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African and Caribbean Brain Drain, Part 1

Editor's note: Part 2 of Clinton Parks's article, African and Caribbean Brain Drain, will appear on MiSciNet on Friday, 2 April 2004.

T he Problem

The success of Asian immigrants in science and engineering (S&E) in the U.S. is well publicized. However, the 1.6 million African and Caribbean immigrants (from 1960 to 1995)1 are a largely ignored part of the S&E workforce. Although their numbers are comparatively small, they are significant. Africans received the highest percentage of Third Preference visas (for those with specialized skills) from 1980 to 1989,2 and a high proportion of West Indian immigrants have a postsecondary education.3 The loss of these highly educated professionals from developing countries to developed nations has been termed "brain drain" or reverse transfer of technology (RTT).2

According to Jean-Baptiste Meyer, socio-economist at France's Institute of Research for Development, "knowledge is now the fundamental source of the creation of wealth and the primary factor in international competitiveness."4 Critics claim that RTT deprives developing countries of the knowledge base critical for nation building. This article examines the data concerning African and Caribbean immigrants in S&E positions in the U.S. and their implications.

The Impact of Brain Drain

Brain drain is so prevalent that more African scientists and engineers work in the U.S. than Africa,5 and over 70% of Guyanese3 and 75% of Jamaicans4 with a postsecondary education live in the U.S. "They work in universities, research institutions, and industry," according to Uzo Mokwunye, director of the U.N. University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa. The relative value of S&E workers is much higher to developing countries than developed countries because of the extreme shortage of S&E professionals in developing nations.4

The problem also extends to the children of these immigrants. The children of S&E migrants (who also tend to be highly educated) are unlikely to participate in developing their parents' home country, thus losing their potential contribution.2 The loss of scientists and engineers not only means losing their labor,2 but also their knowledge pool--critical for educating future generations.4

Brain drain also incurs more tangible losses. A net financial loss results from losing potential S&E worker's substantial income tax base--estimated at $184,000 per professional.4 RTT can also eliminate the creation of new S&E jobs and decrease the need for unskilled labor required to support scientists and engineers.4 The economic loss is especially devastating when S&E migrants are educated domestically at their home government's expense. Postsecondary education is free in most African and Caribbean nations.2 Africa spends $4 billion annually to replace its intellectual loses, which is higher than what is spent on native S&E workers.4 These factors ultimately harm Africa's ability to compete in the international economy.2

With the amount of apparent harm being done by brain drain, why do S&E students and workers migrate from Africa and the Caribbean? Experts point to various pull and push factors.

Pull Factors

Better employment and career opportunities are brain drain's largest pull factors.2 The U.S. and other Western nations have benefited from immigrant S&E students and professionals for the past few decades. The scientific pull of the U.S., in particular, stems from academic "centers of excellence."6 The U.S.'s expansive higher education system, scholarship opportunities, and relatively lenient immigration policy (pre-9/11) attracted students from around the world.7

However, since 9/11, student visas are down (27% during the 2003 academic year) and many are denied for unknown reasons. The events of 9/11 accelerated the shift already occurring,8 sending a larger proportion of S&E migrants to the U.K., Canada, and Australia.9 While student movements themselves are not defined as brain drain, many foreign S&E workers originally migrated as students.10

The recent mass movement of foreign S&E workers has been due to the expanded movement of capital and labor across borders--the alternatively demonized and canonized phenomenon known as globalization.11 The existence of job opportunities combined with flexible career paths, a strong entrepreneurial culture, and high living standards are reasons for S&E migration to the U.S.7 These conditions create a positive feedback effect that attracts even more graduate students, postdocs, and senior scientists, solidifying a knowledge pool that gives a nation a competitive advantage.7

However, that competitive advantage comes at a price to the host country. Ajit Ghose, senior economist at the International Labour Organization, notes that globalization lowers salaries, employment, and labor standards in the host country. Even so, U.S. employers have actively sought foreign S&E workers to meet needs in industry, government, and academia. In 1999 a third of all U.S. S&E Ph.D.s in industry were foreign.13 This number grew by 5% in the late 1990s, whereas the proportion of U.S. domestic S&E workers fell.7

Push Factors

Besides the lure of host nations, poor internal conditions cause S&E workers from developing nations to leave their homeland. In many African and Caribbean nations, economic and political instability are primary RTT push factors, and these problems have burdened each region's educational system. Opportunities for higher education--especially graduate studies--are limited in Africa and the Caribbean. Fewer than 5% of youth receive postsecondary education in sub-Saharan Africa12 and about 9% in the Caribbean,13 compared with about 51% for industrialized countries.13, 14

Their respective educational systems are growing due to increasing student demand, with fierce competition for spaces.13, 14 For Africa, the increased demand has taken place as financial support has fallen, thus overburdening Africa's educational system and creating overcapacity, dilapidated facilities, obsolete equipment, and outdated materials.14 Because research and development investment in Africa is only 0.5% of the world total, some African nations lack the necessary infrastructure to support S&E students and workers. Until recently Gambia lacked the facilities to support postsecondary education needed to employ scientists and engineers to teach future generations. These situations depress job creation in the private sector.

Lack of jobs, low pay, and a lack of resources are also push factors for African and Caribbean S&E migrants. Moustapha Diouf, associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and native of Senegal, noted "a correlation between the state of [a country's] economy and the level of brain drain."14 Some African governments and grant aid programs, whose salaries and benefits are paid by foreign governments,4 exacerbate RTT by relying on foreign S&E workers at the expense of equivalent nationals. Zephania On'gata of the Kenya Institute of Policy Management (KIPM) notes that aid packages often require hiring expatriates in favor of qualified citizens. Lalla Ben Barka, U.N. Economic Commission for Africa deputy executive secretary, notes, "In every African country there is a paradox of high rates of unemployment and under-employment among school leavers, including university graduates--even scientists and engineers."15

To Be Continued ...

Brain drain's external pull and internal push factors offer no simple solutions, but repatriation, cost remittance, and network development are possible resolutions being used or discussed nationally and internationally. Some argue that brain drain can become "brain circulation" to the benefit of developing nations. Part 2 of the article addresses these possible solutions in-depth.


  • Levinson, David and Ember, Melvin, Eds. (1997). American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation, Volume I: A- J. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group LLC.

  • Okome, Mojúbàolú O. (September 2002). The Antinomies of Globalization: Some Consequences of Contemporary African Immigration to the United States of America. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Carrington, William J. and Detragiache, Enrica. (June 1999). How Extensive Is the Brain Drain? Online Finance & Development, Volume 36, Number 2. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Meyer, Jean-Baptiste. (July-August 2001). The "Brain Drain": New Aspects of the South/North Exodus. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Federation for American Immigration Reform. (October 2002). Brain Drain. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Mahroum, Sami. Europe and the Challenge of the Brain Drain. Online The IPTS Report. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Teferra, Damtew. (Winter 2000). Brain Drain of African Scholars and the Role of Studying in the United States. Online International Higher Education. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Diouf, Moustapha. (7 and 8 March 2004). Personal communication.

  • Joffe, Josef. (23 November 2003). Locking Out the Brainpower? Online Washington Post. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Guellec, Dominique. Science and Development Network, Brain Drain Introduction. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • (22 September 2003). ILO Economist Offers Solution to Brain Drain in Region. Caribbean Net News. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Bollag, Burton. (12 July 2002). Chaos on African Campuses: Strikes, Protests, and Arson Are Common, But Poverty Is the Real Plague. Online Journal of Higher Education. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Jules, Didacus, Miller, Erol, and Armstrong, L. Ancilla. A Caribbean Education Strategy

  • Jones, Deborah. (28 November 2001). Brain Drain Dizzys Africa, Carribbean. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Mutume, Gumisai. (July 2003). Reversing Africa's "Brain Drain": New Initiatives Tap Skills of African Expatriates. Online Africa Recovery, Vol.17, Number 2. Retrieved from the World Wide Web:

  • Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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