Feature Article of Friday, 15 August 2003

Columnist: Sophism, Yaw

From Brain Drain To Brain Circulation: Can Ghana Harness Its Human Capital Abroad For Development?

The issue of brain drain has gained much currency in the current development debate in view of the importance of human capital in the emerging knowledge-based economies. It is claimed that Ghana is losing its best and brightest in need to countries that are already the most advantaged in the world. We are called to act to retain and reclaim the skilled professionals who can move us forward in meeting our development challenges. However, the government ability to control migration of skilled and professional personnel has weakened as the need to do so has grown. The fact is that borders are beyond the control of any government and little can be done to ameliorate the migration problem. It is therefore important for the government to reorient its policies from attempting to reduce migration to coping and working with it to derive the maximum benefit from it.

While some scholars consider this phenomenon as constructive and dynamic, others look at it as destructive to economic development of Ghana. On one hand, it is argued that the movement of Ghanaians intellectuals, experts and skilled personnel to other developed countries promotes the dissemination of knowledge and broadening of cultural values and norms. On the other hand some maintain that the process is destructive when in 1998 almost 120 doctors emigrated from Ghana to other countries. It is estimated that about 650 Ghanaian physicians are practicing in United State alone. This account for nearly 50 percent of the total number of doctors in Ghana. Apart from undermining the national scientific and the technological potential, there is substantial cost involved in educating these professionals, and lost investment and benefits due to lack of specialists to develop the country.

The traditional literature on this subject has experienced considerable renewal, reflecting changes in the brain drain debate. Recently, Johnson and Regets (1998) introduced a new concept into the discussion, that is, “ brain circulation.” Brain circulation encompasses the cycle of moving abroad to study, then taking a job abroad and later returning home to take advantage of a good opportunity. It also entails the exchange of brains or ideas among intellectuals at home with their counterparts in the developed countries. Ghana faces both challenges and opportunities in the emerging knowledge-based economies. At present more than 70 percent of new jobs that are created in the global environment are in the knowledge intensive areas.

The unprecedented and profound development in information and communication technologies (ICTs) has changed the dynamics of the debate. In the past, efforts to regulate the skilled personnel mobility has relied on managing the physical movement, while harnessing their potential in their places of residence has been negligible. Now Ghanaians are communicating among themselves through the Internet. However, most of us are not doing this on scholarly, administrative, and scientific matters. Many of us have been using the Internet as a tool for “tribal/political warfare.” The question that is raised is this: Can Ghanaian government, organizations and institutions use technology to ensure that brain drain becomes brain circulation?

Technology can be used to change brain drain into “brain gain.” Many studies recount the various ways that immigrant experts, especially from Asia and Latin America are using technology as means to contribute to their native countries. Not only are they contributing through remittances, but they are also serving as visiting scholars, creating virtual networks, and generally shaping the direction of the scholarly environment and capacity building in their home countries.

Besides resettling in the home country, reverse flow of brains can take place by an offer for attractive temporary positions with desirable conditions; an example of this is the government of Ireland’s Science and Technology Agency. This agency promotes the use of native expatriates on sabbaticals. A different type of temporary arrangement occurs in China and Taiwan that grants preferential status (no taxes for two to three years) to those who establish a company within an industrial park. Another example is accepting a two to three year appointment in the home country while maintaining ties with the United States. For instance, in 2001, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology hired Dr. Paul Cho of the University of Houston as its new President for a three-year period, but he maintained his position at the laboratory on High Temperature Super Conductivity in Houston.

Also, some scientists or experts remain abroad but establish and maintain a long-term relationship with researchers in their home country through periodic visits, international conferences, workshops, short courses at their home institutions, and collaborative researches. Many Taiwanese experts living in US maintain ties with colleagues in Taiwan, providing expertise in many fields of scientific inquiries.

Another mechanism for exchange of ideas is networking of experts abroad with experts at home. Columbia is linking its “lost” scientists and engineers working abroad to reverse brain drain to brain gain. The Caldas program in Columbia has instituted a program where expatriate scientists advise on scientific and economic plans. It is estimated that about 40 countries mostly from the developing countries have devised such networking scheme, while other are working on such programs.

Many third world countries are pursuing aggressive policies to tap their human capital abroad. Thailand’s “The Reverse Brain Drain Project,” is designed to make the immigrant nationals become part of the nation building process without uprooting them from their bases elsewhere.

Whether Ghanaian experts abroad eventually contribute to Ghana’s development depends to some extent on the government policies or initiatives on this issue and its commitments to engaging highly skilled professionals in nation building. Policy options for dealing with the issue of brain drain can be grouped into the return option and the Diaspora option. The return option involves attempts to encourage highly skilled expatriates to return home, while the diasporas option represents a different approach to brain drain. The Diaspora option sees migration of skilled personnel not as a loss, but potential gain to the sending countries. In this option, trained and specialized personnel are seen as a pool of potentially useful human capital for the country of origin, the challenge is to mobilize the brains.

Strategies based on the return option may include: political stability, not an easy matter to achieve and maintain, sound economic policies leading to a viable private sector development, and the institution of a fair and friendly regulatory environment. Other important strategies include establishing standard of good governance including protection of property rights, and the enforcement of rule of law through a reputable judiciary system. It also calls for the need to create a civil service that is competitive and merit-based and properly compensated. The return option also calls for the government to initiate outreach to the Diasporas, for example, offering incentives such as competitive salaries, relocation subsidies, housing, duty free privileges, cash bonuses, and access to reliable quality health services.

It is important to point out that only a handful of developing countries; mostly the new industrialized countries have been able to implement these policies. This is because many third world countries like Ghana do not have the social and the physical infrastructure as well as comparable salary to compete with the advanced countries where these native expatriates are located.

What can we do? We know that most Ghanaians in the Diasporas have a genuine desire to be of service in fostering development at home. A great many of us would like to go and live in our own culture where we are accepted and respected. Given these factors the government can initiate programs that can reverse the curse of brain drain into brain gain. The following policy guidelines are recommended in addition to those that have been discussed earlier.

The government needs to speed up its dual citizenship program with the realization that these individuals, rather than being viewed as disloyal and unpatriotic, instead should be valued for creating bridges between Ghana, Europe, and North America, bridges that bring mutual benefits in areas such as trade, information exchange, scientific inquiries, and tourism.

The government needs to organize national policy dialogues and workshops on brain circulation using it to identify appropriate expertise. It is also suggested that the government create a national agency to promote a link and connection among its expatriate community overseas as well as their Ghanaian counterparts. This agency would be responsible for promoting the use of ICT as a tool in forging stronger cooperation and collaboration between the homeland and the Diaspora.

The government needs to create databank of skills possessed by members of Ghanaian overseas. The data could be assembled by an independent NGO, using electronic survey forms, and shared with domestic and international employers in Ghana.

Another policy area that this article wants to explore in greater detail is remittances. The Bank of Ghana reported that Ghanaians abroad sent home an amount of $1.3billion to Ghana (Ghanaweb) in 2002. This amount nearly matches Ghana’s total revenue from merchandise exports ($1.94), highlighting the role of migrants in generating foreign exchange and saving. This figure, I believe, is more than reported, because estimating the exact amount of remittances Ghana receives is a problem. This is because much of the remittances are sent through unofficial channels.

Until now, however, policy makers, economists, and researchers have shown little interest in the role of remittances in economic development, arguing that remittances were used for consumption, and not for productive investment. But this position has changed for two main reasons. First, remittance growth has soared substantially; the World Bank reports that US$111 billion was remitted world wide in 2001. Of this amount about 65 percent went to developing countries. Second, organized groups of migrants, known as Hometown Associations (HTAs) have begun to channel a portion of their resources for investment, largely to fund local infrastructure projects.

There is the need to promote the creation of non-partisan, independent NGO that studies the use of remittances and seek to direct the flow of these funds toward productive uses. The policy issues or questions facing the government are:

  • Can remittance earnings bridge the gap as official aid flows decline?
  • Is the money sent home by Ghanaians living abroad simply used for consumption?
  • Could remittance earning be harnessed for our economic development?
  • Should the Ghanaian government intervene to lower transaction costs much of which remains in North America and Europe?
  • Should the government devise mechanisms to direct remittances into productive investments?
These and many policy questions regarding remittances may be explored in future articles.

It is recommended that the government explore ways to increase the flow of remittance into Ghana to reduce its reliance on International Financial Institutions like the World Bank and IMF. Many third world countries are pursuing aggressive policies to increase the flow of remittances. For example, some state governments in Mexico have realized this potential and have promoted in the last ten years new and innovative form of public-private collaboration with the aim of increasing the flow of remittances. An amount of $9.3billion was remitted to Mexico in 2001. And the trend is expected to continue at an annual rate of 12.3 percent. My point is that if some countries can do it, then Ghana can.

It would be remiss of me to conclude this article without recognizing the various initiatives and contributions by groups like the Ghana Cyber Group, Ghana Homecoming Summit, Ghanaweb, and various Ghanaian Associations all over the globe. I applaud them for their laudable initiatives and their kind gestures. However, I think we can do more with collaboration, and recognition from the government.

In conclusion, I will say that in addressing the problem of brain drain in Ghana, the government policies should focus on fostering the utilization, contribution, and exploitation of the brainpower, and other resources of Ghanaians abroad without necessarily moving them from where they live. The emerging technologies have opened a wide array of policy options for policy formulation and implementation regarding the use of human capital both at home and abroad.


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.