Africa’s experience with human capital flight

Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea suffered many causalities for lacking enough medical personnel when they were hit by the Ebola virus epidemic back in 2014 when the number of physicians to citizens in these countries was 0.1 to 1,000 people at the time

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BY ANOTNY MUTUNGA

Migration has become one of the major solutions for many people, especially those in developing countries looking to fulfill their dreams or simply feed their families. However, people in the developed and least developed countries feel the effects of migration differently.

Most people in developed countries, which are the most likely destination for people who are looking to better their lives, normally think of migration as incomers coming to compete for their jobs at a lower wage. While on the other hand, least developed countries see migration as losing their best and brightest to the developed world.

The developed world has come up with intriguing ways to lure graduates into staying rather than leaving and going back to their home countries. In addition, most of those who are learned from developing countries end up deciding to immigrate to developed countries as a result of unemployment.

This in turn has caused what is referred to as human capital flight or as it is better known, brain drain. It is a major problem for the least developed countries that lose young and skilled workers that could potentially serve as doctors, engineers and innovators. In Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea for instance suffered many causalities because they lacked enough medical personnel when they were hit by the Ebola virus epidemic back in 2014. At the time the number of physicians to citizens in these countries was 0.1 to 1,000 people.

According to African Capacity Building Foundation, more than 20,000 people leave Africa for the developed world every year. This in turn causes these countries to experience a fall in their economic growth and even though some nations still receive aid from developed countries, without the skilled personnel to appropriately use the aid for development, it is usually of little help to the economy. As a result, the financial aid usually ends up being misused, as those left to be in charge do not always have the right skills to handle the task.

The economy of these least developed countries also takes a hit in terms of tax revenues, which are quite important for development. Whenever African countries lose their skilled personnel, they lose the potential tax revenues they would have accrued from these individuals if they had stayed in the country.

This makes a bad situation worse as most African countries already suffer from inability to collect enough tax revenues to reach their target. Kenya Revenue Authority, for example, was unable to reach its target for the year 2016/2017 falling short by Sh50 billion as it collected Sh1.365 trillion instead of Sh1.415 billion

Apart from losing tax revenue, the government also ends up losing on their long term investments in terms of trained personnel. Most African governments financially aid several individuals across different sectors ensuring they get quality education and the right skills. However, after acquiring the skills some individuals tend to leave the country thus making the investment inconvenient, as it does not in return help in the development of the country. Ever since Devolution started in Kenya, many health workers trained by the government have opted to leave the country for greener pastures stating salary delays, poor working conditions and low remuneration as the main reasons. This in turn has seen the number of doctors to the population decrease thus posing a problem for our growing nation. 

As the number of skilled personnel diminishes in a developing country due to brain drain, so do the chances of the country sustaining a high level of economic growth. This is as a result of having an inexperienced work force. When skilled personnel decide to emigrate in large numbers, those left behind are left to hold up the positions that they may have little to no experience to hold.

However, human capital flight does not affect all African countries the same, for example countries like Rwanda have been able to keep a hold onto a majority of their skilled personnel. At the same time, the country has also been able to attract international talent. Even though many African countries are not in a similar position, they have been able to accrue some advantage from the brain drain.

All is not lost as a majority of those who end up migrating from Africa usually still contribute to their home economies through remittances. Many of those who leave for greener pastures end up finding jobs that pay much better than what they would have gotten had they remained in their home countries. As a result, they usually send money back home to their relatives’ thus pumping money into the economy of their home countries. According to data from World Bank remittances to developing countries stood at $429 billion with those to sub-Saharan Africa alone standing at $33 billion.

The assumption that those who leave never come back does not always hold. In some cases those who leave their home countries usually return and in doing so come back with new skills that might help in developing the country more. The returnees also bring about new investments in terms of creating opportunities by starting their own businesses. This helps in creating employment and contributing towards the growth of the economy.

Human capital flight is an important issue especially for developing countries. Regardless of the advantages that it accrues, African governments need to understand that the risk of brain drain is real. They need to put up measures that ensure that people do not necessarily have to leave to get jobs. For those who have already left, the governments need to come up with incentives that will prompt them to return. This way the African continent will be able to grow and through its people it will be able to catch up in terms of development.