THERE is a saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This seems to be true of the brain drain in Africa.
In 1999, the IMF voiced concerns about the scale of the skills flight from the continent to developed countries. At its annual meetings in the US last week — 17 years later — the organisation again raised the issue, saying migration from sub-Saharan Africa to developed countries had picked up sharply over the past 15 years.
Most of the emigrants are professionals with tertiary education — academics, computer experts, lawyers, doctors, teachers, nurses, bankers and engineers — multiplying the opportunity cost for a continent already dealing with a dearth of educated and skilled people.
The IMF predicted the number of migrants from Africa living in developed countries could increase to 34-million by 2050 from 7-million in 2013, attributing the growth to a “profound demographic transition” in the region, where the working-age population was growing faster than the total population.
The brain drain from Africa, understandable in 1999, is less comprehensible in 2016. The African growth story of the past decade attracted many professionals back to the continent to take up jobs in expanding foreign multinationals, growing African-owned companies and entrepreneurial enterprises.
Pan-African conferences are packed with the new well-heeled elite, many of them young and mobile and a good number speaking with American and British accents.
International recruitment companies are flooding the continent, fighting for the slim pickings at the top of the pile. It is common to see top executives moving swiftly into and out of plum jobs. Money is ploughed into incentives to keep the head hunters away.
As the corporate pie grows, so does the skills base as companies are forced to develop capacity in-house. Companies, particularly African firms, are building teams of management professionals and moving them around their different country operations. But this is getting more difficult as countries, driven by deepening nationalisms, cut back on work permits and expatriate quotas. While the politicians talk about pan-Africanism, many are battening down the hatches.
Despite improving governance across much of Africa, there are still many reasons why educated and skilled Africans want to leave. They include political risk, which has a knock-on effect on the growth of private enterprise, a shortage of quality education and medical facilities, and limited lifestyle options.
According to the World Health Organisation and others, between a third and half of doctors who graduate in SA migrate to developed countries, an annual loss to the country of millions of dollars. More than 21,000 Nigerian doctors are practising in the US alone, while Nigeria suffers from an acute shortage of medical skills.
The African emigration story is not just about skilled professionals. In fact, far more people leave the continent via treacherous sea crossings to Europe, with hundreds dying annually in their quest for a better life.
The needs are great across the spectrum. Underdevelopment and poverty continue to loom over the continent, casting a shadow over areas of progress and growth.
Private sector initiatives are supplementing state failure in critical areas such as health and education. But this is barely scratching the surface of the need.
Governments tend to put roadblocks in the way of private sector enterprise in Africa, with unsupportive policies, regulations and rent seeking, while the states themselves fall short on providing services to their citizens.
Africa’s political class appears unconcerned about the flight of citizens to other parts of the world.
The cost to economies and to future generations is seldom raised as an issue.
The continuing brain drain is a crisis on many levels. But mostly it is a crisis of leadership.
• Games is CEO of African advisory Africa @ Work