evisiting the Doctrine of Human Capital

Revisiting the Doctrine of Human Capital Mobility in the Information Age ? Part II


Damtew Teferra


Center for International Higher Education, School of Education, Boston College, USA   Brain Mobility in the Emerging Virtual World


 The motivation of scholars to immigrate or their   decisions to stay abroad is a product of a complex   blend of economic, political, social, cultural, and personal matters. The impact and chemistry of each factor varies from country to country, from individual to individual, and fluctuates from time to time.


 Despite some economic and social success stories, most African countries constantly face economic hardships aggravated by political turmoil and social instabilities making it difficult for scholars to return home?while at the same time prodding those at home to migrate. Depressing news from home on suppression of dissident scholars by national governments furthermore discourages potential returnees, consequently frustrating the various efforts to contain the overflow of skilled personnel out of Africa.


 Most African institutions perpetually face the arduous task of ensuring a healthy working environment to keep their scholars contented, up to date, and integrated with the rest of the world scholarly community. The prologue?excerpts at the beginning?vividly attests to this reality. It is not my intention to dwell on the concerns reflected by the excerpts heretofore, but rather particularly underscore the significance of the conference theme. 


 The main thrust of this article is to emphasize on the

 latency of skilled labor circulation?both in the traditional physical form as well as virtual mode?and the mechanism to tap its fluidity and power as enhanced by unprecedented and profound developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs). As much as the effort to regulate the impact of skilled personnel mobility relies on managing physical movement, the endeavor to exploit their potential in their place of residence has been apparently limited. It is the purpose of this article to underscore this domain that has been poorly exploited.


 It has now become a cliché to state that we live in an information age and the world has grown into a small village. The ramifications of these developments are however beyond the comprehension of many ordinary citizens of the world. In particular, numerous economically less developed countries that live at the backwaters of science and technology watch helplessly while the information high train speeds away. The urge to board this speedy train is tremendously intense and this is particularly so for the elite in these countries who follow up innovations and developments earnestly and jealously. African scholars make up the large proportion of this group.


 A few Africans however have managed to break the isolation iceberg owing largely to developments in ICTs through the Internet and email. They communicate with their colleagues internationally, locally, and regionally on scholarly, administrative, and personal matters; and this has helped to minimize the chronic problem of isolation many Africans still continue to face. The prologue and epilogue in this article testify to that effect. 


 In 1994, the world map of the Internet connectivity showed only two countries in Africa having full Internet connectivity?South Africa and Egypt. To date, there is no country in Africa without some form of connectivity to Internet and all countries in Africa can be reached by email. Now the question is no longer whether or not Africa will ever get access to the Internet. Instead inquiries are about what African organizations and institutions will do with the technology (Dzidonu, 1999). 


 The contribution and impact a technology can make largely depends on the existence of an enabling environment and critical mass of expertise that can exploit it, and the concern and consciousness to employ it in solving problems as well as exploring ways and means to reach new frontiers. Developments in ICTs?such as the World Wide Web and the Internet?have enabled to reach many frontiers that were just impossible some years back. It is hoped that these developments in technology can help to maximizing the exploitation of the brain mobility potential. 


 The effort to enhance the contribution of native experts settled elsewhere in nation building in general and capacity building in particular?as well as to counteract the challenges of brain drain?has been hitherto focused on resettling the scholars back to their respective countries. The success of the various programs that are generally based on physically moving native experts has been however mixed. This is because the pull-push factors in the mobility process are so complex that they continue to frustrate many of these programs.


 Studies show that many immigrant scholars?particularly from Asia and Latin America?contribute tremendously to their native countries. Their contributions are not only through foreign currency remittances but serving as visiting scholars, creating virtual networks, and generally shaping the direction of the scholarly environment and capacity building. 


 There are networks of ties that professionals working abroad often maintain with their home countries. Many Taiwanese scholars and scientists living in the US, for example, have maintained ties with colleagues in Taiwan, providing expertise, contacts with the Western scientific community, and in general providing a means of communication. Some return home to serve as consultants or visiting professors. A few have invested money in Taiwanese high-tech and other companies. Indians who have emigrated to the US have been active in the growing software industry in the Silicon Valley in California. They maintain contact with colleagues at home, often investing in the Indian companies or assisting in joint ventures between American and Indian firms in the computer industry. This pattern of contributing to scientific and technological development is repeated for many Third World countries, though not so for most of Africa yet (Altbach, 1991). And of course, Ethiopia is not an exception either -- yet.


 Government policies of some of these countries also actively promote and strategize the manner in which nationals contribute to their native countries. A particular case in point is Thailand that promotes brain mobility virtually?on the Internet. Under a very attractive banner on a web site that reads "The Reverse Brain Drain Project," it states dual missions. Of the two missions, the "high priority" is not to "promote and facilitate the return of Thai professionals overseas to work in government agencies or in the private sector [in Thailand]." It is rather to "identify and attract experienced high-level Thai professionals living overseas to participate in mission-oriented projects, and promote development of core teams led by the respective Thai professionals." In fact, the mission explicitly acknowledges de-emphasis on the permanent return program. It should be emphasized that the primary and major objective of the whole initiative is to make the immigrant nationals become part of the nation building process without uprooting them from their bases elsewhere. 


 Philippines is a country where both "brain drain" and "brain hemorrhage" play themselves out at the same time. Gonzalez (1992) holds that this is a consequence of mismatch between the manpower needs of the country and the output of higher education?which he describes it as interlocking conflicts in policy and practice that produced both oversubscribed and under-subscribed expertise. Incidentally such mismatch is a very common phenomenon in numerous African countries where they suffer from lack of highly trained experts while at the same time many of their highly trained personnel remain unemployed and underemployed.


 Gonzalez holds that no uniform solution is possible, as the nature of the problem is different for each area. For oversubscribed professionals, he proposes overseas employment as a viable option; it is a source of foreign exchange and a natural way of population control. For under-subscribed professionals a system of incentives tied to a period of mandatory service, after which the beneficiary may exercise his/her options. Some lesson can be learned from this Asian experience.


 Certain government policies in Africa as well do not consider the movement of its scholars as brain drain?rather the contrary. Egypt, for example, considers its Diaspora as its treasures kept abroad. It is vital to affirm that these unclaimed treasures can potentially serve as another window to the industrialized world, as another bridge in knowledge transmission and exchange, and as another catalyst in fostering knowledge creation and utilization. It is apt to remark, therefore, that the Diaspora is a vital and influential community of "undercover" ambassadors?of their home countries and regions?without formally designated portfolio.


 Some African Diaspora communities have taken it upon themselves to contribute in the development of their home countries, among others, by establishing knowledge networks that span across the world. The Ethiopian community in Diaspora, for example, has established several virtual communities that discuss various social, political, ideological, economic, developmental, scientific, and technological issues. The recently established Association for Higher Education and Development (AHEAD) that is concerned about the migration of expert Ethiopians is an interesting case in point. In its recent communiqué, the authors succinctly wrote, "The purpose of this article is not, however, about the past. It is about the future. It is not about mistakes; it is about corrections. It is not about who is wrong and who is right. It is about lessons learned. It is not about failed duties, it is about paying back our country. It is not about brain drain, it is about reversing it." It goes on to say "Our long-term objective is to coordinate and channel the resources, expertise and creativity of Ethiopians in the Diaspora toward development efforts in their motherland. This means developing and operating a program that will facilitate the identification, selection and assignment of Ethiopian professionals to various voluntary activities in Ethiopia. It also means coordinating the Ethiopian community to establish a foundation to support Ethiopian higher education institutions and students" (AHEAD, 2000). The current initiative of AAU-Alumni network is another relevant case in point.


 With the expansion of online capabilities and access, many such virtual and "real" institutions have multiplied rapidly by many committed and concerned Africans in Diaspora. The impact, scope, and significance of such institutions, however, remain to be investigated.


 If the main purpose and objective of reversing brain flow is to build capacity of those countries that export and continue to export their experts?unwillingly or otherwise?the approach to moderate the flow should not therefore adopt one single strategy that predominantly leans toward repatriation. It is important to realize that skilled labor has propensities to mobility and appears futile to attempt to control it. Even numerous Western scholars whom we most of us trust as enjoying a far better autonomy and academic freedom and working and living conditions than their counterparts in the Third World, and especially Africa, crave for even more greener pastures elsewhere.   A study made by Schuster (1994) that surveyed British faculty shows that 40 percent of all surveyed replied that they had "seriously" considered making a permanent move abroad. The study also shows that roughly twice as many faculty whose primary interest is "research" are emigration-prone compared to those whose primary interest is "teaching." Recalling that 40 percent of all university faculty say they have seriously considered moving abroad, the proportion climbs to 47.3 percent among the "researchers" but slips to 23.8 percent among the "teachers."


 Such studies urge that the traditional discourse to manage skilled labor mobility that predominantly leans on physical movement of experts be revisited. It should be noted as well that, what at one time was a "one way street" in which Third World professionals migrated to the West, maintaining few contacts at home, has been transformed into a complex set of relationships in which emigrant professionals contribute significantly to a growing world economy and to the flow of expertise?and sometimes capital?from the industrialized nations to many Third World and newly industrialized nations (Altbach, 1991).


 Because the mobility of skilled labor is a complex process, it is imperative to adopt various strategies and approaches to address it. Even the variety of strategies and approaches that are often adopted have to be reexamined in the face of changing social, economic, political, demographic, and technological paradigms. The economic paradigm of the twentieth century that was largely dependent on natural resources has now shifted to an information-dominated one driven by knowledge creation and dissemination. On the technological front, unprecedented developments in ICTs have opened the world of opportunities that were not even imagined a couple of years ago. In the political front, the culmination of the Cold War brought about a massive movement of people across the strategic divide. These snapshots of developments therefore underscore the point that strategies and approaches to address the brain mobility issue take heed of these global dynamics. As a matter of fact, the global dynamics that currently spins on information and knowledge platforms brings a whole lot of meaning to the philosophy and doctrine of the movement of skilled labor force that creates, consumes, manages, and distributes information and knowledge. 


 It is, therefore, pertinent to underscore that the national and international endeavor, to address the issue of African skilled labor mobility, should as well focus on fostering the utilization, contribution, and exploitation of the brain power of native immigrants wherever they reside. 


 It is therefore crucial that the doctrine of human capital circulation?dominated by physical movement of skilled personnel?be dutifully reformulated to accommodate and mobilize the growing potential of immigrant African scholars to participate in nation building virtually as well. Virtual in this particular context is used to signify skilled immigrant participation in nation building without physically relocating them into their native countries where their expertise is sought.


 Stay tuned for the next part.


 Damtew Teferra is a co-director and lead researcher of the African Higher Education Project at the Center for International Higher Education in School of Education, at Boston College, USA. His address is The Center for International Higher Education, School of Education, Campion Hall 207B, Boston College, MA 02467, USA; Tel. (617) 783 4807 (home), (617) 552 1279/4413 (off.); fax: (617) 552 8422; email: teferra@bc.edu or damtewteferra@ethioworld.com; Internet: http://www2.bc.edu/~teferra.