Why 'Brain Drain' Can Actually Benefit African Countries

Major Destination Countries for Emigrants From Africa, 2010

Eleven of the top 20 destination countries for African migrants are other African countries. (World Bank)

Back in 2007, Bakewell argued that international development has been shaped by one of the nastier elements of colonialism, which depended heavily on controlling the movement of locals—from the theft of humans for slavery to forced labor on African plantations to apartheid-era Bantustans—for the benefit of European migrants to Africa.

In a study for the Overseas Development Institute, Priya Deshingkar and Sven Grimm made a similar argument. “Implicit in many agricultural or rural development policies in Africa is the aim of controlling population movements,” they wrote. “Policymakers have tended to perceive migration largely as a problem, posing a threat to social and economic stability, and have therefore tried to control it, rather than viewing it as an important livelihood option for the poor.”

When development aims to improve “home,” it is presumed that a better life at home is always the goal for the beneficiaries. We’re so clear about wanting to develop countries that we call the places we’re helping “developing countries.” The goal is to develop a place where people happen to live, rather than to develop people, wherever they live.

The trouble with development work that  encourages migrants to stay home, or return home, wrote Bakewell, “is that it assumes that all the actors involved have a common view of the ‘good’ ends to which the process leads them. It operates on the assumption that the normal and desirable state for human beings is to be sedentary.” If improving only “home” is the goal, then, “It is impossible simply to bring migration into development (such as ‘inserting migration into the Millennium Development Goals’) without raising fundamental questions about the nature of development and how it is put into practice. These include asking about the conception of the good life in mainstream development goals; the appropriateness of models of development based on the nation state; and, the inherent paternalism of mainstream development practice.” For the beneficiaries of development initiatives, Bakewell added, these “activities may be trying to maintain a way of life which they would love the chance to abandon.”

These days, however, a number of economists are making the case for looser borders as a means of reducing poverty—arguing that development is about people, not places. And the World Bank’s new study appears to support this assertion. The report’s authors found that the farther migrants move, and the more ethnically different their new home from their old home (both are homes, by the way), the more exports they help create for their country of origin.

“The paper would thus suggest that through migration, trade barriers hampering African trade could be further reduced,” write the authors. “[N]amely that it would help enforce contract, reduce information costs, and lower cultural barriers.” Let more Africans migrate, in other words, and Africa will benefit from substantially increased exports. Some might call that developing countries.

“Very few embassies have a good idea of who the diaspora is or where they are. Very few have continuous contact with them,” says Singh. “So [our paper is] really a call for African governments to be proactive, and to tap this untapped source of opportunity.” Destination countries for African immigrants are unlikely to heed a call for increased migration any time soon, not when authorities are returning or detaining desperate migrants landing by boat on European shores, calling African migrants “infiltrators,” and instituting new quotas for immigrants. It may thus fall to African governments to allow and even encourage more of their citizens to leave home and spread word of their countries’ products to the larger world.

In 2003, the University of Birmingham’s Douglas Rimmer wrote, “An exacting test of how serious we are about reducing inequality in the world is whether we are prepared to allow migration into the advanced economies of people from Africa and other poor areas. By this test, few of the advocates of international aid are really serious.” Perhaps we’ll perform better on that test now that we know just how valuable Africans are to Africa—whether from their old homes or their new ones.

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

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