Living in the United States may not be an option, concludes Ebere Onwudiwe, but packing one's luggage is not an option either. In this insightful piece, a scholar-administrator reflects on the trauma of brain gain. Prof. Ebere Onwudiwe, a political scientist and economist, is with the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio where he is the director of the Center for African Studies. He is the editor of the International Journal of African Studies, IJAS, previously, the Journal of Human Relations. Prof. Onwudiwe=s commentaries on Africa have appeared in many U.S. and international media including, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Congressional Record, U.S. Senate, and The Guardian (Nigeria) where he is a regular contributor. He is co-editor of Afro-Optimism (Praeger, 1993).
Brain drain implies the situation whereby some of the best and the brightest among citizens of Africa are leaving the continent for greener pastures in developed countries. Brain gain is said to occur when these "talented 10th" return to their home countries in Africa with their skills and talents.
First, let me say that I do not think that this conception of brain gain is correct. When a scientist, a doctor, a history professor leaves Africa, brain is drained, but when he returns, brain is not gained. It is replaced. When you replace what you lost, you have not gained.
I believe that brain gain only occurs when you attract additional skills from other countries not when you replace skilled manpower that left to other countries. To gain is to advance, to add value, not to return to status quo ante. Yet, the conditions which are necessary for attracting skilled labor from other countries are necessarily the same conditions that are needed for a successful repatriation of skilled people lost to other countries, professions and sectors. I am sure that many people here are aware of these enabling conditions: paying salaries and creating working conditions commensurate with level of expertise; fostering a stable condition of peace and stability at home; ensuring a policy of meritocracy rather than nepotism under which people without skills are given jobs due to those that have them; investing in stable infrastructure including communications, electricity, roads, etc. There so many of these. I believe that if Africa creates the right conditions, it can attract skilled people from other countries including its skilled children who left, and its talented grand children born in other continents. That would constitute real brain gain.
In this country for example, migrants from African and their children have prospered in many fields of educational endeavors. The Bureau of Census reported in 1997 that when compared to other migrant groups from Asian, Europe and Latin America, those from Africa have the highest level of educational accomplishment in the United States.
In the 25 years and over age bracket, 48.9 percent of African migrants have a Bachelor's Degree or advanced and professional degrees. For Asians, it is 44.6 percent, Europeans it is 28.7 percent, and for Latin Americans, 5.6 percent.
In recent years, many African leaders have come to recognize the paradoxical situation, whereby public education expenditures have inadvertently become foreign aid from Africa to rich countries such as the United States. There is, therefore, an emerging tension between the professionals that have emigrated to rich countries and the political leaders of their home countries.
In 1999, this tension was given vent in an open exchange between Prof. Ali Mazrui of SUNY, Binghamton, and Jerry Rawlins, the former President of the Republic of Ghana. Mwagiru reports that Rawlins complained that After his country Ghana spent a lot of its scarce resources in training them, Ghanaian medical doctors frequently leave for developed countries leaving patients at home with little medical attention. Mazrui argued that it was the bad governance by people like Rawlins that drove the intellectuals away in the first place . Bad governance alone is not to blame. There are personal economic decisions to leave for self improvement that are unrelated to governance or politics. Many citizens of mature democracies have also left their countries for other places. In any case, some African countries have since instituted policies to attract their professionals back to the continent to help in the development effort. Countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana are making inroads in this direction.
But there is another tension which is not captured in the argument between African leaders and African intellectuals who emigrated. This second tension is the one happening in the heads of each of us Africans who are economic refugees in the United States. Many feel that they should be home rather than here. This fact is a living burden with which many African emigrants are dealing with at the personal level everyday.
Some say that this is a type of identity crises, the type of "double consciousness" that W.E. Du Bois made famous with respect to the African-American educated minority that he called the "talented tenth." It is said that the inner torture of these African American intellectuals was the realization that their qualifications meant very little in a racist society. For the African emigrants to the United States, it is that their qualifications meant very little to their home countries. Both groups of intellectuals suffer an attendant sense of alienation and guilt.
The African knows that his expertise is more needed in his home country than in his adopted country, but for some very personal reasons of survival and extended family pressure he knows that he is better-off staying here rather than returning home. This duality of loyalty for country and for family is the source of inner tension in the souls of all African intellectuals and professionals who live in this and other countries. Although I fully understand the motivation behind it, I for one do not think that the call for Africans to return en mass is wise. I do not believe that in this era of globalization and the impending erosion of national trade barriers, that living at the margins of the empire as it were, is necessarily a good thing for development. In the case of those of us who live here in the United States, there is no reason why we cannot bend the privilege to fit the development need of our individual homelands. I say this as one who has lived in Europe before coming to this country. Unlike the states of Europe, the Unites States is a universal country, one whose culture is enriched by the contributions of every people on earth including, in no small measure, by the peoples of Africa.
To help Africa, it may be more important for the Africans who live in the United States and in other developed countries to be part of the power structure of their local communities, states, professions, and even the country itself than to return to Africa. You can do this without losing your consciousness of origin and quintessential African identity. I believe that this is important for the formation of the type of global ethnic networks needed for progress in this coming era of postimperial nationality. Let me explain.
An important element of the new theory of postimperialism is the idea of global society. We all agree today that there is something called global economy, a reference to an integrated world economy of interrelated markets. Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration provides a very concise explication of the global economy. According to Reich, the traditional meaning of the term national economy is no longer the same because all national economies today are mere appendages of the global economy. I accept the truth of this insight. In the same vein, postimperial thought as explicated by its founder Richard L. Sklar of UCLA holds that there is an emerging condition of global society under which the domination of some nations over others will come to an end. I do not believe that we are completely there yet. However, I agree with the prediction that under the condition of postimperialism, there will emerge a purposeful, unified, and dynamic transnational bourgeoisie with a congruence of interests that is not state-centered regardless of national variations in levels of development. The signs are everywhere as we speak.
Geographic dispersion is one way for nationality groups to do well in this emerging postimperial order. This in fact is the subject of an important book published in 1992 by Joel Kotkin a business trends analyst. In this book, aptly titled "Tribes: How race, religion and identity determine success in the new global economy," Kotkin showed how shared traits helped some dispersed groups like the Jews, Japanese, British, Indians and Chinese to form formidable ethnic networks that has made them competitive in the international sectors of business, technology and communication. Let me provide one or two examples of how other global diasporas have thrived and enriched their homelands in the bargain.
Kotkin argues that over the centuries, the Jews have developed a strong tradition of self-help and skills at adjusting to changing conditions of politics and economics. As a result, their social institutions, family traditions and laws have survived all manners of hostilities and global changes. Because they are a dispersed people with strong network of communities around the world, they have always been in a great position to benefit from the globalized world.
"From the last days of Rome until the end of the Middle Ages, Jews endured not only by trading goods but also through the acquisition of knowledge in areas such as medicine or mathematics from regions as diverse as India and Spain. Later when the European ascendancy created a far more advanced international economy, the Jews as a people stretched beyond national boundaries, were ideally suited to take advantage. "
The Chinese show similar sophistication. According to Kotkin, they have developed a portent global diaspora centered in Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore but stretching into the United States of America. They are now now making inroads everywhere including Africa. It is no accident today that they have succeeded to carve out an economic empire that is poised to make their homeland the next great industrial power. They have done all of this by living everywhere while holding to their ancient culture and maintaining a strong network of Chinese communities.
And how about the Indians, the Japanese? The story is the same. They do not simply pack up and go, they remain themselves wherever they live, they maintain their solidarity, they learn, they grow and they enrich their homelands. The only Africans mentioned among this globalized tribes in Kotkins book are the Igbo of Nigeria, this from a continent of over 1500 nationalities. What is common among these groups are identified as follows:
1) a strong ethnic identity and a sense of mutual dependence that makes it possible for the group to adjust to changes in the global economy and politics.
2) A global network anchored in mutual trust that allows them to operate collectively beyond the confines of national borders
3) An open mind to new ideas and a passion for technical and other knowledge from all sources for rapid cultural and scientific development.
According to Kotkin, The British embodies all these characteristics. They are a people animated by a certain ethos and sense of uniqueness that have enabled them to excel in trade and technical knowledge. The British diasporas one of the most permanently influential in the world, (notice that this lecture is in English) embodies the same values of hard work, self-help, education, ethnic identity, and a sense of cultural distinctiveness. Indeed it is the effort to preserve this sense of cultural insularity that has led to the assumptions of racial superiority, which is nothing but an instrument for ethnic economic hegemony.
No other country has extended its diaspora as much as the British. And to this day, they are still reaping the benefits of that foresight by their special relationship with the United States. As Kotkin puts it: It is the power of its unique connection between the various offshoots of British homelands abroad that "has helped to sustain the cultural, financial and political influence of Great Britain long after its decline from the pinnacle of political power "
So far I hope my position on the issue of brain gain is clear even if unpopular. Simply, restated, it is that if by brain gain we mean that talented Africans should pack up and leave for the continent, I do not concur. I think that it is at best, an incomplete answer to the problem of African development. Surely, it is the development problem that has prompted many Africans to formulate strategies for the depletion of Africa's Diaspora even as other peoples are expanding theirs. I believe strongly that we need more of us outside Africa, not less.
Still, I have myself struggled with the guilt of living here rather than in Africa. In 1991 I even went public with it in the pages of New York Times. That piece was included in The Shaping of the Modern World, published for the Department of History of Brooklyn College, New York, by Simon and Schuster in 1999. This volume which I strongly recommend explores developments in European and American civilization over the past three centuries as a tool to understand today's interdependent world. My own essay there interprets the African condition in the current era in a way which crystallizes my inner torment over living in this country rather than living in my native land.
I bring this up in order to underline the fact that I understand the motivation for the propagation of the brain gain idea. But my analyses in that article squarely points to another argument against the main tenets of the brain gain idea. It is that the decision of each of us to leave home and to come here is a personal one. It is one primarily motivated by the invisible hand of the human urge for self-improvement. A great majority of us came here first and foremost for the reason of making something of ourselves individually, and for helping out our extended families at home. Indeed, it may be true (though we have no proof of it) that our continent could gain by the mass return of all of its sons and daughters.
Whenever I have reflected on this, I have asked myself the same difficult question. Should I get angry and resign my job? Pack my bags and go home? Perhaps the answer is yes. Am I going to do it? The answer is no. Result: frustration!
The torment as I have argued elsewhere is that many skilled Africans find that they must leave home for their extended families to live, even though they should stay home for their countries to move forward. In most cases, they are the only social security, unemployment benefits, college financial aid and medical insurance their relatives have. So who comes first: your family or your country? This, my friends, is the billion naira question.