Gaining from the brain drain

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Moffat Ekoriko sets out a pathway for  Africa to gain from the brain drain

Nigeria’s labour minister Chris Ngige recently committed the faux pas of the year. He said Nigerian doctors who want to migrate abroad can do so since the country has surplus doctors. He added that their migration would even help as they would be remitting money home. 

While people have attacked him for his comments about Nigeria having enough doctors (which is not true), most missed the second part of his justification: foreign currency inflows. At about the same time, a post on social media advised the Nigerian government to establish a ministry of diaspora affairs after it turned out that diaspora remittances at $24.3bn for 2018 are fast approaching the amount of foreign exchange the country earns from oil annually. It is possible that remittances have already overtaken oil, given that, as with all matters of foreign inflows in Nigeria, there is a robust parallel market that would not be captured by official statistics. Even based on the official data, the remittances account for 6.1 percent of Nigeria’s GDP.

The country is not alone in reaping from its diaspora. Egypt grosses $28.9bn a year, accounting for 11.6 per cent of its GDP. The highest dependence on remittances is that of the Comoros at 19.1 percent of GDP. This is followed by Gambia at 15.3 percent.  

While attention is focused on remittances, Africa is missing out on the multiple benefits it can derive by tapping into the opportunities offered by its diaspora. With a little organisation, the continent could use the diaspora to fast-track economic growth and deepen developments in infrastructure and social services. The first step is for African governments to be aware of and recognise the potential. Ethiopia is the only country paying attention to its diaspora as an economic growth engine. There is hardly an African country with a ministry of diaspora affairs. That recognition of potentials would mean that political energy is focused on creating structures and programmes to integrate the diaspora into the domestic economic framework. It would also mean that Africans outside the continent feel a sense of connection to the homeland.

This recognition would also open the minds of African leaders to those whose forebears were taken to the Americas as slaves. They have been abandoned in a wilderness of stranded identity. A Nigerian legislator tried to sponsor a bill to give them the right of return to the country, but the economic potential of such an outcome was either not recognised or appreciated. Imagine inflows triggered by African Americans buying properties in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.

Next, every African country needs to build a comprehensive database of its people abroad. This database will capture information like education, skills, age and employment. Schemes that tap into their expertise for the benefit of the motherland can be developed.  Imagine Nigeria’s many professors of medicine in the UK and US returning home at the end of their career to impart their skills in medical schools across the country. Imagine financial experts spending their immediate post-retirement years to deepen and leverage their global contacts to attract financial inflows into the motherland. Universities could access the database to approach lecturers to take up sabbaticals in Africa. This database would be most relevant in tracking and engaging future generations who may feel less of an attachment to the continent than their parents who were first generation immigrants.

There is still the issue of money. Most remittances are for personal projects and support for extended family members. The inflows can be deepened if governments actively encourage their citizens overseas to make saving remittances. Ghana has already shown what a success this can be. It is estimated that diaspora savings are as high as 85 percent of that country’s gross national savings. The challenge is that with the instability of African currencies, a system has to be created for such savings to be made in convertible currencies. Nigeria is well positioned for this given that it already allows foreign currency domiciliary accounts. These savings, if properly managed, can provide macro-economy stability, especially in countries that depend on fluctuating commodity prices. 

Sub-Saharan African countries also issue bonds. Nigeria successfully issued a $300m diaspora bond in 2017. Ethiopia successfully sold $56m in bonds to its diaspora last year after failing in its first attempt some years ago.

Beyond this, Africa could tap into the skills of the diaspora for its development planning. Having seen how developed societies work, the Africans in the diaspora have visions of what Africa should be. If exploited, last year’s $46bn remittances to the motherland would be an insignificant footnote of the contributions of the diaspora to an African renaissance. It is time to gain from the brain drain.                                  


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