Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Africa's Brain Drain is a Good Thing

Africa needs a timeout from Western aid.

The western approach to African aid is decidedly one dimensional. It entails a vision of vast amounts of people either victimized by the curse of geography (living in a land simply not tenable for humans to flourish) or under the auspice of a cruel dictator. The end note is always one of "helping the helpless," no matter the overall accomplishment of virtually nothing on the grand scheme of things. You can throw money at fighting a blighted landscape or a nasty dictator until your wallet is empty. The end result is always the same. Until the affected people act in their own interests that money buys little more than the satisfaction gained by those that heave it forth, however good their intentions may be.

In essence, for a people to come through whatever it is that finds them downtrodden a good deal of pain is necessary to realize a better amount of pleasure. Consider the much maligned "brain drain" and how it might actually benefit the societies it afflicts:

A small group of economists now argue that brain drain might have a positive impact on Africa. Those skilled workers, their research shows, are often sending significant quantities of money back to their home countries. A March 2008 paper by economists William Easterly and Yaw Nyarko says remittances to Africa are likely undercounted, but on average they are equivalent to 81 percent of the foreign aid (PDF) received by an individual country. A 2005 World Bank study showed that remittances from skilled workers to their families in Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines helped reduce poverty in those countries.

In some cases, talented workers are even returning to their home countries to work or start businesses. Though research on this phenomenon in Africa is limited, economists have documented the effects of Chinese and Indian tech entrepreneurs returning to their home countries. This so-called brain circulation—in which entrepreneurs start new companies but maintain business links in the United States—has been extensively researched by AnnaLee Saxenian of the University of California, who calls these entrepreneurs "The New Argonauts." Some experts believe African skilled workers could have a similar positive effect on their native economies. In an essay in the book, African Brain Circulation, Rubin Patterson of the University of Toledo proposes that African nationals have the opportunity to spearhead an environmental-conscious industrial economy similar to the information economy pioneered by Asian nationals in Silicon Valley during the 1990s.

The long term effect of not subsidizing programs that encourage African intellectuals to chain themselves to a situation of failure far outweighs the short term consequences of the best and brightest leaving their homeland even if only a small percentage return. Additionally, even if building welfare states throughout sub-Saharan Africa proved a tool of stability (it hasn't) what of the culture it induces? Teach a man to fish...


Adrian said...

Teach a man to fish and he will abandon his farm and move to the fishing village.

The problem with remittances being counted as part of the economy is that the remittances aren't actually producing anything. Instead there is just more money in the economy which I imagine would drive up prices, hurting those who don't have relatives in the West sending them money.

In my anecdotal experience, most African emigrants stay in the West and those that move back take government jobs. India and China seem like much more attractive places to start businesses than natural resource-dependent economies like Angola.

Jay@Soob said...

"Teach a man to fish and he will abandon his farm and move to the fishing village."
Lol! Good one.

Good points Adrian. But, in the long term tossing money and maintaining failed infrastructure in Africa has produced what?

What does an effective African approach for the west, both civilian and governmental, look like to you?

Adrian said...

Well tossing money to the governments has just created big bureaucracies that function to gain more aid money for the government and cuts the government off from its tax base. I think something like 'matching funds' that universities do for fundraising might work well: say Uganda puts in $10 million of its own tax money into a highway, Western governments could pledge to match it or something like that. Clearly the current form of aid isnt' working though.