The Political Economy of Brain Drain and Brain Gain

Thu, 3 Oct 2013 Source: Kwarteng, Francis

A Question of Development: The Political Economy of Brain Drain and Brain Gain—Part l

The philosophy undergirding the science of “development," personal and national, is a captivating subject, to say the least. If you remember very well, we have taken long dives into several aspects of “development” along the way. And by “definition” we mean “the systematic use of scientific and technical knowledge to meet specific objectives or requirements or an extension of the theoretical aspects of a concept, design, discovery, or invention” (BusinessDictionary.com)).

Admittedly, “positive” development takes good care of the psychologies of individual and national health. On the other hand, “negative” development invariably saps the creative potential of a people, buries them in sepulchral ignorance, helplessness, psychological inertia, and clothes them in the tattered poncho of anomie. Today, we shall look at the sociological and econometric correlation between “brain drain” and “brain gain,” on the one hand, and Ghana’s development, on the other hand. The former, “brain drain,” we shall defer until the sequel becomes available. Quite interestingly, the two concepts deceptively follow the physics of Newton’s Third Law of Motion.

What is brain drain? “Brain drain refers to the emigration (out-migration) of knowledgeable, well-educated and skilled professionals from their home country to another country,” according to Jessia Karpilo, a geography and journalism student at the University of Denver.

What factors drive the social, political, cultural, and economic engine of brain drain? “The availability of better job opportunities in the new country,” adds Jessia. “Other factors that can cause brain drain include: War or conflict, health risks, and political instability,” she concludes.

Are there possibilities that the general public is misinformed about the sociology and political economy of brain drain? Obviously. Let’s see a few of them. Drs. William Easterly and Yaw Nyarko, both professors at New York University’s prestigious Leornard N. Stern of Business, have some important observations to share with us about the political economy of brain drain (Paper: “Is the Brain Drain Good for Africa?” Brookings Global Economy and Development Working Paper No. 19”).

“Contrary to a lot of the worries expressed in the media and in aid agencies, the brain drain is probably a net benefit to the source countries,” both write. They also identify the following diacritical misconceptions:

1. The brain drain is not large enough to have much effect on Africa’s skill gap relative to the rest of the world. Since other regions had a larger brain drain, the skill gab between Africa and the rest would actually be larger in a counterfactual world of NO brain drain with the same amount of skill creation.

2. The gains to the migrants themselves and their families who receive indirect utility and remittances more than offset the losses of the brain drain. According to our calculations, the present value of remittances more than covers the cost of educating a brain drainer in the source country.

3. Brain drain has a positive effect on skill accumulation that appears to offset one for one the loss of skills to the brain drain. Hence it’s not surprising that we fail to identify any negative growth of the brain drain. The two then conclude with a caveat: “Although some of our exercises are reliant on special assumptions and shaky data that require further investigation, we conclude based on what we can know in this paper that the brain drain is on balance good for Africa.”

This is both sociologically good and technically insightful. However, the caveat implies we don’t read too much into the predictive power of their sociological, economic, and statistical analysis. That notwithstanding, they’ve given us a useful working template from which to further or advance our discussion. As an aside, we have discussed with Dr. Nyarko several questions affecting the African world, “female genital mutilation” amongst them, but not with the particular question related to the political economy of brain drain. We wish they had examined the net benefit of brain drain in terms of real physical development, human intellectual capacity, and technology transfer to Ghana (and Africa). Part of the remittances may have directly gone into drugs, prostitution, arm robbery, environmental pollution, failed entrepreneurial projects, etc.

In the meantime, their theoretical conclusions leave with us with a few unexplained bothers, such as the following corollary question: Why don’t we, Ghana and Africa, institute the necessary social, cultural, political, and economic conditions to arrest the “problem” of brain drain? My concern coincides with Rev. Otabil’s fearless claim that “Africa is suffering from poverty of policies.” Admittedly, we have not always taken to everything he had said in the past but he seems to have made an important observation. Our leaders should not be angered by it. Then again, a professor at the Marketing and Innovation at China European International School, Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, says “Ghana lacks innovative leaders.”

Moreover, the political-religious context of Rev. Otabil’s statement is not our primary bother. The statement’s sociological and psychological import is what we have chosen to appropriate as well as to explore in some detail. After all, the religious politics of Moses is not the political world of Kwame Nkrumah. Neither is the religious politics of Christ the political world of Rev. Otabil. Theirs, Moses’ and Christ’s, dealt with questions related to the political capitalism of otherworldliness. Our modernism, on the other hand, deals with political materialism. Meanwhile, Nyarko seems to have the answers to our question. Let’s look at them. In the paper “The Returns to the Brain Drain and Brain Circulation in Sub-Saharan Africa: Some Computations Using Data from Ghana,” he writes that based on their research: 1. There may be room for creative thinking about the possibility that the brain drain provide mechanisms for dramatic increases in education levels within African nations; and 2. By at least one metric, spending by African nations on higher education in this period yielded positive returns on the investment. Our results on the individual decision problem resolve a paradox in the returns to education which finds low returns to tertiary education. The problem of “brain drain” and its postulated net benefit to the economies of Ghana and Africa may be a tricky one. In my article “End of The Dilemma: The Tower of Babel—Part lll,” I raised the combined problem of ethnicity, discrimination, affirmative action, and brain drain in Malaysia. In an article in “The Guardian” titled “Malaysia At Economic Crossroads As It Fights The Great Brain Drain,” Dustin Roasa writes: “By moving to countries such as Singapore, Australia, and the UK, these migrants are creating a considerable brain drain that threatens the country’s economic progress. Brain drain is hurting the country’s drive to move up the value chain…The fact that Malaysians fill many of the top and middle management posts in the region, from Shanghai to Singapore, tells us that the country is bleeding talent.” The paper cites higher overseas pay and race-based affirmation action as the two major forces driving brain drain. But how is the Malaysian government addressing the rising tide of brain drain? Roasa writes: “The Malaysian government is attempting to respond to the problem with an array of programmes, including 1Malaysia, a campaign designed to ease racial tensions…In January, Prime Minister Najib Razak launched the Talent Corporation, which seeks to lure back skilled Malaysians…” What is Ghana and Africa doing to reverse the situation? Abacha’s kleptocratic politics drove away Wole Soyinka into exile, so did the colonialist politics of Kenya chase away Ngugi wa Thiong’s, and Somali’s protracted conflict sent Farah Nuruddin to the end of the world. The “net benefit” magic wand is a bitter-sweet pill for us to swallow. Another contrary example: South Africa’s Aparthied-era (excluding the sanction period) economy was relatively stronger than the post-Apartheid economy. However, after black leadership took over the political affairs of the country many wealthy whites snatched their money, which, of course, belonged to Black South Africa, their innovative ideas and their technologies for fear of black retribution descending on their guilty heads, and sneaked out of the country. Even Nadine Gordimer and J.H. Coetzee, two white South African literary giants and Nobel laureates, have left the country, with Coetzee seeking Australian citizenship. If our information is correct, Gordimer, it appears, currently resides in the US (we stand to be corrected). The global economic turndown, mismanagement, declining prices of minerals on the international market, and corruption may definitely be part of the equation of social distortions, but, we also believe, other forces, such as those we have listed above, are also at play in the poor performance of South Africa’s post-Aparthied economy. Yes, the economy of South Africa is one of the strongest and largest on the continent, but what if the innovative ideas, technologies, and money had stayed in the country? Despite the immigration of ideas, technologies, and money to Australia, America, Canada, and the UK, the volume of South Africa’s trade to the rest of Africa increased to $21 billion, during the mid-2000s to the late 2000s. We bring this up to show that Ghana and African can solve many of their internal problems by increasing intra-African trade, regional and continental, as well as by upping their scientific and technological collaboration; it’s what South Africa’s Jeanette Ndhlovu calls “Afro-pessimism.” This is also why our governments must create conducive entrepreneurial atmospheres for local innovations. Could Ghana turn its “Hope City” into Africa’s Silicon Valley? We wait to see! Are our government and wealthy individuals, here and abroad, willing to invest in indigenous innovation? “Africa is known to have resources and some wealthy African individuals—including people within the diaspora—with a solid connection to their country of origin. They can surely invest more into the private sectors in Africa, transfer their skills or even be their mentors. These tech hubs need all the help they can get from these individuals, but we know there is a deficit of trust amongst Africans and rarely see these people invest into sectors they not familiar with,” writes Mariame Jamme, a France- and UK-based CEO, social entrepreneur, technologist, and blogger. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I thought that was a way to develop Africa and to get wealthy,” says Herman Chinnery-Hesse adding: “It was very good. I didn’t want to go back abroad because second-class citizenship did not quite appeal to me…It’s not easy but it’s not impossible. I don’t think I am a genius. I think anybody can do it if their head is in the right place, and they’re prepared to wait the years. The trick is that I went into business not expecting to get rich in two years…I think there’s so much opportunity in Africa…If you’ve the mind, take the dive. Great Chinnery-Hesse. Dropifi, the first African (Ghanaian) startup on Silicon Valley, has done it. Ashifi Gogo’s Sproxil has done it. Patrick Awuah, Jr. has done it. Fred Swaniker has done it. South Africa’s billionaire Patrick Motsepe has pledged to donate half of his wealth to a noble cause, that is, to eradicate poverty in Africa (of course, we different between “pledging” and “actuality; it’s a good start nonetheless). Who says the African doesn’t have the “gene” of philanthropy? This is where we have decided to bring the discussion to a close. “But, I say, all of this must change. We as Africans have an opportunity to shape our own destiny, work together and collaborate more. We must seize the opportunity and enable the communities around us. Our great communal force is needed to make this work. All of us need to get involved,” writes Mariame Jamme. In the sequel, “Ghana’s Developmental Challenges: The Political Economy of Brain Drain and Brain Gain—Part ll,” we shall explore the questions of “the brain drain loss” and “possible brain drain gain.” We must add that the latter represents the central question addressed by Dr. Nyarko, et all. We shall also expand our discussions to include some Asian case studies, to try to understand the measures they have adopted to address the political economy of brain drain, and to see whether a methodological correlation can be drawn between the Asian condition and the African condition. Until then, hold tight…

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis