Why 'Brain Drain' Can Actually Benefit African Countries

By Shaun Raviv

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.”

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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