At any gathering of immigrant African-Canadians in Toronto, for example, one encounters doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, bankers, teachers, industrial designers, social workers, businessmen and other professionals whose business cards tell stories of exceptional achievement.
Twenty-five years ago, the conversations at such gatherings were about the immigrant African-Canadians’ hopes of getting admitted into the bottom ranks of their professions, and a chance at proving their worth. The conversations today tend to be about their recent promotions, property ownership, investments and dreams of returning to Africa to make a difference to their countries or of graceful retirement among their people.
Such observations trigger thoughts of the severe consequences of the African brain drain, and the opportunity for Africa to take advantage of this huge intellectual and practical skills asset beyond the multi-billion dollar annual remittances from the Diaspora.
Rather than see Africans in the Diaspora as unwelcome traitors who abandoned ship for “greener pastures”, our compatriots back home should welcome the added value that comes with our exposure to different cultures and systems.
Obviously we are neither more able nor better qualified than our compatriots in Africa. We are simply differently abled, with a complimentary asset to which one cannot attach cash value.
Therefore, there exists an opportunity for a serious conversation between African governments and Africans in the Diaspora, with an agenda of establishing mechanisms for the latter’s return to the mother continent to give back to the place that gave them the foundation for success in their adopted lands.
Such a programme must be more substantial than the token support that has been offered by agencies such as the Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals or the International Organisation for Migration. Notwithstanding the good intention and work of these organisations, the financial support that is offered to African professionals in the Diaspora is not attractive enough to encourage them to give you their jobs and return to their home countries.
It has been my log-held view that African governments ought to negotiate with countries such as Canada, USA, Britain and Australia to start a new programme for voluntary repatriation of African professionals, financed by their current host countries for a limited period of, say, five years. The programme would offer a significant fraction of the average or median salary of a given profession in order to entice them to return to their homelands and serve as part of the foreign aid support by the funding country.
For example, an engineer or science teacher, currently paid $100,000 per year in Canada, could return to teach in a rural African school at half of that salary. Similar arrangements could be made with other professionals whose skills would be identified as urgently needed by African countries. A condition of such a programme would be that the participants must work in rural settings, not in the major urban centres. The salaries of the recruited professionals would be deposited directly into their designated bank accounts in the funding countries, thus avoiding the risk of money being stolen through bureaucratic corruption.
Such a programme would not only provide much needed development assistance to Africa, it would create opportunities for a managed, realistic and sustained reversal of the African brain drain. One challenge, of course, would be to convince our compatriots on the continent of the merits of such a programme. Many believe that such money should be given to Africa to boost the small salaries of those who stayed behind and have continued to serve against heavy odds.
It is an argument with which I strongly sympathise, for I believe that African professionals have been short-changed by governments that have continued to under-invest in them. However, a Diaspora repatriation programme must not be seen as competitive but as complimentary to the equally essential effort of redressing the glaring failure to invest in the African professional.
The African professionals in the Diaspora already earn big money in their countries of current abode. Our argument is that they should continue to earn a healthy percentage of that money, but work and give back to Africa. It is a win-win proposition.
Dr Mulera is based in Toronto, Canada. firstname.lastname@example.org