The transition from Brain Drain to

The transition from Brain Drain to Brain Gain


Abebe Kebede

Department of Physics NC A&T State University,

Greensboro, NC 27411


Recently two colleagues brought two opposing views on theflight of the youth and learned people from Ethiopia to othercountries. When you look at the various groups that were created on account of the AAU-Network alone, you can actually count hundreds' of PhD's in basic and applied sciences, hundreds more in social and behavioral sciences, hundreds in health and medical fields, thousands are in the pipeline following the footsteps of these highly educated and skilled members of the Ethiopian community. This  does not include thousands more who are networking via their own alumni. For example, Saint Joseph, Teffari Mekonen, and Nazareth Schools are organizing and networking.  In fact Ethiopians are among the fastest growing middle class in US and probably in parts of Europe, Canada and Australia.  After a student leaves Ethiopia the likelihood that  he/she returns home after finishing his/her PhD.. is small.  Among the major reasons for such flights are lack of opportunities and uncertainties caused by out recent experiences, which perhaps distracted us from looking at the big picture.


There is no right or wrong in the part of those of us who left and immigrated to a foreign land. At this point I am not defending myself from those who might criticize me.  It is true, as Helina put it, that the best and the brightest are leaving the country.  This is clearly a Brain Drain.  I would like to state my understanding of the problem and offer several pointers how to change this Brain Drain into a Brain Gain.


In the past when the movement of people was limited because of geographical, economic or political reasons, the term "resource" was a localized concept which reflected both coming from human  (skilled worker in that locality) and nature (the locality itself).  I argue that such a concept of resource is ingrained in our culture. This is not generally true among reasonably developed communities and those who understood the benefit of western knowledge in the development of their own. For example, we know that almost 50% of the physicists in the US are of Indian, European and Chinese origin (of course some are Ethiopians). In other words in a given physics department, 30-40% of the faculty members could be foreigners. This is also true among the student population. An increasing number of foreigners are taking advantage of Western Education and make a good life in the West. Ethiopians are not exceptions    


What is special about these communities?



These communities seem to have understood the way to participate in the development of a given department or organization in their respective countries. I will argue that many scientific programs in such countries as China, India, Japan and  Israel fare built in part by people who live outside these countries. I observed that members of these communities:


1) Proved themselves to the main stream scientific community as viable components for any scientific endeavors.  Please note the word VIABILIE


2) Formed formidable partnerships with their mainstream colleagues and institutions to build the programs in their respective countries.  These partnerships include student exchange, faculty exchange, and performing high-level research activities on common priorities. They formed powerful scientific societies, which in turn joined the mainstream scientific societies.   At this time there is no single research activity that does not involve these communities.


3) Became active within the mainstream system in social and political matters. At this time there may be many senators, members of Congress  and mayors from these groups who are influencing every conceivable policies which affect their immediate communities and their countries.


Before I go I talk about Africa and particularly Ethiopia, let me say a word or two about why these communities succeeded.


The factors


1. The individual members of these communities are largely aware of the advantage of developing their communities

(including their home departments)


2. The willingness of the home governments, scientific institutions, professional associations and departments to accept the efforts of the Diaspora communities to the development of a given discipline.


3. The high level of awareness of the importance of  clean, mean and lean organizations which act as vehicles to execute the transactions. These organizations are responsible to facilitate collaborations, personnel exchange and rewarding the efforts of members of the Diaspora.


4. Their efforts to integrate themselves with the mainstream while actively maintaining their own cultures.


5. These members have access to any conceivable data which determine the fate of their communities and institutions in their

home countries.


Africans and Ethiopians


I will use these five factors as benchmarks to gauge the situation of Africans.  It has been said that Africans are the fastest growing middle class minorities in North America. What does it mean? . It means  that the median income of Africans living in the US is close to $45,000. These groups are highly educated in all fields including science, mathematics, engineering, and information technology and in many professional fields.   Recent examples of the success of Africans include a Nobel Prize in Chemical Physics (Egyptian), the African who designed the mars pathfinder (Malian), the Bill Gates of Africa (Nigerian) and several from South Africa.  Hundreds of the best scientists in North America could be Africans.  No body knows the number, they could be thousands.


Why is it then African Universities don't take advantage of these human resources?  Before we answer this question, I would like to give a sampling of activities by the African Diaspora


There are some African communities who understood the importance of non-profit organizations as vehicles to collaborate with scientists in their home countries. Such organizations include, International Society of African Scientists (Delaware), Ethiopian Scientific Society (Washington), Ghanaian Association for Distance Learning and Computer Literacy (University of Chicago). There are many such societies around the world. These are usually small groups created in universities, or a handful of committed individuals. Most of the time they organize conferences, try to address some immediate issues such as books and computing facilities.  These efforts are mostly motivated by personal goodwill than vision to address fundamental issues in higher education and issues affecting scientific research in a given country. Many such African associations appear and disappear. They disappear when the founders move or die. One such example is the Ethiopian Research Council.  By any measure these groups cater to highly qualified Africans.  Now this brings me to the questions


Why don't African Universities use these resources? There are three areas I wish to look at, namely; Organizational, Global Structure , and  Cultural


a) Organizational


We don't have the right type of organizations.  The right type of organizations are those which work not only within a mainstream context, but also establish a powerful network with international and local organizations ( in case of US, the organizations could be USAID, National Summit for Africa, Constituency for Africa, TransAfrica, ECA, UN, etc) and including industries.  The success of the International Center for Theoretical Physics  (Africa program) and the Third World Academy of Sciences can be attributed to their associations with powerful organizations. 


What should be known is that all doors are closed for those who don't belong to the right organizations.  Therefore for the African Diaspora to be a viable human resource for Africa, it must organize within the context of the international organization.  Name is very important.  I just discovered that there is an African Association of Pure and Applied Chemistry (AAPAC), which is an affiliate of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Any thing that has to do with subject of Chemistry in the world goes first to IUPAC, and anything that has to do with chemistry in Africa goes to AAPAC.  You can now see how money is spent on Chemistry. If Ethiopian chemists wish to build an international presence, they must work through these channels to form their organizations.  Among the African communities who understood the importance of global organizations are Ghanaians. For example, they are running African Association of Universities (AAU!). They are also running the Edward Bouchet Institute (Bouchet is the first African American who got his PhD. in Physics from Harvard).  One significant activity by Ghanaians in Diaspora is their Ghana Association of Distance Learning and Computer Literacy.  Around this concept they built several other non-profit organizations to solicit financial and in kind support  for several activities in elementary and secondary schools in Ghana. They have full support of the government and their colleagues in Ghana. Many African faculty members are also beginning to use their position as leverage to begin small collaborative work with their home universities. South Africa, after several years of isolation, is beginning to track, document and lure its citizens to participate in collaborative work with South African Institutions. There are now estimated 21,000 highly qualified South Africans in several western countries. South Africa understood the power these people can bring to develop South Africa.


b) Global Structure


This issue needs a large scale research and it is very hard to provide a clear picture as to how the current Global Structure is affecting Africa's scientific progress.  At the risk of loosing quite a few well read individuals in this network, I would like to state the following.


There are now several international organizations which consult on behalf of Africa. These are powerful organizations,  very well recognized by the UNESCO, USAID, World Bank and etc. My list in the US include: TransAfrica, National Summit for Africa, Constituency for Africa, American Association for Advancement of Science, National Science Foundation, IUPAP, IUPAC and numerous in Europe, Canada and Australia, and most of all extremely powerful non profit "charitable" organization, as well as foundations (Ford, Carniegie Mellon etc).  There are also a large number of Universities, who have well organized Centers for International Education. (For example Boston College, the Center for International Education is collecting data on African Higher Education, via an Ethiopian Graduate student). Funding from various sources is channeled to these organizations to do some "Sustainable" Development work in Africa. Every organization is working in good faith.  The determination of the type of activities that may get funding is based on the data collected by USAID and World Bank.   For example there is some funding for Agriculture, biotechnology, Adult and Elementary Education. The funding is also market driven. There is almost no funding fundamental and applied sciences. The situation is severe in Sub Saharan Africa.  The importance of these fields is not emphasized, despite the fact that there are excellent programs in African Universities. In fact there is a global effort to discourage the funding for any higher education programs in Sub Saharan Africa. One such example is the creation the so called the "African Virtual University".  The consulting organizations which I mentioned above are also biased towards higher education; they work mainly within the parameters set by  the strategic interests of the so called "Stake Holders".   I am not talking about conspiracy. Anything we do must fall under the strategic interests of USAID and World Bank.  Unless there is a way to get in this global structure there is no way any effort outside, the strategic interests, can succeed. The only way to get in is to associate ourselves with the consulting organizations.  Educating members of these organizations, and our representatives in the United States Congress so that they put more funding in the areas we believe are important for Africa.


c) Cultural


The Ethiopian Diaspora in the past and today are visibly  activists, mainly concerned in issues related to Ethiopian and Eritrean matters. The Ethiopian Diaspora is the major factor in toppling the 3000 year old state, in bringing eastern ideologies and finally an ethnic based federation. We are really good !!.  Just imagine if these energies are channeled to build Ethiopia's education infrastructure.  Lots of mistakes have been made, it is perhaps time to learn from them. The lessons should be


1. We must accommodate all


2. We must speak in one voice about the needs of our schools


3. Individuals bestowed with decision making responsibilities

must find ways to involve the Diaspora  directly in education issues that affect the country  

4. Form the right type organizations that connect us with the general global structure


5. Think big and plan big


6. Most importantly believe in yourself


I see a scenario with the help of our organizations, a group of us might be able to build libraries throughout Ethiopia, may even build EIT (Ethiopian Institute of Technology), where the best and brightest of Africa will be educated. Here are some ideas


1. Volunteer to provide financial and in kind support of AAU,


2. Effectively use international channels such as Fullbright programs to go visit our schools.


3. Collaboratively develop Educational resources to improve class room instruction (AAU-Lecture Hall)


4. Empower the youth by teaching them history


In conclusion, I am not at all worried about individuals leaving Ethiopia to get knowledge, follow their dreams and to live a "good life". As long as we know where they are, and as long as we prepare them to respond to calls for collaborations to improve the quality of education in Ethiopia.  As long as we have the right type organizations which accommodate every one who wishes to help his/her own community,