Reversing the Brain Drain In Ethiopia

Reversing the Brain Drain In Ethiopia

By David H. Shinn

Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs

The George Washington University

Delivered to the

Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association

On November 23, 2002

In Alexandria, Virginia


I am honored to address this evening the Second Annual Conference of the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association (ENAHPA), a distinguished organization that is dedicated to transferring medical skills, services and equipment to Ethiopia.   The establishment in the African diaspora of additional groups like ENAHPA could make an important, positive contribution to the economic and social development of the continent.  I commend all of you for the time and financial resources you have made available in order to improve, however modestly, the medical situation in your country of origin.  I would also like to thank Dr. Ingida Asfaw, President of ENAHPA, for inviting me to give this keynote address.


A Worldwide Problem


The brain drain is not unique to Ethiopia or even to developing countries.  To some extent, every country in the world, including the United States, loses through migration highly educated and skilled individuals.  In fact, the British Royal Society coined the term  “brain drain” to describe the outflow of scientists to the United States and Canada in the 1950s and early 1960s.  There was a massive migration in the 1960s primarily of British, German and Canadian scholars to the United States.  Beginning in the late 1960s, the brain drain came to be associated with the flow of skilled individuals from the developing world to Western Europe and North America.


The brain drain is having a significant negative effect on most developing countries, although a few have coped successfully with the problem.  Seventy-nine percent of 1990-1991 Ph.D. recipients in science and technology from India and 88 percent of those from China were still working in the United States by 1995.  By contrast, only 11 percent of South Koreans who earned science and engineering doctorates from American universities in 1990-1991 were still in the United States in 1995.  Ph.D. recipients in the United States from Taiwan also tend to return to their country of origin.  I will revisit the reasons for this success in South Korea and Taiwan.


 It is true that countries in North America and Europe today are overwhelmingly the net beneficiaries of the brain drain.  The United States attracts most of the skilled workers from other countries.  Forty percent of the foreign born adult population in the United States has been educated beyond the secondary school level.  Twenty-three percent of medical personnel now working in the United States received their diplomas in a foreign country.  Skilled immigrants can be found in virtually every aspect of American society and, increasingly, their origin is Africa.


A Special Challenge for Africa


More than 2,000 Nigerian doctors work in the United States even though there continues to be a critical need for health professionals in Nigeria.  About 10,000 Nigerian academics are employed in the United States alone.  There reportedly are more Sierra Leonean doctors living in the Chicago area than in Sierra Leone.  An estimated 600 Ghanaian doctors work in New York City, about 20 percent of its requirement.  More than 1,000 professionals left Zimbabwe for other countries in 1997 alone.  There are more African-born scientists and engineers working in the United States than there are in Africa.


In a paper delivered two years ago before an Addis Ababa conference on the brain drain, Dr. Meera Sethi, the International Organization for Migration representative in Ethiopia, noted that Africa lost a third of its professionals to the developed countries between 1960 and 1987.  An estimated 23,000 academics and 50,000 middle and senior management personnel leave the continent each year.  More than 40,000 Africans with a Ph.D. now live outside the continent.  Dr. Sethi concluded that almost half of those who left Africa did so to study abroad while nearly 30 percent sought professional development.  Less than seven percent left for political reasons.  Looked at another way, Dr. Dejene Aredo of the Addis Ababa University faculty of business and economics estimates that 20,000 professionals leave Africa annually.  For every 100 professionals sent overseas for training between 1982 and 1997, 35 failed to return to the continent.  The largest migratory flows are from Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia. 


Before turning to the situation in Ethiopia, it is instructive to consider the serious shortage of medical staff in neighboring Kenya, a country that is both wealthier and has traditionally trained a higher percentage of its nationals in the field of medicine.  The Kenya Medical Association recently warned that emigration of medical professionals is threatening the very existence of the country’s health services.  The Association said that low pay is forcing about 20 doctors to leave Kenya each month to take better positions in other countries.  Kenya now has only 600 doctors and 70 dentists in the public sector to treat 28 million Kenyans.  The Kenya Medical Association argued that this brain drain has contributed to a general deterioration in medical services for the masses.  Increasingly, medical care and health facilities are only available to the wealthy. 


The financial cost of the brain drain for Africa is huge.  The International Office for Migration estimates that about 300,000 professionals from Africa live and work in Europe and North America.  Approximately 100,000 expatriates from the West at an annual cost of $4 billion are employed to help make up for the loss of professionals from sub-Saharan Africa.  This expatriate labor force is considerably more expensive than the Africans they have replaced, although many of their salaries and benefits are paid by foreign governments as part of grant aid programs.  African countries have, nevertheless, invested scarce capital in training their nationals.  The cost of training, for example, a non-specialized doctor in a developing country is about $60,000 and for a paramedical specialist about $12,000.  When these individuals emigrate from the continent, wealthier nations usually reap the benefits of training provided by poorer nations.  


Impact of the Brain Drain on Ethiopia


As seriously as the brain drain has negatively impacted Ethiopia, it is important to keep the problem in perspective and understand that other African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya are struggling with the same challenge.  Some of these countries have, of course, a larger percentage of highly trained personnel and are, therefore, in a stronger position to confront the loss.  Even more important, a few African countries such as Botswana and Mauritius seem to be minimally affected by the brain drain.  Obviously, they are doing something right.  But first what do we know about the nature of the issue in Ethiopia?


For starters, several persons who have looked at the brain drain phenomenon have observed that prior to the 1974 revolution virtually all Ethiopians who attended university in the country remained at the completion of their work and the vast majority of those who studied overseas returned to Ethiopia.  According to one study, only one Ethiopian physician was working outside the country as recently as 1972.   The brain drain has not always been a problem in Ethiopia.  The environment created during the Derg government as a result of political persecution and the Red Terror was a major turning point.  It caused a significant emigration of highly skilled Ethiopians that continues to the present day, although the reasons for the exodus have changed somewhat.


Statistical information on the Ethiopian brain drain tends to be anecdotal, confusing and sometimes conflicting.  There are no reliable, long-term macro statistics for documenting the problem.  The anecdotal information since 1974 is, however, consistently depressing, especially in the areas of science, engineering and medicine.  Dr. Dejene Aredo reports that of the Ethiopian students officially sent abroad for study between the 1968/1969 and 1995/1996 academic years, 35 percent failed to return to Ethiopia.  A study of four government organizations, including Addis Ababa University, indicated that out of every 100 professionals sent overseas for training between 1982 and 1997, 35 did not return.  Among female professionals in this group, the number was 43 out of 100.  Those trained in medicine were the least likely to return and the higher the level of education, the greater the probability they remained in their adopted country. 


Dr. Seyoum Teferra, who is with the Addis Ababa University faculty of education, has investigated the brain drain as it impacts institutions of higher education.  In one study he found that out of 135 Ethiopian academic staff who were teaching at AAU in the early 1970s, almost half of them had left Ethiopia by the mid-1980s.  The Academic Vice President’s annual report for the 1983/1984 academic year noted that more than 300 academic staff had been sponsored for study leave in previous years.  Only 22 of them or seven percent returned to the university.  Another report done in 2000 stated that of the 600 AAU academic staff who were sent abroad during the previous 20 years for further studies, only 200 had returned.  The AAU department of mathematics alone lost 17 of its staff.  They all have a Ph.D. and they all currently teach in American universities. 


Dr. Yoseph Hassen Mengesha, associate professor of physiology at AAU, compiled one of the most thorough accounts of the impact of the brain drain on Ethiopia.  In a paper he gave earlier this year to the 38th Annual Medical Conference of the Ethiopian Medical Association, he reported that 50 percent of all Ethiopians who went abroad and completed their studies have not returned home in the past 10-15 years.  During that part of the Derg era from 1980 to 1991, 22,700 Ethiopian students went abroad and only 5,777 or about 25 percent returned to Ethiopia. Twenty staff from the faculty of physics went abroad for study in the 1970s and 1980s.  All 20 remained outside the country.  Between 1980 and 2001, nine physiologists from the faculty of medicine went overseas for additional training; only three returned. 


In another survey of all disciplines at AAU covering the period from the 1981/1982 to the 1996/1997 academic years, out of 898 staff who went abroad 563 or 63 percent returned.  Interestingly, of those who left AAU and the Ministry of Health between the 1968-1969 and 1995-1996 academic years to study medicine in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 79 percent returned to Ethiopia.  On the other hand, between 1980 and 2001 85 academic staff in the faculty of medicine took positions overseas, leaving only 121 on the faculty in 2001.  The primary destination for health professionals is North America, Europe, Australia, South Africa, Botswana and the Gulf States.


The Gondar Medical Science College reported in 2000 that during the previous three years it lost 25 specialists and general practitioners to private clinics and foreign employers.  This left the college with 90 instructors—down 40 percent from its requirement.  The departure of medical personnel forced the college to close five departments.  The dean of the medical school commented that higher pay offered by private clinics, employment opportunities in other African countries and Gondar’s isolation from Addis Ababa were the major reasons for the loss.  I visited the medical schools in both Gondar and Jimma last year and can attest to the fact that they are suffering enormously as a result of the departure of skilled medical staff.


Dr. Yohannes Kebede, public health specialist at the Ministry of Health, explained at the 38th Annual Medical Conference earlier this year that Ethiopia trained 2,491 general practitioners between 1988 and 2001.  He estimated that one-third have already left the country seeking better employment opportunities in North America, Europe and South Africa.  He listed 1,366 physicians working throughout Ethiopia in 2001.  This works out to about one physician for 47,000 persons.  By comparison, in 1996 there were 1,483 or nearly ten percent more, physicians in the country.  Ethiopia can ill afford this continuing loss of trained medical personnel.


It is clear from this anecdotal information that the brain drain has had and continues to have a significant negative impact on Ethiopia’s ability to fill highly skilled positions in all fields of specialization.  The result is particularly severe in medicine, the sciences and engineering.  Although the magnitude of the problem seems to have decreased since the fall of the Derg, it continues to be sufficiently serious as to merit urgent attention.     


Reasons for the Brain Drain


Ask yourselves, “What brought you to North America?  What made you stay?  How easy was it to make that decision?”  The causes of the brain drain do not vary significantly from one developing country to another.  Unusual situations such as the severe political persecution and Red Terror in Ethiopia during the Derg government certainly exacerbated the problem, but the reasons are otherwise remarkably the same in the developing world.  They fall into two categories referred to as “push” and “pull.”  The importance of the individual factors varies over time and from country to country.  Drawing on research conducted in Ethiopia and other countries, I want to discuss the main causes.


The “Push” Factors


Looking first at the “push” factors, I have already identified the negative impact of political persecution as a contributor to the brain drain.  The political environment need not be as severe as the Red Terror to encourage an exodus of skilled individuals.  Poor human rights practices, political and/or arbitrary arrests coupled with a backlogged court system, intolerance of political dissent, lack of academic freedom, civil conflict and the ravages of war, illegal regime change and favoritism based on ethnic affiliation are among the political reasons for the brain drain.  All of these factors, in addition to others, occur somewhere in Africa today and some of them currently apply to Ethiopia.  Several observers of the Ethiopian brain drain put political causes at the top of the list; others suggest the economic explanation is more appropriate.


Experts who have studied the brain drain point to a basket of economic reasons for causing or exacerbating the problem.  As daily living conditions become more difficult, many professionals will look for opportunities elsewhere.  A country with a weak economy, high unemployment, low wages and considerable poverty is a prime candidate for a major brain drain.  Ethiopia certainly fits this description.  On the other hand, South Africa also has a serious brain drain but has a much stronger economy than Ethiopia.  Abeba Tadesse, a law student at Mekelle University, concluded in a paper on the brain drain earlier this year that Ethiopia’s poor economy, together with political instability, are the two principal causes of the problem.


Low salaries for professionals are often cited as the major culprit.  Nigerian Internet whiz, Philip Emeagwali, who now lives in the United States, argued that unreasonably low wages paid to African professionals are the primary cause.  The Permanent Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Health, Julius Meme, commented last year that low salaries for Kenyan doctors are the main reason that they leave the country.  He pointed out that Kenyan doctors earned a maximum of $414 per month compared to their South African counterparts who received up to $2,600 monthly.  Even this salary, of course, pales to that received in the United States.  Dr. Seyoum Teferra reported that the average annual salary in 1997 for an Ethiopian professor at AAU was about eight percent of that of his counterpart in South Africa and just over 12 percent of the prevailing professorial salary in Zimbabwe.  Although low pay certainly contributes to the problem in Ethiopia, it may not be the principal one.  Salaries were also low prior to the 1974 revolution, when the brain drain was not a major issue.


A related concern is the matter of professional opportunity, benefits and development.  This includes issues such as training and research opportunities, moral and job satisfaction and human resource and management policies.  Institutions that do poorly in these areas are more likely to lose staff to the brain drain.  Most developing countries do not have particularly friendly working environments, healthy budgets, clear policies and generous research funds.  Dr. Demissie Tadesse of Alert Hospital found all of these factors to be wanting in Ethiopia in a paper he presented to the 38th Annual Medical Conference in Addis Ababa.  He also cited the relative lack of involvement of professionals in the decision-making process.  I would add in the case of universities that a reluctance to grant autonomy to the university leadership at each campus contributes to low morale and encourages the seeking of employment overseas. 


Some of the problems are seemingly mundane.  Professionals become discouraged if they can not afford to live in decent, albeit modest, housing.  Poor supervision and limited career advancement opportunities add to the frustration.  A study by Rachel Reynolds of the brain drain as it affects the Igbo ethnic group found that an important factor in their decision to leave Nigeria was the lack of university teaching positions.  Poorly equipped institutions where computers and access to the Internet are limited pose a serious handicap.  Nigeria’s Director of Information Technology told the 10th General Conference of the Association of African Universities in Nairobi last year that any university without full Internet connectivity over the next two years will not be able to fulfill its teaching and research role.  Libraries that house a modest number of mostly out-of-date books, broken or dated lab equipment and doctors who are not provided with rubber gloves for use during patient examinations underscore the problem.  Based on my own travels in Ethiopia, I can assure you these are common occurrences.  


One should not underestimate the lack of psychological satisfaction that many professionals encounter in their working environment in the developing world, including Ethiopia.  If they conclude that they cannot accomplish what they were trained for, they become frustrated.  Lack of access to professional literature and miniscule research budgets add to the problem.   Dr. Yoseph Hassen Mengesha reported that the research environment in Ethiopia has deteriorated in recent years, due partially to the brain drain.  You have a vicious cycle whereby professionals depart the country due in part to limited research opportunities and then those who leave contribute to the problem by reducing the number of scholars who are able to conduct research. 

None of these “push” factors is easy to solve and they afflict all developing countries to some extent.  The ones that could be ameliorated by huge amounts of money will be especially difficult to deal with in a country as poor as Ethiopia.  Nevertheless, it is important that government policy makers and the managers of institutions such as universities and hospitals that employ significant numbers of professionals understand that all of these factors contribute importantly to the brain drain.  


The “Pull” Factors


As difficult as the “push” factors are to resolve, countries like Ethiopia that are experiencing a brain drain have virtually no control over the “pull” factors.  In most cases, these are the reverse sides of the “push” issues.  If the economy is weak and wages are low in the country losing skilled personnel, the economy tends to be strong and wages high in the gaining country.  This is certainly the situation in North America and Europe.  In a relative sense, it is even true for a country like South Africa that loses large numbers of professionals each year to North America and Europe but gains others from less developed countries like Ethiopia.  Losing countries also tend to have more political conflict and less political freedom while those that benefit from the brain drain have the opposite situation.


Beyond a peaceful political environment and high standard of living, perhaps the most important attraction of countries like the United States and Canada that are net beneficiaries is the opportunity to exercise fully one’s professional training.  Career advancement and job mobility are usually predictable.  More attention is given to human resource policies, supervision and training.  Nations that benefit from the brain drain generally attach a higher importance to the development of knowledge than do losing countries.  Institutions such as hospitals and universities usually have functional and up-to-date equipment and well-stocked libraries.  Internet connectivity is nearly always complete and funded research opportunities numerous.  Benefit packages for health care, life insurance and retirement are more common and generous.  There even tend to be fewer bureaucratic frustrations in the developed countries. 


Rachel Reynolds’ study of the Igbo who now live in the Chicago area found that a desire for higher education and professional achievement were the primary reasons they chose to leave Nigeria.  In this case, they selected the United States as the best place to pursue an education and profession.   Dr. Demissie Tadesse also underscored the importance of professional considerations in the movement of Ethiopians outside the country.  He cited, in particular, their desire for more research, training and professional advancement opportunities. 


Some gaining countries, including the United States, have visa policies that encourage the brain drain.  The United States has the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, better known as the DV program, that is intended to encourage the immigration of underrepresented nationalities to the United States.  The annual worldwide quota currently is 50,000 immigrants.  Ethiopians have made extensive use of the DV program.  In 2003, for example, 5,562 Ethiopians have been selected at random by computer from all qualified candidates to apply for immigration.  This is the third highest number worldwide after Ghana and Nigeria.  To be eligible, an applicant must have completed a high school education or equivalent.  It was my experience while serving in Ethiopia, however, that relatively few highly skilled individuals made their way to American shores via the DV program.


There are other American visa programs that target highly skilled individuals.  The Immigration and Nationality Act provides an annual minimum of 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas (E category) that are divided into five preference categories.  The program includes persons of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business and athletics.  Applicants in this category must prove they have sustained national or international acclaim and recognition in their field of expertise.  Outstanding professors and researchers fall in this category.  A second group includes professionals with advanced degrees or persons of exceptional ability in the arts, sciences or business.  Another category includes investors who can invest at least a half million dollars.  There are some very specific requirements for “E” visas.  I have the impression that few Ethiopians have used them.


The United States offers a variety of visas for temporary workers.  The H-1B classification applies to persons in a specialty occupation that requires theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge requiring completion of a specific course of higher education.  The O-1 classification applies to persons who have extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, athletics or extraordinary achievements in the field of motion pictures and television.  The Q classification is for participants in an international cultural exchange program for the purpose of providing practical training, employment, and the sharing of the history, culture and traditions of the alien’s home country.  Again, I don’t believe very many Ethiopians have come to the United States using these kinds of visas.  Several earlier presentations today suggested these special visas contribute in a more important way to the migration of Ethiopians to the U.S.  Since I don’t have statistics on the number of Ethiopians who have received these visas, I am willing to be persuaded otherwise.  You can learn more about all of these visas by going to        


The American Embassy in Addis Ababa has been fairly stingy over the past decade or so in the issuance of student visas.  Many earlier students remained permanently in the United States even though they had to show that they intended to return to Ethiopia at the conclusion of their education.  It is very difficult to prove an intention to return, especially when students plan to be in the United States for four or more years.  As a result of this past history, consular officers have become stricter.  Unfortunately, decisions on student visas tend to be arbitrary and probably favor the sons and daughters of wealthier and more prominent Ethiopian families.  This was a concern that I held throughout my time in Ethiopia and, yet, we never found a satisfactory way to deal with student visas. 


Once in the United States, it is not that difficult with the help of an effective immigration lawyer to remain permanently.   Perhaps some of you in this audience had occasion to draw on the services of such a lawyer.  Numerous Ethiopian students have remained permanently in the United States.  But so have others who presumably came initially to visit relatives, conduct business, participate in specialized training or even engage in tourism.  I suspect that most Ethiopian professionals who now reside permanently in the United States came originally as students or in one of these other temporary categories rather than by means of a DV or special employment visa.


Keeping Highly Skilled Persons in Ethiopia


At the most general level, countries that are serious about reducing the outflow of professionals need to strengthen their economy across the board, improve governance and increase political freedom.  But this is not very helpful advice and obviously calls for a long-term program.  On the other hand, there are some less time consuming and more modest steps that can be taken to encourage the retention of professionals in Ethiopia.  One of the best compilations of useful suggestions is contained in the Report of the Regional Conference on Brain Drain and Capacity Building in Africa that took place in Addis Ababa from February 22-24, 2000.  Sponsored by the Economic Commission for Africa in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration and the International Development Research Center of Canada, the report and related documents are available at


One of the first steps for Ethiopia is to create an accurate and continuing database on the impact of the brain drain.  This will help decision-makers formulate policy for those areas where the brain drain is negatively affecting Ethiopia’s development priorities.  Without detailed and up-to-date information on the nature of the problem, it will be impossible to ameliorate it in any significant way.  The Economic Commission for Africa, International Organization for Migration or a partner government might be willing to help establish the database.    


There must be institutional reforms that value, reward, develop and challenge skilled Ethiopians.  Providing loans or assistance for decent housing, making available more funds for research, ensuring Internet connectivity and providing more in-country training could make a big difference.  Efforts need to be taken to improve the dissemination and utilization of research findings and redirecting research to address the development needs of Ethiopia.  Expanded use of virtual means for the generation and retention of knowledge rather than a reliance on the physical movement of people would reduce the temptation to remain abroad and reduce costs.  Greater use of distance education is another possibility.  There should be a focus on creating centers of excellence in critical fields of medicine and science at universities and hospitals.  Human resource policies that make a serious effort to accommodate the career aspirations of skilled personnel are also essential. 


One recent initiative is the African Virtual University or AVU that began in 1997 as a “university without walls.”  It uses modern information and communication technologies to provide countries in sub-Saharan Africa with direct access to high quality learning resources.  AVU bridges the digital divide by training world-class business managers, engineers, technicians, scientists and other professionals who will promote economic and social development in Africa.  More than 24,000 students have completed semester-long courses in technology, engineering, business and the sciences and over 3,500 professionals have attended management seminars.  AVU is an independent non-profit organization headquartered in Nairobi.  Twenty-one African universities in 11 countries are now partner institutions.  I am pleased to report that not only is Addis Ababa University among them but AAU is one of five partner institutions selected to run the computer science degree program.  The AAU campus coordinator is Dr. Habtamu Zewdie; inquiries about AVU can be sent by e-mail to    


There has been a significant expansion of the public higher education system in Ethiopia; this trend needs to continue but with a new focus on higher quality rather than more quantity.  A number of new private colleges have recently opened in Addis Ababa.  This is a positive development and helps share the burden of higher education.  It remains to be seen, however, if the private schools will offer high quality education in areas of significant need like medicine, engineering and science.  Although the private sector in Ethiopia is small, it should give increasing attention to collaboration with universities on research and the development of the curriculum for coordinating future employment possibilities.  The government may wish to introduce tax incentives to attract the private sector into education.  There needs to be more attention to the education of females through the university level.  This is the right thing to do even if it does not reduce the brain drain.


There are some things the international community can do to help.  Foreign assistance programs can provide grants and technical support that expose Ethiopian researchers to best practices that encourage intellectual independence.  They can fund high priority programs in institutions of higher learning.  The African Knowledge Networks Forum discussed priorities for regional integration in Addis Ababa on October 17-18, 2001.  It made the important suggestion that non-governmental organizations should take more seriously their responsibilities to help build Africa’s human resource capacity by hiring staff locally rather than bringing in expatriates.  Ethiopians have exhibited that they have the skill and training to fill the vast majority of international NGO positions in the country.  


Many partners, including the United States, offer both short and long-term specialized training to Ethiopians.  In recent years, this has posed a dilemma.  Frequently, those persons trained in the United States did not return to Ethiopia.  This defeats the purpose of the assistance program and argues for an emphasis on short-term (six months or less) training provided in Ethiopia.  Such training costs less and can be made available to more individuals.  It also eliminates the temptation to remain abroad at the end of training.  Long-term specialized training is another problem; it generally can not be done in Ethiopia.  But if some of the changes suggested above are made, there will be a greater probability those persons receiving long-term training outside the country will return to Ethiopia.


Some of the proposals for dealing with the brain drain are more draconian.  It has been argued that beneficiary countries should institute policies that restrict the flow of educated migrants and that western governments should even pay compensation when they draw talent away from developing countries.  In my view, this approach is not realistic.  Very few Ethiopians now living permanently in the United States were recruited by anyone in America.  They simply chose to go and then stayed.  No government should be expected to pay compensation under such circumstances.  Others argue that countries like the United States should stop using employment visas to lure talented professionals from developing countries.  This is a more valid concern and deserves attention, although until statistics show otherwise I believe few Ethiopian professionals are in the United States today as a result of these employment visa programs.  But someone in the U.S. government should look at this program to determine the harm it is causing in developing countries.


The 38th Annual Medical Conference of the Ethiopian Medical Association debated the matter of limiting the ability of Ethiopians to study outside the country.  It concluded that if Ethiopia closed the door to overseas training, Ethiopians would only go out the window.  It added, however, that since medical training occurs at government expense, individuals should not be allowed to take positions outside Ethiopia unless someone first pays the cost of training.  This is an interesting suggestion, but probably not enforceable.  Last year Eritrea announced that it was sending 300 graduate students from the University of Asmara to South Africa for additional education.  The university asked the students to post a $15,000 bond to ensure their return.  Not surprisingly, the students protested they could not pay such a huge sum and the university backed down, noting that it would instead withhold academic certificates until they returned.


Back to Ethiopia? Not Likely


Most persons who have studied the brain drain phenomenon have concluded that it is not realistic to expect a significant percentage of those who left their country of origin to return many years later.  Most are now married, have established families, have children in school and become accustomed to their new lives.  Philip Emeagwali stated it starkly when he noted that “an African professional will not resign from his $50,000 a year job to accept a $500 a year job in Africa.”  Only after African economies become much stronger and the political situation improves substantially will it be possible to think in terms of significant numbers of returnees to the continent.  These are the factors that have been so important in the ability of countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Ireland to attract professionals back.  They have, in addition, established policies to foster domestic investment in innovation and research and development.


But there are some persons who, for family or other reasons, are prepared to make the move.  Dr. Meera Sethi reported that the International Organization for Migration has a small program for reversing the brain drain through selective return migration.  IOM helps African countries identify priority skill needs and then matches those needs with qualified nationals living outside the country.  Between 1983 and 1995, IOM helped to return to Africa 2,565 of the most urgently needed professionals.  IOM has undertaken a project in cooperation with the government of Kenya to return Kenyan professionals to assist with its development program.  Known as Migration for Development in Kenya, some 320 professionals have already returned.  The Director of IOM recently announced that the organization is prepared to replicate the program in other African countries. 


There are a few private initiatives to reverse the African brain drain.  Two of South Africa’s leading chief executives recently joined forces for this purpose.  They created Leaders Unlimited that is trying to relocate skilled African managers on the continent.  It is working with African corporations, parastatals and governments.  It recently convinced a top National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist, a native of Mali, to return to Africa to head the World Bank-sponsored African Virtual University that I mentioned earlier.  Inevitably, however, much of Leaders Unlimited attention will focus on filling positions in South Africa’s much stronger economy.     


Countries that wish to encourage the return of professionals need to offer special incentives if they hope to achieve any success.  To some extent, Ethiopia has done this by changing its investment policy in an effort to lure Ethiopians in the diaspora to return and invest in the country.  A similar program for professionals and scholars might include payment of relocation expenses, free or subsidized housing, tax relief, loans and salary supplements for the first few years.  It is highly doubtful, however, that a country like Ethiopia could afford such incentives.  In addition, it would engender considerable resentment among those persons of similar qualification who never left the country and would not be eligible for the incentives. 


For those persons who do have an interest in returning to Ethiopia, the IOM office in Addis Ababa, working with Talent Search, a local private employment agency, has organized a one-stop shop job fair on December 14, 2002.  It will bring together employers from the public and private sector, NGOs, international organizations, embassies and other organizations to meet with Ethiopian professionals living in Ethiopia and abroad.  As part of this effort, IOM will launch on December 1 an Internet-based virtual job fair.  During the month of December, Ethiopian professionals living abroad can link to the event through a web site designed especially for the job fair.  The goal of the job fair is to assess the available skills in the Ethiopian diaspora, establish an active database of Ethiopian professionals in the diaspora and develop a partnership between employers in the public and private sector and Ethiopians in the diaspora.  For more information on the job fair, you can e-mail


An Important Role for the Ethiopian Diaspora


If my assumption is correct that most Ethiopian professionals are not prepared to return permanently to their country of origin but, at the same time, would like to contribute to Ethiopia’s development, the question arises as to the most effective role they can play.  Ethiopians in the diaspora can and should be important partners in the development process.  They are numerous and many of them are highly skilled.  Some have capital to invest.  The sooner that Ethiopians in the diaspora, the Ethiopian government, non-governmental organizations, the international donor community and the private sector appreciate this fact, the faster Ethiopia can take advantage of this resource.  It goes without saying, of course, that Ethiopians inside the country should set the agenda.  It is important, however, that the Ethiopian government, perhaps assisted by international expertise, draw up a strategy for making the best use of the skills and knowledge in the diaspora.   


Damtew Teferra of Boston College has emphasized the role that information and communication technology and virtual networks can play.  They are ideally suited to a talented diaspora that wants to make a positive contribution.  These networks can link Ethiopian professionals overseas with their counterparts back home.  Thailand has initiated a reverse brain drain project that is designed to identify and attract experienced Thai professionals in the diaspora to participate in mission-oriented projects without requiring them to uproot and return home.  Ethiopia could do something similar.


Grass roots initiatives in South Africa and Latin America now link their researchers to their respective diasporas.  Ghanaians in the diaspora created a Ghana Association of Distance Learning and Computer Literacy.  It has the full support of the government of Ghana and colleagues in Ghana.  This same group also established non-profit organizations to solicit financial and in kind assistance to support activities in elementary and secondary schools.   


Ethiopians have begun this networking process.  ENAHPA is a prime example of a diaspora organization that is networking with counterparts in Ethiopia.  The Ethiopian Scholars Program is trying to strengthen Ethiopian universities and has called on qualified Ethiopians in the diaspora to apply for short-term academic positions at universities in Ethiopia.  To the extent that Ethiopians take part in this effort, I hope there is a willingness to work outside of Addis Ababa where the need is even greater.  The Association for Higher Education and Development (AHEAD) based in Canada is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education in Ethiopia.  Its objective is to send medical books and equipment to the medical faculty, provide scholarships to medical students and network with the medical faculty.  Working with the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States, the Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian Knowledge and Technology Transfer Society has arranged to send hundreds of thousands of books from the American NGO known as International Book Bank to schools in Ethiopia.   


It is important to expand these networks and to create virtual Internet sites between the diaspora and the following kinds of organizations in Ethiopia: professional associations, universities, the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission and the Ethiopian Investment Authority.  Assistance in expanding these links might be a good project for the Ethiopian Knowledge and Technology Transfer Society.  The Internet makes it possible for the Ethiopian diaspora and organizations in Ethiopia to communicate quickly, share knowledge, build databases and provide access to multiple users.  Eventually these networks might include neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa and East Africa and their diasporas.  Many of the problems are linked and issues such as desertification, famine, HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB have no respect for national boundaries. 


The Information Communication Technology Task Force of the United Nations has launched the Digital Diaspora Network for Africa in a joint undertaking with Digital Partners, a non-profit organization in Seattle, Washington and CERFE of Rome.  The project is intended to promote development in Africa by creating a network of experts and entrepreneurs in computer technology who are members of the African diaspora in Europe and North America.  The United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Development Fund for Women are promoting similar programs to encourage African development. 


There are other useful things the diaspora can contribute.  Remittances have long been important sources of income in some African countries.  Ghanaians in the diaspora remit about $400 million annually to the national economy.  This constitutes Ghana’s fourth highest source of foreign exchange.  Although the amounts are much smaller, Somalilanders in the diaspora are today the most important source of foreign exchange in Somaliland.  The Eritrean diaspora has also traditionally been an important contributor of foreign exchange in the country. 


For its part, the Ethiopian government may wish to consider encouraging the investment of money from Ethiopians living abroad by offering high interest accounts.  It should consider policies that specifically target improved relations with professionals in the diaspora.  It might borrow ideas implemented by other African countries.  As part of Nigeria’s commitment to recognizing the potential contribution of the Nigerian diaspora, the president established the office of special assistant to the president on diaspora activities.  When the president of Nigeria travels to Europe, America and Asia he meets with professionals, intellectuals and scholars in an effort to convince them to return to Nigeria or serve the nation in some capacity. 


The president of South Africa is promoting the creation of agencies in Europe and the United States to establish data banks to gather information on the professional profiles of South Africans.  Cote d’Ivoire created a special department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dedicated to nationals living abroad.  The president of Cote d’Ivoire also promoted an international conference in Abidjan on the country’s development and appealed to Ivorians in the diaspora to participate.  The government of Ghana held in 2001 a “homecoming” meeting with the Ghanaian diaspora to encourage its involvement in and support for Ghana’s development.  The Ethiopian diaspora is sufficiently large, wealthy and talented to merit similar attention.   




This is a complex problem; there are no simple answers.  Although Ethiopia can not control the “pull” factors that contribute to the brain drain, it can do something about the “push” factors.  For the sake of Ethiopia’s economic development, the brain drain merits high level attention.  As Mekelle University law student Abeba Tadesse commented in her paper, the government of Ethiopia needs to take responsibility for addressing the problem.  At the same time, she emphasized that too many Ethiopians expect the government to do everything.  It is time Ethiopians start taking some responsibility themselves.  I would urge that this include those Ethiopians living in the diaspora.