The brain drain that has been ongoing in Africa since the days of the slave trade has deprived the continent of human talent and the capacity for human development, according to Dr Arikana Chihombori-Quao, the former African Union ambassador to the United States.
Speaking on 6 July at the Association of African Universities’ 15th general conference themed, ‘The Future of Higher Education in Africa’, Chihombori-Quao said no amount of money injected into Africa will help the continent to develop until the brain drain is completely reversed.
In a plenary address on one of the meeting’s segments, ‘Contributions of the diaspora to African Higher Education’, Chihombori-Quao advised African countries to start tapping the talent and skills from all peoples of African descent globally.
“Doing this or that, without the help of the diaspora, will not work,” said Chihombori-Quao.
She stated it appears that African leaders and other elites on the continent have forgotten that the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 that led to the colonial partition of the continent is still alive and well and continues with its original mission of dividing the continent.
The former diplomat, social activist and entrepreneur urged African countries to stop exporting labour of all sorts to the rest of the world only to rely heavily on loans for development.
“African countries are saddled with loans that they cannot repay, which is a secret weapon to facilitate the exploitation of African resources and its people,” said Chihombori-Quao. On economic development, Chihombori-Quao wondered how Africa would develop when its resources and economies are still controlled by those who had partitioned and colonized the continent.“The real issues that face the continent are ignored and fingers are pointed at corrupt African leaders when it is well known that corrupt leaders exist in all parts of the world,” said Chihombori-Quao.
On higher education, Chihombori-Quao challenged African academia to start rewriting African history, as the bulk of history books on the continent were written by the colonisers and have never been revised.
She argued there is a fair share of “miseducation” in Africa and it is the duty of African universities to correct falsehoods about the continent and help to fight exploitation, racism, economic exclusion and marginalisation that is directed to people of African descent. Contributing to discussion on the role that the diaspora should play in higher education in Africa, Dr Nkem Khumbah, a lecturer of mathematics and a member of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM-Africa Initiative at the University of Michigan in the US, said that, what Africa now needs is human capital for its development agenda. Khumbah said the African diaspora is now the only vanguard for African progress as it has the capacity in terms of expertise and skills that could be used to rejuvenate African higher education. But, according to Khumbah, there are external forces that are sidelining the diaspora into the affairs of the African development agenda, especially in higher education. He stressed the urgency of cooperation between the Association of African Universities and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States, as one way of reshaping Africa’s relationship with its diaspora of all peoples of black descent. “The Association of African Universities should recruit HBCUs as members and should include them in its conferences and even allow the diaspora academics and researchers to hold leadership positions in the association,” said Khumbah. He said the two sides should come together in partnerships, training and innovation programmes, resource mobilisation and research activities, as a lot of resources and energy are being wasted.
Khumbah highlighted the opening of the North American regional office by the AAU as a step in the right direction as it could serve as a reaching out and recruitment point for the diaspora in the US and Canada.
According to Professor Margaret King, the president of the Chicago-based Global Institute of Sustainable Development, African countries should use synergies of the diaspora to provide training to people in the continent and even encourage the diaspora to come back home (to Africa) permanently.
“Africa should break the cycle of dependency and global exclusion that had been there since the slaves left the shores of the continent,” said King, who is also the coordinator of international studies at the University of Chicago.
She advised African countries not just to rely only on the diaspora segment that had been born in Africa but tap the talent and skills of the diaspora of black descent everywhere. King said many African higher education institutions that have now gone into decline could benefit from the diaspora in terms of quality of teaching, research, innovations and research output. Despite limitations to recruit diaspora academics on a large scale, Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, the vice-chancellor at the Nairobi-based United States International University-Africa, gave an update on how the Carnegie Corporation of New York had implemented several programmes on strengthening education and training systems in African universities. According to Zeleza, such programmes as the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Programme have been focusing on projects in research collaboration, doctoral graduate student teaching and mentoring and curriculum development. The Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Programme specifically targeted African-born diaspora scholars and benefited various universities in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. He said academics from the diaspora bring a wealth of experience and skill sets to African institutions and plans are under way to increase their number under the Carnegie funding.
“The value of having diaspora scholars in African universities is increasing as African countries try to train the next generation of workers in artificial intelligence and [the] green economy,” said Zeleza.
But he stated that diaspora scholars will continue to need support from receiving universities as well as from government officials in the processing of documents such as visas and work permits. Contributing to the dialogue about the role of diaspora academics in higher education, research and innovations in African universities, Damtew Teferra, a professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said there is an urgent need to mobilise African intellectuals in the diaspora to promote the development agenda in Africa.
“It is time to bring intellectual capital from the diaspora to the continent, as one way of increasing brain-circulation in Africa,” said Teferra.
As argued by Professor Pauline Rankin, a political scientist at Carleton University in Canada, the gist and the spirit of the dialogue at the AAU conference is the need for African governments to look beyond remittances that could be derived from diaspora academics but start engaging on how they can get skill sets from diaspora intellectuals.