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A diaspora and its good deeds

African graduates of Canadian universities want to help their home countries - let's help them do it

by Clyde Sanger

What a loaded phrase are the words "brain drain"! I remember Oliver Jackman, when he was Barbados High Commissioner to Canada, telling me there was no such thing. Every individual, he would say, should take any opportunity to go wherever he or she wants, to improve skills and find a good livelihood and fulfilment. He had done the rounds himself: university in Britain, a journalist (we were there together) in the Congo, a diplomatic career and then back home. He served his country well.

That happened with many of the early African nationalist leaders, also. The French took trouble to educate (some might say brainwash) future leaders in West Africa. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, I am sure, acquired some of his twinkle-eyed philosophy to mix with his African socialism while at the University of Edinburgh. And the "students' airlift" that Tom Mboya organized from Kenya before its independence in 1963 carried more than 1,000 students in chartered aircraft to the U.S and another 100 to Canada. Almost all went back, for this was an exciting time to be in Africa.

But that's 40 years ago and, for several well-publicized reasons, Africa doesn't seem to offer the same zestful opportunities for its graduates who have studied abroad. If your country is mired in civil strife or toiling under a dictator, why go home? And later, if the dictator has fallen and the picture brightens, as it did in Uganda and Nigeria and Mali and Ghana, time has passed and you have found a well-paid job abroad and are raising a family with good schools and health care. Added to that, there must be a dozen developed countries, Canada among them, whose governments seem to look on educated foreign students as a pool of excellent immigrants they want to attract. Well, what's wrong with that?

Nothing, I suppose, if you talk about individuals, as Oliver did. But the figures mount up. The International Organization for Migration, a UN agency, estimates there are now 3.6 million Africans spread around the world and more than 300,000 of them are highly qualified professionals - doctors, engineers, scientists - working in Western countries. What is worse today, many of them did their first degrees in Africa. Those countries bore the costs of their schooling and now find themselves paying about $4 billion a year to employ 150,000 expatriate professionals to fill so many gaps and replace the African professionals who left.

Those figures come from an admirable study by a small group of Ethiopian professionals who've made their home in Canada but are deeply concerned about the consequences in Africa for economic and social development. The group calls itself AHEAD, for Association for Higher Education and Development, and they called their study "Semantics Aside" to show they are not debating whether the exodus is "brain drain" or an "overflow of skilled manpower." Nor are they out to try to stop the flow. What they want to do is galvanize this African diaspora into helping to build human capacity in their countries of birth. True to their name, they have looked ahead and sent funds and books to help the next generation of medical students through college in Ethiopia. But, they say, the diaspora could do a lot more, including returning to their African roots for a semester or sabbatical to pass on their skills. AHEAD convened a meeting in Ottawa in November to discuss action plans and interest representatives of larger countries like Nigeria and South Africa.

What can Canadian universities do to support such a movement? They have trained some excellent African students. My knowledge is of graduates of the Carleton School of Journalism. Some went home and are ambassadors for Canada. I think of Anthony Ngaiza, now running the Tanzania press council. Some stayed, like Mohammed Adam, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, and Ainalem Tebeje, who works for Status of Women Canada and is AHEAD's vice-president.

Do Canadian universities make efforts to keep in touch with their own African diaspora and to further their graduates' aspirations? One thing they could do is nurture links with their graduates and maybe help them on a further stage. Mohammed Adam, I know, has dreamed of returning to Ghana to start a current affairs magazine. Without making too many promises, isn't it worth circulating that network of graduates and thinking up ways to help them help African development?

Clyde Sanger is the Canada correspondent for The Economist. A journalist for 52 years (eight in Africa), he's also an adjunct professor of journalism at Carleton University and, jointly with the International Development Research Centre, has given an annual award for a master of journalism student demonstrating particular interest in Canada-Africa relations.

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