West Drain Africa’s Intellect

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(Mandela decried loss of Africa's best brains).

Prospects are dim that the Rabat conference's plan of action to control the crippling flight of scientists, skilled people and other "undocumented" migrants from Africa to Europe will succeed.

Ultimately, the flow can’t be slowed without reducing income gap between the rich north and less developed global south. Government ministers from 58 African and European countries met in Rabat, Morocco recently for the first Euro-African Conference on Migration and Development.

Critics say a significant part of the plan of action agreed at Rabat focuses on repressive measures which include a comprehensive enforcement of border control by air, naval and police forces, including those from Africa. About 9, 000 "undocumented" migrants arrive on the shores of Spain's Canary Islands after crossing dangerously in small boats.

More than 40 percent of African high level managers and professionals have left the continent for opportunities elsewhere. According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), some 127, 000 highly qualified African professionals left the African continent between 1960 and 1989. Africa lost another 20, 000 highly skilled professionals since 1990. To fill in the human resource gap created by brain drain, Africa employs up to 150, 000 expatriate professionals at a cost of US$4 billion a year, according to the ECA. "To this day we continue to lose the best among ourselves because the lights in the developed world shine brighter," former anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela has remarked.

African countries have limited choices and with rising poverty and growing income gaps between Europe and Africa, it will be very difficult for the Rabat initiatives to succeed. Africa will be provided with Euro 2.5 billion (US$3.16 billion) annually by Europe to boost development assistance to African economies in a bid to pre-empt the need for migration by scientists and other skilled people. 

The action plan calls for, among other things, the need to build Euro-African partnerships and networks to be developed between scientists and research institutions to cater for the training needs of young African professionals. Under the Rabat plan, African students will have greater access to top universities and institutions in both Africa and Europe and incentives would be put in place to encourage students to return home after their studies. 

This, it is envisaged, would be done "through the creation of regional centers of excellence in the South and the support of existing centers". The plan goes further to call for simpler procedures to make it easier for certain categories of people - researchers and students to migrate.  Experts at the conference said the measures must limit what they say are the "harmful effects of selective migration" on African development. Another part of the plan concerns "readmissions agreements" between target transit and source controls so as to facilitate "undocumented" Africans while another deals with the enhanced registration of African migrants. 

There were also proposals to introduce temporary migrant labor schemes for Africans wishing to work in Europe which is promising to give Euro 18 billion (US$22.7 billion) to support its African partners in the coming seven years.  Will this plan work to reduce the loss of Africa's scientists and other skilled personnel? How will Europe address the deliberate poaching of Africa's skilled health personnel by most western countries?  Will Europe's offer be spread to all the African countries, or will it be limited to those in North Africa? 

There are no easy answers to this. It is clear that Europe, just like the United States, is going to enact tough laws to prevent "undocumented" migrants. It will spend a significant chunk of the Euro 18 billion it is promising African countries on fortifying the Mediterranean "Berlin Wall" made of walls and razor wire rather than boosting developmental assistance to the country of origin. 

Critics charge that Europe and the US will never support and address the critical issue of an equitable global distribution mechanism to reduce the flight of African scientists and other skilled people because this would entail serious consequences for the material privileges they enjoy. 

Britain has removed general nurses from its "Skills Shortage Occupation List," a move that will affect thousands of nurses from Zimbabwe and other African countries. Of course, the Home Office will never come out in the open and say we now prefer nurses from Eastern Europe — racism being executed in subtle forms. 

Britain, together with other western countries, has poached nurses, doctors, pharmacists, engineers, researchers and other skilled personnel from Zimbabwe and Africa without a significant commitment to support the country's training institutions. Zimbabwe and other African countries have benefited from the remittances that have in some countries exceeded foreign direct investment and international aid.

While rich nations poach Africa's skilled personnel, it is equally important for rich countries to support universities, colleges and other training institutions in a big way to help fill the gap for those who would have left. 

Most African universities and research institutions are poorly funded and Western countries can mitigate brain drain by funding these institutions adequately to train more scientists and support Africa's scientific development.  Europe and the US spend billions of dollars on enacting tough migration laws and on protecting their borders. This will not help even out the income disparities between their nations and Africa. 

Poverty is the number one enemy that will make the Rabat action plan fail despite all the good intentions. Are Europe and the US prepared to offer support without imposing conditions on the weak countries to help curb migration? Are these countries prepared to support Africa's home-grown solutions to this complex problem? There is an overwhelming feeling that the Rabat plan of action will be ineffectual largely because rich countries are not yet prepared to share the material privileges they enjoy with the poor global south. 

Tsiko is The Black Star News’s Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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