Candid Comment

How Africans impoverish Africa

By Joram Nyathi


IT’S almost 25 years since I last read Walter Rodney’s seminal book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. If I recall well, it told of how nearly 30 mill

ion Africans were shipped to slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean to provide raw labour on sugar plantations in exchange for guns, sugar and wine given to West African chiefs.


Reading about the brain drain from Africa to Europe in the South African Mail & Guardian this week, I realised that that parasitical relationship persists today in subtle but more damaging ways. More damaging because Africans have themselves become willing tools, using intellectual resources acquired at great cost to Africa in the service of the developed world.


The M&G report had disturbing statistics. A third of Africa’s academic resources are diverted for the benefit of developed Western nations; Africa loses US$4 billion training graduates for the West.


Zambia has lost 90% of all doctors trained since independence in 1964 to Europe and America; there are more Sierra Leonean doctors in Chicago than in the country itself, and “cash-strapped Benin provides more medical professionals to France than there are in the whole of its own health system”, the report says. The revelations were made at a conference of the Association of African Universities in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, last week.


The push factors in this unidirectional movement of skills include low salaries, political conflict and wars, poor living conditions, and lack of research facilities and funding. It has to be acknowledged that most European cities seem to have better amenities and are more professionally managed than we see in Africa. Europeans have parlayed all their talents and skills to get to where they are and African professionals are opportunistically fitting themselves in without the toil required to improve their own countries. About 20 000 professionals reportedly desert the continent every year, some with no intention of returning to the “dark continent”.


I don’t have official figures for Zimbabwe but NGOs and opposition politicians claim between 3-4 million Zimbabweans have left the country since 2000 for South Africa, the US and UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.


This is probably one of the key reasons why Europe was able to develop to where it is today: its skilled personnel and professionals didn’t have anywhere to escape to in times of crisis. The colonies were too backward. For Africans, the colonial metropolis offers the safest refuge. Refugee status has become a badge of honour. We have become complicit in the underdevelopment of Africa, exploitation of its resources, endemic poverty and political instability.


We are coy about using the word patriotism, instead opting shirk our responsibilities to go and speak proudly about how conditions are unlivable back home. European nations enjoy high living standards in part because of skills of Africans financed from the sweat of the poor. Africa remains poor because it lacks the skills which it produces in abundance for the developed West.


We cannot exonerate politicians for the state of the continent: bad policies, tribal politics, nepotism, corruption, political violence and general lack of respect for human rights. The result is that those who have exceptional skills emigrate. Others stay out of politics. The tragedy of all this is that those who engage in active politics, being less discerning, are prone to manipulation, with the result that bad politics reproduce themselves. Those who withdraw into their shells or emigrate deprive the continent of the antidote it needs to develop. Informed political decisions cannot be left entirely to the less informed in any society.


I am not persuaded by the argument that we earn foreign currency by exporting the skills we desperately need. There are lots of resources to which our professionals could add value before they are exported to earn greater foreign currency. A nation without human capital cannot hope to rise beyond a dumping ground for substandard imports.


Africans must come to the rescue of Africa. We must all agree in the end that nothing short of constructive engagement between politicians and academics can improve our lot. It is the professionals themselves who can articulate the conditions under which they want to work, with politicians taking a less cynical view of the definition of patriotism. With a little political commitment, the continent’s push factors can be reversed.


The West must take the moral blame for using the savings it makes from not training its own to induce Africans to sell their skills for petty personal gain at the expense of their countries. It is hypocritical of the West to moralise about African poverty with no compunction about stealing African professionals. It is equally hypocritical to reduce all of Africa’s myriad problems to simply poor governance and human rights while luring away those with the intellectual resources to make a difference.


In the final analysis, it is evident Africa doesn’t need European philanthropy; it needs its skills back — its doctors, architects, lawyers, accountants, teachers, university lecturers and engineers to feed and develop itself. African intellectuals owe the continent a huge debt.