Who'd take a $500 job in Africa?

Africa special: emigration - Thousands of students are sent to foreign universities, but then stay a

After 27 years of living and working in the US, Professor Atieno Ndede-Amadi is back home in Kenya, teaching at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. "I came back knowing salaries here were quite low," she says, "but I was shocked to learn the actual figure. In my case, I must admit, a 600 per cent pay cut is on the extreme side."

However, Ndede-Amadi is in the minority; and money is not all that brought her back. She came home to care for her ailing mother, and to open the office of Africa's Brain Gain in Nairobi. Last December, ABG held a conference in the city, at which Kenyans living in the diaspora spoke about how to reverse the so-called brain drain. As soon as the conference ended, a huge number of them got on the next flight and headed back to their jobs abroad.

It is estimated that 300,000 African professionals, among them 30,000 doctoral degree holders, work in the developed world and send back money that is second in total only to what the continent receives in earnings from leading export commodities. According to the renowned Africanist Professor Ali Mazrui, Kenya alone has 47,000 professionals working in the United States. The country also sends more than 7,000 students to the US each year, at an annual cost of $200m.

But withholding this money so as to pay professionals to stay at home is not such a neat and easy solution. Most of the money spent on expatriates comes as part of a development assistance package, over which the recipient country has no control. Nor is the brain drain always a bad thing. With unemployment hovering at roughly 50 per cent in Kenya, many of the students who study abroad would rather not return home. And although it is often assumed that the brightest and the best emigrate, many of those who remain disagree. "Many of the students who seek undergraduate education abroad failed to secure places at universities at home on merit," says a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

With most of the talent trained in Africa either unemployed or underemployed, those who move abroad to study or to escape political persecution also become economic exiles. At home, they are looked upon with envy, because they have succeeded in cheating the system. Many Kenyans take low-skilled positions in the Middle East as bus drivers, domestic servants, cruise-ship attendants and security guards. Schoolteachers as well as nurses were hired to go to Canada, the US and the UK in the 1990s.

For most of these exiles, their attachment to home remains tenuous, sustained only by the remittance of guilt money to old parents and other close family left behind. When this connection is severed by death, or the birth of a new generation in exile, their remittances are no longer a reliable bet.

Not that everyone is happy in the diaspora. As non-resident migrants in foreign lands, Africans usually find they have no say in civic affairs. But if they answer politicians' exhortations to return home and rebuild their countries, they find out soon enough that there is neither the space nor the opportunity to make any meaningful contribution to development.

Some return with a sense of entitlement to leadership, but they usually get bogged down by bureaucracy, inefficiency, corruption and incongruous politics. Their attitude is often found to be overbearing, their assumptions removed from reality, and their solutions to problems a little hare-brained. If they return just as repression is easing after years of human rights abuse and economic decline, they are viewed as opportunists who fled when the going was tough, and who are back only now that the struggle is over.

This is why few of the high-flying Kenyans working for international organisations abroad were invited back as technocrats when a government was being put together in 2002. Even those who were, such as Mazrui (from Binghampton) and Makau Mutua, a State University of New York law professor, received only titular and transitory jobs: the first as chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, the other as chairman of the national task force on truth, justice and reconciliation. The government has failed to act on the recommendations of the task force, and Mutua has become a vociferous critic.

Many Africans in any case become integrated into the societies where they work. Philip Emeagwali, a Nigerian computer engineer in the US, says: "I have an American wife who has her academic career, and an eight-year-old son who's in a good school. It will be inconsiderate of me to disrupt my wife's career and my son's education. In theory, we are morally obliged to return to Africa. In reality, an African professional will not resign from his $50,000-a-year job to accept a $500-a-year job in Africa."

The African Union has tried to rise above the petty jealousies between the diaspora and those who stay at home. Two years ago, it amended its charter to include the participation of the diaspora. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, argued then that "there are so many of our own, all over the world, who are enthusiastic and willing to make their contribution to the regeneration of their mother continent". They wanted to do this, he said, "because their roots run very deep into the African soil".

But how can they do it? Kenyan Community Abroad, which became an outspoken lobby group during the final years of President Daniel arap Moi's rule, says: "We are tracking people across the globe with a view to getting professional profiles and financial ability, so that we can allocate each one or a group of them duties according to their capabilities." Others, such as the Kenyan professor Dharam Ghai, suggest that diaspora Africans can return home in retirement as investors. Ghai, an adviser to the International Labour Organisation, believes that it is by ploughing their savings back into their countries of origin that Africans can stem the continent's loss and boost its wealth.

This year, with funding from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, an African Institute of Science and Technology was launched, bringing together the continent's scientists and professionals both abroad and at home. The institute hopes to bridge the digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world. Instead of contenting itself with meagre handouts from the diaspora, African organisations and governments are beginning to focus on the transfer of technology, the infusion of foreign investment, tourism consultancy and advocacy for Africa's causes as areas of co-operation with the continent's sons and daughters abroad.

South Africa's foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, advises against prescribing a uniform role for the diaspora. "The Africans in the diaspora are in a different situation . . . Some may want to utilise their skills in the development of the continent, and some may want to contribute to the New Partnership for Africa's Development. Others can mobilise in the countries where they are, for co-operation . . . solidarity, support and investment."

Kwamchetsi Makokha is deputy editor of the Sunday Standard, Nairobi