If You Think Africa is Suffering From a Brain Drain, Your Brain is Drained

I am getting sick and tired of this knee-jerk, sanctimonious and yes, stupid Africa-is-suffering-from-a-brain-drain argument. Every week, on one newspaper or the other, I read of a conference to decry the movement of Africans to the West as the latest neo-imperial plot to bring down long-suffering Africa. When they are not after your gold, oil or cobalt, they are after your mind goes the plaintive wail of the unreasoning aid and development industry do-gooders.

I wish they would just shut up, start a business and get some real work done that increases the wealth and security of their countries. Instead, they prefer to play the old ‘White Guilt’ game of joining with the West’s liberals – who make up the bulk of the aid industry – to call for regulations to stop the flow of hopeful people who are trying to do right by their families and themselves. The argument goes something like this: African professionals have been costly to train and are now moving abroad to pursue their professions thus benefiting the West, rather than their home countries which are now suffering the consequences of this migration. What twaddle.

In 2004, Kenyans abroad, just as an example, conservatively remitted at least $600 million to their friends and relatives through official channels such as Western Union. This is only the tip of the ice-berg as a lot more dollars are sent home through other channels. In 2003, the World Bank estimates that remittances by migrants to their (overwhelmingly poorer) countries exceeded $93 billion, twice the level of worldwide official development assistance. There are other estimates trying to account for informal remittance networks that put the figure at $120-$180 billion per annum.

Unlike development assistance transfers – a large proportion of which pays for luxurious NGO lifestyles and lines corrupt politicians’ pockets – migrant remittances go directly to family members. They are available to the recipients to use according to their own priorities and are used to finance basic consumption, education, health, purchasing or building homes, starting businesses and funding retirement.

My mother was a nurse in the UK for nine years before she returned to Kenya last year. She had initially trained as a nurse in the early 1970s, worked at a succession of government hospitals paradoxically managing to get poorer with every year as the cost of living got more expensive and her professional opportunities shrunk. After a decade of this grind, she went into business for herself and eventually ended up competing for small government tenders – a dirty, corrupt business. Every procedure was fraught with either red tape or dishonesty, and she again ended up almost financially insolvent when the government would not pay her for services she had provided.

Her decision to migrate to the UK was a difficult one: she was broke, in debt and two young children, not to mention my grandmother and a sickly sibling, were dependent on her. She moved to Kent in her mid-forties with kids in tow; having to re-qualify as a nurse by starting at the very bottom of the rung; and not knowing how to drive and unable to even afford a car, had to walk 6-7miles each way to her first £6 per hour nursing home job.

She was forced to often work 80-hour weeks, while meals tended toward baked beans and curry deliveries punctuated by intense worrying about Britain’s youth culture destroying her children. Few were the moments that were not stressful. Opening the post was a nightmarish affair; it was always a bill demanding more money and too rarely a cheque in her name. I can remember her calling me once almost in tears when she realised that she owed the BBC £100 for its compulsory license fee even though she could not remember the last time she had managed to put up her feet to watch ‘Celebrity Big Brother’. But through these travails, she scrimped and saved, and took some advanced nursing courses to qualify for better paying work. Eventually, having been offered a part-time postgraduate place at one of the better universities, she was finally able to come into her own.

The hours remained long but in the final three years before she happily returned to Kenya, they had become far more lucrative. She was now earning £20-30 per hour by working for nursing agencies. This enabled her to buy a property to rent, paid down her mortgage in Kenya and put my brother and sister through university. The former studying astrophysics with the dare-you-doubt-me intention of being the first Kenyan to go to space, while the latter reads international relations with giddy plans to change our country’s political landscape. But my mother’s achievements were not limited to Britain’s shores. She invested her money in Kenya by buying land, supported her mother and brother and provided financial assistance to dozens of friends and relatives during her nine years away. This, we are supposed to believe, represents a brain drain and a sort of imperialist plot. If it does, then I am all for brains draining with all speed and would love to hug imperialism.

The alternative discussed in the ever ongoing conferences bemoaning the brain drain is that my mother had remained in Kenya, getting poorer and perhaps eventually being one of those trades-people that the government treats like criminals when it is not taxing them punitively. Headlines and distinguished dignitaries in the all-knowing aid industry call for the governments that made my mother’s hopes untenable in Kenya and forced her to seek greener pastures abroad to be responsible for regulating and “encouraging” less brain drain. Every such pronouncement draws a bitter laugh from me.

The Kenyan state has routinely devalued and destroyed the aspirations of its citizens with its high taxes, over centralisation, arrogance and criminal conduct. It is akin to the colonial state that we supposedly got rid of 41 years ago though now staffed with black faces whose mouths spout a hypocritical nationalism that enriches them at the expense of those like my mother.

I am weary of the brain drain argument. It belongs to donor and NGO conferences, not to the real lives of those who must live by their wits and effort as opposed to a cheque from Western taxpayers. Those who bandy the argument are relentlessly statist and even now have their eye on remittances that they believe can be directed better by government and development organisations than by the people who earn them. It is an argument beloved by middle class paternalists in hock to donor money and who believe that without those who have left, everything at home will fall apart – it is nonsense of the worst kind.

They make the case not because they believe it, but because they are paid to. Most have been abroad and even worse, make the argument while in London or Washington or Paris. Not for my mother the benefit of migration, but for them who are in the United Nations or Oxfam, being abroad to pursue their vulturous careers based on beggardom is just fine. Ultimately, they choose to not appreciate that people own their own lives and the fruits of their labour belong to them to utilise as they wish provided it does not harm others.

The obvious response to the sentiments I have expressed is that African governments paid for the training of (health) professionals so people such as my mother owe something to the system. This argument, which infuriates me whenever it is made, ignores the fact that most professional who leave their countries do so after years of trying to make a go at home while paying their taxes the whole time. My mother had been a taxpayer for a quarter century before she left. And finally, shocking news to the brain-drained developmentalists: you have failed.

Four decades of your hot air, smugness, arrogance, paternalism and poverty of ideas have only built on equally vacuous colonial legacies to leave many people in Kenya and Africa reduced to a brutish existence that does not reflect their effort, flexibility and hope. Stop bemoaning the brain drain and start thinking of how to use your brain better.

(c) MMK


About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

23 Responses to If You Think Africa is Suffering From a Brain Drain, Your Brain is Drained

  1. Afromusing says:

    wow. Dude you are good. The title shikad me kabisa!

  2. MMK says:

    Thanks Afromusing, you always manage to be very kind in your comments and thus I cannot but help liking you 🙂 I was trying to get some research done when I saw a post on Mshairi’s blog – which I really enjoy by the way – on this brain drain issue. In the course of writing a comment on Mshairi, I just decided to let my bitter rant out here.

  3. Afromusing says:

    lol, i was kinda scared of commenting first…eh this blogging thing is very interesting that a post inspires you to do this, and we get to read and enjoy!

  4. Shay says:

    Great post! We’ve highlighted parts of it on our blog, Booker Rising (which is a news site based in USA that promotes black moderate, conservative, libertarian, free-market, contrarian, whatever thought).


    While we have highlighted quotes from June Arunga in the past, we just came across your blog this week during the course of our Country of the Week series (which is Kenya right now). We added you to our Black Libertarians blogroll section, is that correct for you guys?

  5. Anonymous says:

    The other day my cousin and I got into a discussion about where we work.
    “Are there any Kenyans or Africans who work there?”, she responded that there is a doctor, engineer, lawyer and a couple in their forties doing the same job I do.

    Does Kenya suffer any loss from their lack of professional contribution in their areas of expertise?

    The answer is a resounding yes.

    The effects of the brain drain are a current reality not just for Kenya, but Africa as a whole.

    However like you have so vividly described your mom’s experience had she just stuck it out what would have been the consequences?

    This has become the current mantra.
    Africa’s “brain drain”. A foolish Kenyan Member of Parliament had the nerve to suggest that the USA hold off on green cards to Kenyans because it was costing the country some imagined millions of dollars.

    He speaks as a person who has a salary increment of 600%, can now afford world class health insurance for his other woman and children, pension plan , car allowance, house allowance and the perks are enormous.
    A typical Kenyan politician who was once a beggar, cooked his way to a political office which in Kenya corresponds almost immeadiately with wealth accumulation.
    It is no wonder he doesn’t see why the nurses had to go on strike last week.
    It is no wonder he doesn’t understand why the mitumba small business owners are up in arms against a gorvernment that has declared a full out war on its citizens.

    When we are away we afford the diginity of life and hope of progress for our loved ones.
    Our toil yields in itself a seed that is planted when a brother is educated, a home or rent is paid.

    Our exodus is not one of sheer defeat but an energising hope to fight to realise our dreams and give our loved ones those opportunities that have long been stolen for those like us whose last names are not Kibaki, Raila, Moi, Ngilu etc etc.
    We do this out of nothing but in search of hope.

    Thank you for your words in times like this when my body is weary of the toil and I read words such as yours am energised and ready to fight again.
    You remind me it is not in vain.
    It is not in vain.
    Thank you

  6. Anonymous says:

    Survival first is the most real of all human existence.

    Money, but not patriotism pays the bills.
    What is often laughable is it is the same beggars in gorvernment that have the temerity to label acts of sacrifice by Kenyans …brain drain.

    Some go as far as saying they don’t understand how someone will leave a good job in Kenya to go and wipe arse in America.

    Well the answer is plain and simple.
    Wiping arse in America pays me 10 fold what the paltry pennies in Kenya did.
    Wiping arse in America has given me an opportunity that those beggars in gorvernment stole.
    A chance to be somebody.
    Wiping arse in America pays the bills and restores dignity to my family.
    Wiping arse in America keeps my younger sibling well provided for so she doesn’t have to go the streets to get it.

    While banking in Kenya what did I ever have?
    Paltry wages, strained family relations, hopelessness and the list is endless.

    Yes I wipe arse in America.
    Yes I also don’t think the bank suffered very much when my behind left my position in the words of my boss……..you live we hire someone else.

    Well understood.

    Unlike the people in the Kenya gorverment I hate handouts. I hate pity. I hate pretending. I hate stealing from others to build myself.

    I love to work with my hands, break my back and at the end of the day see the toils of my labor pay off.

    Me and many like myself are the true patriots of Kenya.
    We didn’t leave her or sit back and feel sorry for her.
    We knew that we make her.
    We knew that when we are better than she is better.
    Unlike those that take comfort in appearing in informercials about Kibera begging for food while there is plenty in Kenya to feed us for years to come.
    The donations that are given go straight to that fat white woman’s pocket and that nasty funky looking meero who can’t wait for another summit on the Brain drain being a bigger threat than Aids in Africa.

    We choose to hide Kenya’s nakedness by the little differences we make in our own way.
    Kenya knows that and appreciates it.
    That for me is enough.

    Excellent article.


  7. MMK says:

    I am so moved by these comments and I hope if you guys do not mind if I put them as posts. The last one by F.A.K I must say left me misty-eyed. What feeling, what courage!

  8. kipepeo says:

    I almost stood up and clapped by the time i was done reading this! I cant even put into words how much i feel you on this!…wow!!

  9. mshairi says:

    Thanks you, Kimani. How awfully sweet of you – saying you like my blog!

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  16. neatuk says:

    This is a wonderful message, and as a person involved in international professionals recruitment (Nurses to UK/USA), your view and details about your Mum are VERY TRUE!!!! I cannot agree with you further!

    Keep it up, and if you do not mind, I would like to use this in our blog.

  17. neatuk says:

    This is a wonderful message. We should all work towards betterment of our society, not buying into every ideology that comes our way!

    I would like to use this message in our blog, if this is ok… to propergate your excellent and very true view.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Hi Thanks,
    Iam a nurse came to usa 10 monthes ago after working in kenya for 7 years and nothing to show for it exept debts.Boy I will wipe their asses !so that my kids can have a better life.Thanks again.

  19. MMK says:

    Anonymous – I am glad that you enjoyed the post. I admire how hard you have had to work to get to the States and to keep going when trying to adjust to a new culture and situation.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I will not go into details but:
    (i) According to estimates( eg the quoted WB report) the average remmitter remits ~ 10% of their earnings. Kenya does not benefit from the other 90%
    (ii)What about the spaces left behind that require high tech pple, who fills them? Expatirates. AT pays 4X what the kenyan gets in the west
    (iii)What kind of pple are likely to cause change(political etc) in Africa. The learned. Where are they? Afraid to fight for better system( out in the west where the mzungu already created a better system!)
    (iv) If the migration had no effect, how come Africa has never moved forward since 1960?

    Pple, be brave and accept we are cowards, afraid to fight for a better system at home

  21. Anonymous says:

    I do not agree with you argument, but can i all the same share this with our readers at http://www.mwalimu.com? I believe another angle to the story would be welcome.

  22. commy girl says:

    i think u are dull, for this rubbish u call right up Africa is indeed suffering from brain drain that’s a fact . brain drain is caused by African leaders, that’s another fact sending money to relative does not help so much. is better u teach people how to fish then giving them fish to eat. and i also think people like u are part of African problem u think of your comfort but u are not ready to think of Africans solution brace up girl and try to be patriotic.

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