  in  Urban Sociology  and  Urban Planning  from  Howard  University, Washington DC, and his BA in Political Science with emphasis in International Relations, from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached [email protected].

 

Contributed by Alem Asres
Contributed by Alem Asres