Africa’s Brain Drain Revisited: Complexities, Consequences, and Contemplations

“Brain drain” is defined as a significant and recurrent exodus characterized by the mass migration of a specific demographic, predominantly made up of highly skilled professionals across various disciplines. Also referred to as ‘human capital flight’, the phenomenon occurs for various reasons, with some claiming that it is motivated by the pursuit of improved standards of living, enhanced quality of life, increased remuneration, opportunities for advanced technology access, and more stable political environments. 

While the above definition is popularly adopted, the true intricacies of the term surpass the mere migration of specific demographics. The term “brain drain” carries inherent biases, with implicit interpretations of economic and social well-being, alongside assertions regarding factual circumstances. In fact, as Johnson has stated, the mere inclusion of “drain” denotes some pejorative or negative connotation, that the phenomenon is unwanted.

Yet, the literature is separated into three factions: the neutralists, the optimists, and the pessimists. The neutralists, argue that while skilled migration leads to a loss in human capital, it’s balanced by remittances and assets left behind. This perspective emphasizes short-term adjustment costs and market inefficiencies, attributing long-term negative consequences to market failure in resource allocation. Proponents suggest that individual migrants can increase their income abroad, benefiting collective welfare. They also contend that negative perceptions are driven by nationalism and that brain drain may increase global welfare by facilitating innovation and positive externalities in developing countries.

The optimists argue that skilled migration could actually benefit developing countries by boosting human capital and economic performance. Scholars like Mountford,9 Stark et al., and Beine et al. argue that if migration isn’t guaranteed, brain drain might encourage skill development and productivity growth in the home countries, outweighing the negative effects. They propose that maintaining a balance, where emigration probabilities aren’t too high, is key for this positive outcome. In essence, brain drain could be a “blessing in disguise,” offering potential benefits as long as skill depletion is managed. 

Contrarily, the pessimistic view on brain drain emphasizes its negative impact on the countries left behind. Scholars like Bhagwati and Hamada argue that the neutral perspective overlooks key limitations, including the loss of skilled labor for those remaining, or when governments have subsidized education. This strand of thought highlights various negative consequences, such as increased inequality between developed and developing countries, reduced human capital accumulation,and labor market rigidities leading to unemployment among educated labor. 

Overall, brain drain is seen as a negative externality, perpetuating a “zero-sum game” that necessitates international mechanisms, such as “brain tax,” to compensate sending countries. Docquier affirms these assertions by summarizing thusly: the social returns of human capital surpass its private returns due to various externalities, leading to significant losses for countries experiencing brain drain, exacerbated by fiscal costs as high-skilled emigrants fail to repay educational debts and shortages in key professions, ultimately widening the technological gap between advanced and developing nations.

To exemplify this unwantedness, as it were, Kenya provides a wonderful example, since its brain drain occurrences have been described as a “long-standing issue”. Compounding the Kenyan experience is the lack of systemic data that has collated the exact number of skilled persons lost to brain drain. Despite this historical challenge, recent measures taken by President William Ruto point to efforts to further exacerbate the already “long standing issue”. For instance, just this year, President Ruto has been recorded by outlets as promising the sending of up to 5,000 nurses to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia every week. While the legal or general framework of the plan remains at best quite unknown, or at worst non-existent, the implementation of such a policy has met criticism by those cognizant of Kenya’s need for homegrown talent. Indeed, further, it is unclear if any nurse has left Kenyan land for Saudi Arabia in response or as a result of the plan; again, the mere implementation of the policy is impugnable. 


Kenya is not the only African country whose talented populace is being lured away from within the continent. The African Union has categorically reported that Africa loses 70,000 skilled professionals each year. Youth, in particular, seem to want away from their home country at an alarming rate (52%), citing reasons such as job and educational opportunities. 

That said, the discussion points thus far are twofold: a detailed disposition on what brain drain means and that African’s do not seem to want to stay in their continent or home country. With this in mind, the question then becomes whether the fact that African countries are continuously losing their citizens is a bad thing. In other words, is there a detrimental brain drain, or a gainful brain drain? Put even simpler, should the average reader of this piece be an optimist, a neutralist, or a pessimist regarding Africa’s brain drain?

To answer this, some context needs to be set. For starters, Africa’s brain drain is exceptional. From available data the global brain drain rate is steady at 4.8%; contrastingly, Africa’s is at 13.2% and climbing. Thus, while optimists may argue that brain drain encourages skill development, or that it boosts remittances to source countries, the case for Africa may be different, given that it is an exception to the rule on brain drain. Furthermore, literature specific to African brain drain seem to consistently state that brain drain is harming the continent.

For instance, Stella Capuano and Abdeslam Marfouk concluded that migration of skilled persons (such as health professionals) and its impact on public health is “a plague…and its… impacts… are worrying”; women represent a major component of skilled migration and their increased migration is equally worrisome; African countries are developing, and the money they spend on persons who eventually move away  amounts to a loss of resources. Equally, for optimists, the most convincing argument is that of ‘brain gain’ – i.e, the prospect of increased remittance in source countries. Even then, if one is to look at the brain gain approach, there is already existing work that cites the need for policy barriers that limit migration for brain gain to occur. However, it is difficult to argue that this is the case in Africa, with Kenya being a supremely apt example of the same, as stated earlier.

Lastly, some could argue that Africa’s young, and rapidly rising population may be competent enough to plug the brain drain. However, this may be problematic for various reasons. For one, this argument assumes that the population increase fits squarely with the skillset, profession, and intellectual capacity of those who have left. Second, it also does not take into account that Africa has ground to make with regards to infrastructure, including educational infrastructure. Thus, there is always going to be a challenge with trying to ensure effective deployment of the rising population, and youth, to achieve widespread growth.  

All this notwithstanding, there is still the proverbial elephant in the room that raises a peculiarity: Africa seems to be benefitting, at the hundred billion mark, from remittances. They are also key to African economies and provide a steady source of external income. In fact, it appears to be why some Heads of State have encouraged the migration of their citizens. For instance, Kenya’s President William Ruto has not shied away from claiming that he is banking on the remittance from diaspora Kenyans, to help with Kenya’s unemployment problem, and the struggling economy.

What then, is the solution? Or rather, is there some conclusion that can be fashioned? It is clearly a very complex issue that authors and world leaders have attempted to decipher. Yet, an answer is no close to being unearthed. The complexity is no better seen than the sheer far reaching effects on both receiving and source countries. While some argue that skilled migration could lead to positive outcomes such as skill development and increased remittances, others highlight its detrimental effects on the countries left behind, particularly in Africa where brain drain rates are exceptionally high. For now, the conclusion may be that Africa simply does not have enough data for a comprehensive conclusion to be formed. It is not that there is no data. Rather, it is to say that with what is available, only a commentary can be made, not a conclusion. What is left, is simply to urge the African continent to collect more data on brain drain-related issues.  

Zayn Aslam
ALN Academy

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