Why 'Brain Drain' Can Actually Benefit African Countries

A new study reveals that the farther African migrants move, the more they increase exports in their home countries.
An immigrant prays after landing on the shores of Spain's Canary Islands in a fishing boat. (Borja Suarez/Reuters)

Survey the world’s campaigns to alleviate poverty and improve people’s lives, and a common thread emerges: People in wealthy countries feel it’s important that people in poor countries stay at home. Development organizations in Africa, in particular, receive billions of dollars each year to oversee (often well-meaning and occasionally successful) programs designed to make “life at home” better for Africans—whether through running farms in Rwanda, educating teens in Tanzania, or supporting whole Millennium Villages (at a cost of $12,000 per household).

One could go further and argue that if Africans in one particular state or region migrate or want to migrate, then development in that area hasn’t worked. In his 2007 paper, “Keeping Them in Their Place: the ambivalent relationship between development and migration in Africa,” the International Migration Institute’s Oliver Bakewell wrote that “from its earliest roots, development practice has commonly seen a reduction in migration as either an (implicit or explicit) aim of intervention or an indicator of a programme’s success.” Migration, then, is considered inversely proportional to success in African development.

But a fascinating new paper from the World Bank turns this logic on its head. “Does Migration Foster Exports?­” has a title with an unnecessary question mark. According to the authors, migration does indeed foster exports in Africa, and in numbers large enough that they should catch the attention of development and policy leaders worldwide. Their findings “suggest that one additional migrant creates about 2,100 dollars a year in additional exports for his country of origin.”

African Migrants in the World in 2010

Many African migrants stay in Africa. (World Bank)

Using that estimation, a half-million more African migrants dispersing throughout the world—a number equivalent to less than 1/100th of a percent of the world’s population—would create more than a billion dollars in additional exports for Africa, per year. The $2,100 is in addition to the dramatically increased salaries African migrants can expect from moving to countries with stronger economies. It’s also in addition to the remittances they send home. And it takes into account that half of all African migrants don’t even leave the continent. With the number of African migrants in the world having doubled since 1980 to more than 30 million, and given Africa’s expected population boom in the coming decades, the impact Africans have from a distance on their home-country economies is only set to grow.

Remittances and Other Resource Flows to Africa, 1999-2010

African immigrants continue to contribute economically to the countries from which they emigrate. Note: This graph does not track the impact of migration on exports. (World Bank)

“Migrant populations play a significant role in opening markets for African exports by enforcing rules and contracts, and by making products better known in foreign markets,” Raju Jan Singh, the paper’s lead author, tells me. African countries tend to have weak legal institutions and therefore loose enforcement of the rule of law, and African migrants living abroad play an especially important role in addressing these challenges. The migrants create an “enforcement channel,” the authors write—settling disputes between traders and imposing informal sanctions through the diaspora community—and that channel grows “in proportion to the weakness of institutions in exporting countries.”

If, for instance, a shop owner in the United Kingdom wants to purchase and resell Ghanaian fabrics, a member of the Ghanaian diaspora living in London can help ensure—if not by law then by the threat of shame in her native community—that the dealer doesn’t get ripped off by sellers from an unfamiliar culture a continent away. In the case of a country with weaker institutions, such as Liberia or Cameroon, migrants abroad play an even bigger role in these kinds of transactions.

African migrants also facilitate information-sharing. They move to places where locals may be wary of buying products made in their native countries, and make these products seem less risky to import. Ethiopian food, for example, has become popular in certain U.S. cities, and you’ll even find some Americans, especially gluten-free folks, making their own injera, a spongy flatbread made from a grain called teff that is native to the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. That simply wouldn’t have happened without a thriving Ethiopian diaspora living abroad and sharing their delicious foods with their new neighbors.

“The implication is that migration is positive for the home country,” says Singh, “not only through remittances, but also by opening the export markets, which sort of dampens the ‘brain drain’ story.”

Indeed, the loss of human capital is often cited as an argument against the concept of migration as a form of development. When educated people move away from poor countries in large numbers, the thinking goes, those countries struggle without their best and brightest. But the Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens has shown that rather than creating a void, African health professionals leaving home may actually encourage more people to attempt to duplicate their success by becoming health professionals themselves. And Columbia’s Jagdish Bhagwati put it well when he noted that the “‘brain’ is not a static concept. Trapped in Kinshasa, under appalling conditions, the brain will drain away in less time than it takes to get to New York.”

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Shaun Raviv is a freelance writer based in Accra, Ghana.

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