By David Himbara

Africa must stop aiding the developed world by exporting the human capital which is needed to drive the continent’s own social and economic transformation.

Nigeria is a case in point. Its immigrants are the most educated group in the US labour force. Yet Nigeria ranks dismally at 152 out of 157 countries in the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI).

Launched in 2018, the index ranks countries’ gains in economic growth and human capital outcomes from investments in health and education. HCI is a composite measure based on survival rates, the quantity and quality of schooling and health status, all of which leads to a productive workforce. It conveys the productivity of the next generation of workers against a benchmark of complete education and full health.

Africa’s performance in HCI is dismal — no country from the continent is ranked in the top 50. Africa’s largest and second largest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, rank 152 and 126, respectively. The economic powerhouse of East Africa, Kenya is at 94, while in North Africa, Egypt stands at 104.

Nigerians in the US

While denouncing immigrants, the Trump administration is currently promoting a brain drain of doctors and nurses from countries with weaker healthcare systems. In reaction to the COVID-19 crisis, the administration began to encourage, in March 2020, medical professionals to move and work in the US.

African immigrants, especially from Nigeria, have already made a significant impact in the US labour market. Nigeria is the largest source of African immigration to the US, numbering about 376,000 from which significant numbers of professionals have emerged.

According to the US government census data, the Nigerian diaspora is overall the best educated, while its members are more than twice as likely to have secured an advanced degree. Nigerians are also more likely than the general American population to work in professional or managerial occupations.

The 2016 American Community Survey found that African immigrants led by Nigerians are professors at top universities; they are entering medical fields at increasing rates; they are becoming entrepreneurs and CEOs in private sector companies. With a median household income of $62,351, compared with $57,617 nationally, as of 2015, Nigerian professionals are a significant human capital factor in the US economy.

The factors that push African professionals to the developed north are well known. But they are rarely acted on. The push factors include poor governance which hinders meritocratic career-advancement, political unpredictability and instability, and poor prospects for education, including for the children of the professional class.

Doctors, engineers, scientists, professors and managers would rather settle abroad. In the case of Nigeria, seeking a better life—especially for children’s education—has overtaken other reasons for seeking job opportunities in the developed north.

Decades of neglect destroyed the quality of educators at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The country’s learning infrastructure and educational system are a shambles. Poor investment in publicly-funded education led to the rise of expensive private schools and universities that are largely unaffordable except for the super-rich.

Fixing the education sector in Nigeria would be the building block for arresting the country’s devastating human capital loss. Attracting back the exported human capital would next on the agenda.

Paying the Price

While Nigerian healthcare professionals are excelling overseas, lack of these professionals are costing Nigeria dearly.

Nigeria’s healthcare is in crisis — the densities of doctors, nurses, and midwives are too low to effectively deliver essential health services currently at 1.95 per 1,000. Nigerians with financial means seek medical care outside the country. It is estimated that Nigeria loses more than $1 billion annually to medical tourism because the domestic healthcare system is in shambles. Tens of thousands of Nigerians travel abroad in search of treatment.

The super-rich, including Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari — with access to the best health care in Nigeria — travel to Europe for medical care. Buhari has made no less than five trips to Britain for medical care, staying in London for months. The majority of Nigerians seeking medical care go to India, as do other African middle-class nationals. India aims to make its medical tourism a $9bn industry, and is targeting Africa as a source of medical tourists.

African leaders collectively issue regularly strategies and action plans to address the fact that Africa has the worst health indicators in the world. The African Union’s Africa Health Strategy (AHS) 2007-2015 was replaced by Africa Health Strategy 2016-2030. Much of this is rhetorical and remains on the drawing board.

Bottom line

Africa must stop sabotaging its own development by giving away its human capital. Our continent is impoverished because it squanders the most important form of wealth and creator of prosperity  — its people.

David Himbara is a Professor of international development based at Centennial College, Toronto, Canada.

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