Is the Brain Drain in Ghana a Blame Game or a Brain Gain?

Wed, 5 Sep 2012 Source: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi 31st August 2012

I wonder how many Ghanaian professionals or specialists are in the Diaspora out there in the USA, UK, Australia, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, China, among others. Ghanaians by nature have a penchant and passion for foreign travel. Perhaps in Africa, the Nigerians beat us to it because of their humungous population size (160 million to our 24 million). They are almost 7 times our size.

If one went to the US and UK embassies in Accra, Ghana, one would find droves upon droves of Ghanaians in queues, struggling to obtain visas or to attend visa interviews to make it over there – overseas. Some diehards have spent fortunes without success and have sought the intervention of pastors, diviners, sangomas, ngangas and jujumen to make it happen by hook or crook. It seems to me that the Government of Ghana has not got the exact statistics of her citizens abroad because some of the Ghanaians are highly mobile and they have hidden identities. I might conjecture through an educated guess that there are now about 1 million Ghanaians in the Diaspora.

In the late 70s and during the 80s, the number could have been between 2 or 3 million, because of the mass exodus to oil-rich Nigeria by our teachers, doctors, engineers, artisans etc. Currently, the World Bank estimates that there are 900,000 Ghanaians in the Diaspora. This could be those who have formal papers. The World Bank also estimates that 37% of all Ghanaian trained medical doctors are outside the country. At one time, it was held that about 10 to 20% of Ghanaians lived outside Ghana.

Now, that percentage has fallen to about 4%. On 30th December, 2011, I posted an article on Ghana web with the title, Why are many Ghanaians in the Diaspora? I followed it up with another one on 8th May, 2012, with the title, Are Ghanaian Diasporeans not Ghanaian enough? In this current write-up, I will like to revisit some of these issues and link it to the title of this article. Brain drain is the process whereby highly trained professionals and specialists of their country of origin go in search of greener pastures elsewhere.

In this day and age, this process of brain drain has been highly accelerated by the growth of ICT facilities and the process of globalization. Since independence in 1957, the government of Ghana, with assistance from cooperating partners and donors, has spent incalculable sums of money investing in human capital in training doctors, nurses, engineers, lecturers, teachers, pharmacists, journalists, soldiers, agriculturalists, artisans, scientists, lawyers, accountants, social workers, among others.

Due to poor remuneration and harsh living and working conditions in the late 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, most of our trained professionals and specialists took the risk to emigrate or drift outside the shores of Ghana to go and ply their trade in other well-off countries in Europe, Oceania, North America and the Middle East. In fact, inflation, political instability brought about by coup d’états’, high level of poverty, misgovernance, corruption, tribalism, nepotism and bad cultural practices were some of the push factors (centrifugal) that caused them to emigrate.

Some of our ladies were lured by human traffickers who promised them good jobs overseas only to land them in prostitution and drug trafficking. Some were made domestic servants and sex objects and subjected to inhuman treatment, especially in some Middle East countries. Some women fled Ghana to escape being subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision. Many disillusioned and unskilled school leavers went abroad in search of adventure and to follow their dreams.

One might easily conclude that Ghanaians are highly materialistic and unpatriotic. Far be it from that. For some time after the coup in 1966 which ousted Nkrumah, subsequent governments became selfish, greedy and they did not care a hoot about the welfare of citizens. The leaders became elitist and egocentric. Poor governance led to outright looting of state resources. We thank God that we have come a long way and now our democracy shows a lot of transparency, probity and accountability. Whilst our professionals were treated with disdain by our former politicians on the one hand, they were on the other hand highly venerated and received by outsiders who offered them lucrative jobs.

Back home in Ghana, we find that wages and salaries are relatively very low. Besides, there are many work-related or job-context issues which are not friendly such as tribalism, corruption, apathy, lack of professionalism, nepotism, backbiting, among other ills. This reminds me of Ayi Kwei Armah’s book, The Beautyful Ones are not yet born, in which a newly arrived Ghanaian graduate from UK finds he is up against the grain at his work place, where corruption and kickbacks are the order of the day or stock in trade.

Many of such ills in the Ghanaian system put off many a professional so as to make him want to leave! Our work ethics and attitudes back home are horrible, to say the least. We do not know how to handle interpersonal relationships. Many Ghanaians do not care two hoots if they fly into a temper tantrum in front of serving a client, and they can engage in altercation, trading insults and displaying some uncouth manners. Some workers perceive their jobs as personal-to-holder. They, therefore, fail to deliver services to customers in a professional manner. I have had some bitter experiences of this poor attitude from some personnel of some high profile banks in Accra.

I think we all Ghanaians, including myself, need to take lessons in anger management as well as on how to behave professionally, even when provoked. It is sometimes sad to note that even when it comes to withdrawing money from your account, some bank staff feel jealous and treat you to a cold shoulder or they give you the run around. I shed tears when I hear stories of pensioners who have to make many trips to the SSNIT or SIC offices in Accra, chasing after their terminal benefits. It looks like our much touted decentralization exercise is yet to be fully entrenched in Ghana.

These and many other frustrations have informed and driven many a professional away to venture out to seek refuge outside, as an economic refugee. Others have had to flee home either because they were earmarked to be installed traditional chiefs in their hometowns or that they could not cope with the enormous/ heavy burden of looking after many extended family members. For example, the Akan matrilineal inheritance system puts a heavy burden on uncles, who have to take responsibility for the upkeep of their many nephews and nieces, whose fathers might have divorced their mothers, or may have passed on, or they might have eloped with another wife, or gone into the Diaspora or they are simply around but improvident (kootow!)

Uncles have had to sacrifice the welfare of their own children in order to please the offspring of their siblings. Especially in Ashanti, this avunculocal or avuncular tendency is heavily entrenched so much so that, uncles boast of how they have spent lavishly on their nephews and nieces. Besides financial commitments, uncles play a pivotal role in resolving marital and family disputes, especially in the administration of property or family heirloom, for those who die interstate (without a will). I take myself as an example.

Any time I travel home to visit, my grown up nephews and nieces in their forties and fifties give me no respite as they troop to my house in their numbers to hound me with requests upon requests, such as to buy them fishing gear, give them seed capital for their businesses, help pay school fees for their children (which I often bow to), provide them money to complete their houses, help fund engagements and weddings, ad nausea. You can imagine how hard put to it my wife is, trying to restrain me from overshooting the mark in my spending spree. There are many Ghanaian diasporeans I know of who have not visited Ghana for more than three decades.

This is because they procrastinate. Some genuinely do not have the wherewithal to travel home or some do not have green cards or residence and entry permits, so if they travel to Ghana, they may not be allowed to re-enter if they go back. These are the illegal immigrants who are under deportation threats in countries such as Israel, Japan, UK, USA, among others. Some are ashamed to go back home because it has been so long. Others sold family properties or borrowed money to travel, hoping they would make it big and come home to amortise or discharge their obligations.

These are the desporados who engage in sham or fake marriages with white ladies in order to have legal stay. (I refer readers to two of my poems published on Ghanaweb namely, Toli Toli Stori of Ghanaman in Agege of 27th June, 2011 and The Non-Returnees of 11th January 2012). Hmmmm! A lot of water has gone under the bridge since some diasporeans left many years ago and they will be stunned to see a new Ghana, especially Accra, if they venture home. They may get lost in parts of Accra or they may not be able to locate the lorry station where they can catch a bus to their home towns.

Some opportunistic diasporeans were sponsored by the Ghana government to go and undertake post-graduate studies abroad so that they return home to impart their knowledge and skills but they absconded, showing a clean pair of heels, as it were, turning their back on mother Ghana. Need we blame such? What about some greedy officials in government feathering their nests at the Scholarship Secretariat, and looting government property to build themselves castles and empires. Yes, some of the abscondees or absconders chose to be lured and enticed by the mouth-watering job offers from foreign employers.

Naturally, every human being strives to attain the highest possible indifference curve in production and consumption space, in the process of utility maximization as well as profit maximization (isoquants). This is the theory of global market equilibrium in inter temporal partial analysis of market behavior. This theory posits that in a free market, Pareto Optimality is reached when the marginal utility ratios of consumers equal the marginal rates of technical substitution of producers, such that when the tatonment (Walras) is reached, an attempt to reorganize the market will lead to nobody being better off without making another person worse off (General Equilibrium Theory) Thus, going by Adam Smith’s Theory of the invisible hand and the almighty price mechanism, Pareto efficiency or optimal behavior will ultimately order the market to achieve perfect and efficient allocation of resources in the consumer, producer, factor and macroeconomic markets.

This is granted that there are no market rigidities, information asymmetry, government failure, imperfect markets, and public and merit goods, positive and negative externalities, among other market distortions. Need we live in such idealistic state of Utopian dimensions? The truth is that the topological structure of the socio-politico-economic landscape does not allow for smooth plains. Thus interventions are needed in the form of transfer payments, price controls, subsidies, regulatory framework, fines and penalties.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that in the pursuit of happiness and selfish interest, we eventually serve the public good or promote the public interest (apologies to Adam Smith’s Treatise of 1776, The Wealth of Nations). Some Ghanaians in the Diaspora have burnt the bridge in the sense that they may have ran away with family money or engaged in some financial malfeasance while working back home in some government office. Worst still are those with many children who thought that going into the Diaspora, they would find the elusive Golden Fleece or the imaginary El Dorado, whose streets are paved with gold. They imagined themselves trooping home with big bucks to salvage the impecunious and indigent plight of both their immediate and extended families, and then atone for their sins of their long absence.

Like a mirage, they were lured and mired into irredeemable financial imbroglio in the Diaspora, making their return recede like a whirlwind in the sun. For decades, many diasporeans have been hoping against hope that the big break will occur soon for them to go home. For decades, some have not yet obtained their green cards or residence or work permits. Their European and American dreams are yet to be realized. Yet, most of these still see some light at the end of the pitch dark tunnel. Some Ghanaian diasporeans cannot call it quits and return home because they have married foreign spouses and sowed their wild oats in the four corners of the world.

Some have dual citizenship and they want the best of both worlds, as they are entitled to fat pensions and huge loans or mortgages where they are now. After working in Ghana for say 30 to 40 years, the highest amount an average retiree such as a teacher or nurse will get will not exceed the equivalent of 20,000 or 30,000 dollars. Perhaps, after the implementation of the Single Spine Salary Scale (SSSS), things might improve. However, as it is often stated, money is not everything. There are so many Ghanaians who opted to stay in Ghana and they are far much better off than some of us who voted with our legs to venture out into the Diaspora.

Do we have to blame ourselves? Our exit created chances or elbow room for them to rise like cream to the top. Those of us who left home have lost out on many fronts such as a break in our social networks or bonding with our immediate family members, as well as with our extended families. When we go home, we are strangers to our own kith and kin. Some of those who stayed back home, may have bought themselves expensive cars and built themselves mighty mansions. Some may have cranked levers in the system or crooked their relatives abroad to get this far, or may have cut corners in the system back home in Ghana.

Yet there are those who genuinely worked hard to make it. I know of some teachers and nurses back home who besides their jobs, they took to arable and livestock farming, trading and having second jobs to supplement their incomes. I salute this latter group for their industry and tenacity of purpose. There are those of us in the Diaspora who took to ostentatious and luxurious lifestyles, living on credit cards and doing more than one job, forgetting that this cannot continue ad infinitum. Some diasporeans have made it big in their consultancies, trading and other professions.

Some of these successful diasporeans find it hard to wind up and go home. Equally, those who have not broken through also fear to go back to Ghana, as if they would starve to death if they went home, or they would become street adult beggars. This latter group have become used to the relative high standards of living abroad, such as high quality Medicare, education, efficient transport, high levels of sanitation, among others. They detest the idea of taking their children home to the so called filth, dirt, squalor and disease back home. It is often said that east, west, home is best.

Some Ghanaian burghers/been-tos/diasporeans have lived so long overseas that they have lost touch with many aspects of Ghanaian culture. They have become acculturated anomies or aliens or guest workers. They neither belong to Ghana nor entirely to where they are domiciled, because they try to adjust to living in two worlds, hence they are caught between two stools or on the horns of a dilemma. They have since overcome their cultural shock, yet it is impossible for them to erase their Ghanaianishness or mannerisms.

The harsh reality is that in some instances, they are heavily discriminated against in subtle ways, in terms of promotion on the job, or entitlement to certain citizenship rights. Some Ghanaians abroad have developed sweet tooth and alien taste buds, so much so that they despise our rich traditional dishes such as aprapransa, ampesi, fufu, waakye, banku, emo tuo, koobi, kako, kontomire and egusi stew, okra soup, peanut butter soup, aponkye nkaakra, black star, Ga Kome Ke shito, among others. Some of them say that our foods are full of carbohydrates and starch. Well, that is our lot and we have to be proud of who we are, and our identity.

Some Ghanaians abroad are extremely wealthy, yet they have neglected their alma maters in Ghana, as well as their own parents and siblings. Even though it is granted that living abroad is full of risks and hazards, yet it will be nice to practice some Individual Social Responsibility (ISR) towards our own kith and kin back home. Or is it because some believe in being bewitched, they turn their backs on their own relatives? Hmmm, the Abena Kobuas of this world! In the worst case scenario, some Diasporeans who arrive in Ghana, choose to live in hotels or stay in plush hotels in Accra, without going home to visit and pay homage to their chiefs and people.

Some people overseas have the erroneous notion that the artificial environment they live in is far superior to the low profile and sedate lifestyle back home. I disagree in toto. (Of course, that is my opinion). Quantify and factor in the hidden or imputed cost of stress, strain, alienation, high cholesterol foods, and the inclement weather endured, plus unfriendly or hostile vibes and neighbourhoods, then you realise that there is more to it than meets the eye. Some youths in Ghana swear that they would rather land in overseas jails than famish or face extreme deprivation in Ghana. Some of these youth were the ones who ventured out to Europe by means such as trekking across the Sahara Desert, and then they entered North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, en route to Europe.

From North Africa, they crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boats, barges, ships or any available craft available to enter Southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, France, Cyprus, Israel and Turkey. Some went on to the Middle Eastern oil- rich countries such as Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Stories abound that many perished whilst crossing the Sahara Desert because of thirst, dehydration, exhaustion, and attacks from the Tuaregs and Berbers (desert nomads and marauders).

Many Ghanaians in the Diaspora can be termed as non-returnees. I wonder whether some of these Kpafoka (can never return) know of the services rendered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This outfit can help professionals abroad to relocate, back to their countries of origin, and they are an agency of the United Nations. These Ghanaian Kpafoka, are those who left in the 60s and 70s and have never once touched home. It could be that these have not financially broken even, or they are cash strapped. At this juncture, I pose the question, at what age should one call it quits and go back home?

I think you should not go home when you are too old to be useful to yourself or to your people. In this regard, I propose you can go home when you are in your late fifties or early sixties. However, it all depends on your circumstances. About 10 years ago, I wanted to retire and go home for good, but a friend in South Africa advised that so far as I was not 65 years, I should hang on. Hmm! Are you waiting to build your dream house in Ghana or buy your dream car before you go home?

In conclusion, I pose he question, is the brain drain an indictment on the incompetence of our previous governments, or was it due to some exogenous and extraneous global forces such as our heavy national debt? Has the brain drain accrued more benefits to Ghana than the cost incurred? Do we have the moral high ground to start blaming those who left? Are many diasporeans not good ambassadors of Ghana? Haven’t we lifted high the flag of Ghana in every corner of the global village? What about the Ghanaian quartet at NASA such as Dr Isaiah Blankson, Dr Ave Kludze, Dr Ashitey Tsebi Ollennu, and Dr McBonglurin? What about Busumbrum Kofi Annan, Dr Muhammad Ibn Chambas, renowned drummer; Guy Warren, alias Saka Acquaye, novelist Ayi Kwei Armah, diplomat K.Y.Amoako, Dr T.A Mensah of fibre optics fame, among others?

Many Ghanaians abroad have acquired a lot of knowledge and experience which they can share with those at home. No one should blame anyone who went outside. In a way, it helped to solve the unemployment problem at home and it reduced the socio-politico-economic pressure associated with population explosion. In my opinion, the term brain drain is now a misnomer, especially in a globalised world. National statistics indicate that remittances from Ghanaians abroad now constitute the third largest foreign exchange earner after gold and cocoa.

Thus, the brain drain has turned into a brain gain, thus the blame game should cease. Those who are far away from home should visit Ghana once a while to avoid a disconnect, and to see for themselves developments on the ground. They should not rely solely on foreign media reports or hearsay from travelers. It is said that the sweetness of the pudding is in the eating. If you have ideas, it is half the battle won. Capital can be sourced later. You can come home to a warm Akwaaba. Make it happen soon in your town or village.

It is said that the brain drain had deleterious effects on Ghana’s economy, leading to critical shortages of skilled staff in sectors such as education and medicine. It is held that the falling standard in education in Ghana is due to mass exodus of our teachers. Strangely enough, after the exodus, Ghana has picked up the pieces and our economy is experiencing one of the fastest GDP growths in the world. What is the secret? Is it due to our newly discovered oil wealth? Contact: kwesiattasakyi449@gmail.com

Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta