: Is Anybody Listening?
By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor
Over the years, our various governments have expressed strong misgivings against the impact of the brain-drain on the country’s economy. They are known to have loudly exhorted Ghanaians to stay back home and contribute their quota to national development. Much of that appeal to conscience appears to have fallen on deaf ears. I don’t have figures to support the claim I have in mind; but evidence suggests that the problem persists—and is likely to worsen all the more because of unfavorable conditions in the local job market. Ghanaians know how to get their bread buttered.
On the surface, the lack of gainful employment avenues and demoralizing conditions of service are brought up as the main causes of this problem of brain-drain. Hardly does anybody go beyond the surface to look at the problem from other perspectives. I want to bring up one of the major causes with the view to arousing interest in it as part of the daunting challenges that the current government must tackle, even if its efforts will be in the form of something minimal for now. The hope is that future governments could build on this initial effort. Something must be done before the situation worsens. I have in mind the fate of Ghanaian students who qualify for further education and training in other countries and how they are left on their own to face the whirligig of time as if it is a curse for them to excel in their fields and be admitted into foreign institutions to be prepared for the world of work. I am speaking from experience and on behalf of many voiceless others who have had to brave the storm to achieve their goals. Restricted by immigration regulations, these students cannot work to support themselves but manage to survive mostly by the proverbial “Ghanaian magic.”
By the end of their further education and training, the conditions for their brains to be drained to support other systems would already have been laid. Who says that they will want to return home on their own volition to a country that disowned them in their efforts to gain expertise?
Unless anything drastic is done, these well educated and properly trained Ghanaians will continue to divert their attention and energies to other countries to the detriment of Ghana. Even if conditions in Alaska, Greenland, or Iceland attract them, they will go there and become African Eskimos!! Numerous opportunities for mobilizing these human resources for national development have either been glossed over or allowed to slip by because of the irresponsible attitude of officialdom. Then, when the harm is already done, the same government officials turn round to blame almost everybody except themselves for the country’s failure to benefit from the resources of its citizens.
Our underdevelopment is not an accident but the result of many years of wayward policies and misguided political gimmickry. This pattern of misdirected policy formulation and implementation must cease if we are to make any headway in using our human resources for national development.
When our politicians make ugly noise about the brain-drain and its negative impact on the country, they forget to blame themselves as a major part of the problem. They forget that blaming those who leave for better opportunities elsewhere is not the solution to the problem but a glaring admission of our failure as a country to build a strong labor pool for the country’s benefit (as India and China have done). Over the years, these politicians have been quick to point accusing fingers at others but very annoyingly slow in doing anything concrete to tackle the problem at its root. They seek public funds for their own narrow selfish ends instead of the public good and then turn round to mock us as “lazy” (á la John Agyekum Kufuor, former President).
Listen to Alban Bagbin, Majority Leader: “… We also looked at the needs of needy students and provisions have been made also to respond to brilliant students who otherwise cannot pay for a lot of the services that are rendered in the institutions.”
His utterance is a mere empty hot air—an integral part of the continuing fruitless political rhetoric! Even at the local level, the government fails. How about the overseas one?
Where is the evidence that the government is seriously supporting “needy students” when most of those who qualify for further education locally and in other countries cannot realize their aspirations for lack of funds or material support? When the University of Ghana, for instance, has already sounded the alarm that it would cut down by 25% its admission of candidates for programmes in the next academic year (for lack of facilities to support them)? Let’s face facts here. Most Ghanaian students who have found their ways into other countries for further education have had to do so through their own resources or the goodwill of others. One needs only monitor what happens in the lives of such students to know how useless our national leaders have been all this while. None of them seems to know the value of further education, especially in circumstances that would give the students all the facilities they need for their education and the motivation that would bring them back home at the end of their education and training.
Those of us who were “lucky” (if suffering the woes of privation could be described as lucky) to leave the country for further studies in the United States, for instance, were fortunate to be introduced to several facilities that we managed to use to establish our lives in departments of life that we hadn’t dreamt of while in Ghana. We could do so because the facilities were available and the system enhanced our efforts to adapt to the training situation. In effect, we have become more comfortable in this “home-away-from-home.”
In Ghana, accessing anything of the sort would be like trying to force a river to flow upstream. Even the mythical Hercules couldn’t do so. The lack of opportunities for post-graduate level education and the oppressive nature of our educational institutions are serious limitations. In effect, there are more needy students than our system recognizes or makes allowances to support. Our governments have worsened the situation by being clueless. It goes to tell us that our leaders have been negligent and must be blamed for the problems that hinder human resource development and use.
Under this circumstance, it is clear that no amount of exhortations will sway anybody to return home. Where are the avenues to absorb them even if they heed such “political rhetoric” and return home? What opportunities are available for those people to use their training and expertise to advance the cause of national development? When evidence exists to prove that there are already teeming numbers of unemployed youth, some of whom have graduated from the universities and polytechnics with the requisite qualifications but are jobless?
The main question now is: How does the government do things to ensure that they get into gainful employment should anybody choose to return home? I am not asking the government to be the sole employer of these people but, at least, it can soften the grounds if it enunciates policies to enhance efforts by the private sector to take up that responsibility. Is there any consistent program or agenda for this purpose? I shudder to say “No!”
The disturbing silence of the various governments over the issue is not only painful but it is also a clear demonstration of their shortsightedness and visionlessness. How can anybody expect the country to tap into its human resources when there is no commitment on the part of officialdom to support those who make it to other countries for further education or training in preparation for the real world of work?
In their electioneering campaigns none of the political parties said anything about the fate of Ghanaian students seeking further education outside the country and how they would be supported. Their manifestoes don’t contain any provision of this sort either. What do they think they can achieve without looking far afield?
One would have thought that the NPP government (that raised its empty boasts to a senseless crescendo that it was made up of the cream of Ghanaian intellectuals) would have taken steps to reverse the trend. Woefully, it failed to do so as it allowed its boasts to cloud its good sense of management of national affairs. It was more interested in grabbing political capital through ROPAA and bogus considerations of dual citizenship than investing in the training of Ghanaians for the country’s benefit. Even those with dual citizenship were disfranchised and prevented from holding public office!! Now, we have an academic leading the NDC government (President Mills, I mean). One expects him to know the value of quality education and technical training so as to ensure that something drastic is done to support Ghanaian students wishing to further their education outside the country. Husky claims about government’s readiness to support the ICT revolution and making Ghana the “Gateway to Africa” will end up in smoke if appropriate steps are not taken to establish the much-needed labor pool.
Here are some of the measures to be taken to tackle the problem: 1. Immediate steps to overhaul the Scholarship Secretariat or to disband it altogether. I will explain soon why this suggestion.
2. An institution (to cover the various countries that are noted for admitting Ghanaian students (the US, Britain, etc.) must be established, adequately funded, and tasked to coordinate activities of those who have applied for further studies outside the country. In this sense, initial steps can be taken to give the applicants all the support they need in terms of preparations to leave the country (acquiring Ghanaian passports, visas for the countries of their destination, and other travel-related exigencies). Is it too difficult for the government of Ghana to liaise with the foreign missions in the country to assist students with genuine documents from the educational or other training institutions in countries that have offered them admission as they prepare to proceed to those institutions? How about providing monthly stipends for them when they begin their studies or training? The Indian and Chinese governments do so for their students.
3. We have also had something in the form of an “Eastern Scholarship” that supported Ghanaian students proceeding to the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe for further studies. I don’t know what has become of that support base.
4. A database must be created to ensure that the activities of these beneficiaries are monitored and that they return home at the end of their training. Appropriate penalties must be instituted and enforced against defaulters. A far-reaching measure (supported by law) could be in the form of blacklisting all defaulting beneficiaries to prevent them from holding any public office. To the extreme, such defaulters must be prosecuted and made to refund whatever was spent on their education.
5. Entering into bilateral agreements with the various countries absorbing these Ghanaian students for them to be recognized and supported in diverse ways. Students from India and China who study in the United States enjoy this kind of concession under the bilateral agreements that their countries have signed with the US. In filing their annual tax returns, for instance, these students are exempted from some deductions because of the provisions of such agreements. They enjoy better opportunities because their governments have done the right thing to provide the safety net for them. Why can’t the government of Ghana do the same for its nationals?
6. There must be a consistent program of action to determine who qualifies for official funding in this case. A threshold must be established and strictly enforced to give people the chance to seek support and to get it.
7. We must use our foreign missions to create a database of foreign-trained/educated Ghanaians who are working outside the country so that their activities can be monitored and supported (be it moral or whatever). After all, their remittances feed the national economy.
The existing mechanisms for support are too restrictive and discriminatory. Take, for instance, the Scholarship Secretariat. In its activities, it appears to exist for only those who have connections with the powers-that-be. Support from it is reserved for those who know how to grease palms or use officialdom to pull strings. When was the last time anybody heard anything about what this Secretariat has done over the years? It is not out-of-place to demand that the list of beneficiaries be compiled for us all to scrutinize. Where are they today? Does anybody care to know?
Freedom of information demands that the activities of this Secretariat and all others responsible for dispensing public funds are made known. Their management should account for their stewardship. There must be transparency in their functions. Let them open their books to the public to examine. We want to know how much money has been allocated to this Scholarship Secretariat and how much it has spent to support Ghanaian students studying outside the country. It is only then that we will know how such an institution serves (or fails to serve) the national interest—for which it was established, anyway.
The bare fact is that most Ghanaian students studying outside have had to depend on their own efforts and limited resources because of lack of support from government and its institutions. I am fully informed about the struggles that most have had to face to be able to pay their tuition, other fees, and rent, and to feed themselves. Their circumstances could be better observed than described. After going through all these debilitating circumstances, they manage to complete their programs and look for job opportunities wherever possible except back in Ghana.
The number of those who choose to return to Ghana is negligible. Such people may do so because they know that their political connections will fetch them what they want. The majority don’t even think of turning their faces toward Ghana because they know they will only be jumping from the frying pan into hot, scathing fire. In effect, those who manage to survive the vagaries of the situation are not motivated in any way to return home. In the first place, that “home” didn’t contribute anything toward making them what they are today. So, wherein lies the justification for anybody to point gossiping fingers at any of these educated Ghanaians who choose not to return home after their training?
In the first place, the government has distanced itself from the training needs of these people and has no moral justification to urge them to return home to “help build Ghana” after their training.
Secondly, by denying these people the support that they need, the government has already proved to be an irresponsible “father” and must not deceive itself that it can use appeals to conscience to change matters. It won’t wash with anybody; and the brain-drain will continue to be our country’s bane.
Viewed against the current economic malaise that is endangering the political agenda of countries worldwide, many governments may fear to tread where angels themselves fear to pass; but I daresay that any bold and pragmatic measure that President Mills and his government take now to lay the foundation for a better future in human resource development will help them better than if they cower before the problems that some of us bring to their notice. The time has come for “political rhetoric” to give way to sensible policies to advance the cause of Ghana. The brain-drain must stop being our own making. More importantly, we shouldn’t continue to be seen by others as an accident of history.