new curse a crippling brain drain. Its chief cause: us.
SO MUCH FOR FOREIGN AID
new curse a crippling brain drain. Its chief cause: us.
BY LARRY KROTZ • In 1993, when a TutsiHutu conflagration, smaller though not dissimilar to what happened in neighbouring Rwanda a year later, erupted in the tiny central African country of Burundi, 20-year-old Mathilde Nyandwi was one of those to flee the turmoil. Because she was a student with a promising future—she held an accounting diploma and had just enrolled in an economics program at the University of Bujumbura— Nyandwi’s arrival in Montreal made her more than a refugee. Thirteen years on, Nyandwi lives in Winnipeg rather than in Bujumbura; instead of holding a significant position in the economy of her country of birth, she works in Air Canada’s sales department. And she is part of a phenomenon recently given a name: Africa’s brain drain.
If you’ve not heard this term before, you’re not alone. Just when we thought we had a handle on addressing Africa’s problems, a disturbing trend has now emerged: the continent’s best and brightest are leaving, even as their home countries need them most. Some analysts say that as many as 50,000 Ph.D.s, or 30 per cent of Africa’s university trained professionals, currently live and work outside the continent, in Britain, Europe, or North America. Others put the number higher, at 70,000 skilled graduates leaving each year. By any measure, such an exo-
dus is devastating for a continent desperate to get on its feet. It has also weighed in to what is turning out to be a radical reconsideration of the entire proposition of foreign aid.
A short time ago when Western leaders were getting advice on foreign aid from celebrity activists such as Bono and Bob Geldof, all that was needed was money, and more of it. If every rich country could come up with 0.7 per cent of GNP—a kind
of magical number agreed on by the G8 countries in 2002 under something called the Monterrey Consensus—and send it off to places like Africa, the world would be a better place. What a difference a couple of years makes. This season’s pile of books, studies and lectures challenge that conventional wisdom. Too much of what is forked out as foreign aid, they argue, does no good at all. The money is frittered away by inefficient
bureaucrats or finds its way into the bank accounts of kleptomaniac politicians, while the poor remain as desperate as ever. The titles say it all: White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much III and So Little Good, by William Easterly; The Trouble With Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working by Robert Calderisi.
For every expert sent in to help Africa—a doctor, a lawyer— an educated African is leaving
Both Easterly and Calderisi are former World Bank economists; Calderisi, a Canadian, spent more than 20 years in Africa. Nei-
ther denies that poverty on a massive scale persists in the so-called developing world. Nor do they display the anti-aid of for-
mer U.S. congressman Tom DeLay, who sneered famously that foreign aid meant “putting Ghana over Grandma.” But they do point out that over the past 60 years, rich countries have paid, in Easterly’s estimation, US$2.3 trillion for development in poor countries—only to see children in Africa and parts of Asia still dying from entirely preventable diseases, and women still walking miles to collect water or firewood.
No one seems to know where all the money went. Its disappearance has led to the current skepticism over aid’s effectiveness. The old idea that something will eventually trickle down to the truly needful once local elites have lined their pockets no longer does the trick. Tough-minded executives like Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank are exercising zero tolerance on corruption, with no hesitation to freeze loans in the face of it.
Meanwhile, the bureaucracy that accompanies a lot of aid is just as crippling. The African country of Tanzania is reportedly burdened with preparing 2,400 reports each quarter and hosting 1,000 meetings with donors annually—no doubt at great cost. According to a Brookings Institution task force, called Transforming Foreign Assistance in the 21st Century, Tanzanians have concluded that the cost of accepting aid is quite equal to its benefit. Robert Calderisi cites a US$300-million malaria project in which one cent of each dollar spent went to medicine,
one cent to insecticides, six cents to mosquito nets, and 92 cents to training, research, administration and evaluation, most of which returned to Western donor countries in the pockets of consultants.
There are efforts under way to make traditional aid work. The Canadian Parliament is currently considering a bill, C-293, that would legislate that all foreign aid be dedicated strictly to poverty reduction. The almost $3 billion Canada spends each year, argues the bill’s sponsor, Liberal John McKay, should be kept away from supporting every “flavour of the week”: security, government support, police training in Haiti, rebuilding issues in Afghanistan. “The core values of Canadians,” he says, “support poverty reduction.”
But the issues that most perpetuate underdevelopment, according to critics of traditional aid, are often actually made worse by aid. According to International Monetary Fund researchers Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian, aid inflows can have systematic adverse effects on a country’s competitiveness. Consider Africa—one of the deepest sinkholes for foreign aid. As Calderisi points out, in the past 30 years Africa lost half of its foreign markets for export products, mostly to other, more efficient, developing nations. The cost in revenue to the continent: $70 billion a year. Africa currently represents only two per cent of the value of world trade, a number that has jumped up from one per cent only due to current high oil and copper prices. He also notes that 40 per cent of African savings are deposited not at home, where the capital would presumably do some local good, but in banks outside the continent.
Substantial African voices have joined the discussion. One of the more prominent is Kenyan economist, James Shikwati. Shikwati is viewed cautiously by some Westerners because of his ties to American neo-conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, but no one can dismiss the publicity he has gained. “For God’s sake, please stop the aid,” he told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview earlier this year. Shikwati’s main critique is that aid money not only supports huge bureaucracies but promotes corruption and complacency. “Africans are taught to be beggars,” he said. Shikwati believes aid weakens local economies and defeats “the spirit of entrepreneurship,” something his country desperately needs. If the West were to cancel these payments, he argues, normal Africans wouldn’t even notice. “Only the functionaries would be hard hit.”
And then there is the brain drain. The British government’s Commission for Africa last year suggested that the number of skilled migrants leaving the continent is pretty close to the number of foreign technical experts being sent in as part of international NGO projects or foreign aid packages. In other words, for every expert sent to help Africa— a medical professional, engineer, lawyer, governmental analyst, environmental planner— an educated African national is exiting in the other direction. Alex Nunn, an economist at Leeds Metropolitan University who undertook a study of the migration for the British Association of University Teachers, allows that migration statistics are notoriously imprecise; still, the trend is incontestable, as is its price tag. “A larger homegrown skills base would be beneficial for all sorts of reasons,” he says, “including lowering dependency on foreign expertise which, as history tells us, does not come value-free.” There are also social costs: the lost history, culture, local ways of thinking and an overreliance on externally developed knowledge.
Commenting on people’s migration is a delicate business because nobody, in a glob-
alized world, is going to begrudge anyone’s right to pursue better opportunities for personal security or happiness. And there is a certain level of hypocrisy to lamentations about Africa’s out-migration. Western countries benefit greatly from the skills and education Africans bring with them and are not, as such, idle or passive observers. The Commission for Africa accused the British health care system of actively poaching African professionals, and has levelled the same charge at Canada. One industry observer comments that if it weren’t for Zimbabweans and Zambians, the British health care system would collapse. (Nurses in those countries are trained within a system held over from colonial days that gives them more all-around skills than graduates of current Western programs, so they are considered very valuable to Britain.) Not only have a number of Canadian provinces benefited from foreign doctors and nurses, some have undertaken deliberate ventures to recruit them. A decade ago, Manitoba was sending recruitment packages to lure doctors from South Africa to staff its northern medical centres.
But what can or should be done other than, as the British teachers union has suggested, compensating African countries? Intelligent African governments, Robert Calderisi notes, are trying to come up with strategies to lure their migrants back, and sympathetic Western governments and aid programs might try to find ways to support that. UNESCO recently announced a joint project with the computer giant, Hewlett-Packard, that would provide grid technology to universities in five African countries, in an attempt to “reverse the effects of the brain drain by connecting scientists who have stayed in their native countries with those who have left.”
The international community might also take note that efforts to keep countries stable and civil are more critical to the future of a continent like Africa than simply pouring in money. Burundi’s real poverty is not simply material but that it persists in being the kind of place that drives out people like Mathilde Nyandwi. Nyandwi herself has taken tentative steps to visit relatives left behind when she fled as a refugee. She says that though the political situation is not yet stable enough that she would feel comfortable living there, she hopes someday to be able to return. Meanwhile, she has started a small business exporting Canadian-made clothing to Burundi using the profits to help her family there. “My long-term dream,” she says, “is to make enough money to start a hospital where Burundian doctors could work with visiting Canadian doctors.” A hospital in Burundi that employs Burundian doctors—what a novel idea. M
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