Battling brain drain in the developing world

The World

This story was originally reported by PRI’s The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

by Jori Lewis

The University of Yaoundé sits on a hill in a quiet neighborhood of Cameroon’s capital city. It is the country’s oldest and most prestigious school, but it has fallen into disrepair.

“We don’t have [consistent] electricity,” said Ives Magloire Kengne, a researcher who studies wastewater treatment. “We have a generator that is broken and rusting. Sometimes you go two days without electricity.”

Besides that, frequent water cuts mean that sometimes, even in his water laboratory, they don’t have water.

Kengne endures all of this on a tiny salary — about $15 a day. “I’m just not satisfied with that,” he said.

Across Africa and the developing world, researchers are often dissatisfied with professional opportunities in their home countries. Many end up seeking better opportunities abroad.

One study from the International Organization for Migration found that 17 percent of Cameroonians who had some higher education ended up leaving the country.

For certain professions the rate of emigration was even higher. Almost half of all doctors who train in Cameroon migrated to other countries.

“This brain drain is a serious handicap for countries that want to develop themselves — like Cameroon,” said Francois Thabi, coordinator of a government program on professional migration.

Cameroon is now trying to reverse this brain drain.

Thabi said his country cannot compete with the allure of Europe or the US economically, but it can do more than it has done in the past to convince professionals to stay.

“The idea is to say let’s do everything to give our people a reason not to leave the country,” he said. “We have to show them the benefits of staying so that they won’t leave.”

To that end, the Cameroonian government in 2009 started paying a quarterly allowance to professors, lecturers and scientists at state-run universities in order to augment their meager salaries.

Innocent Foutcha, president of a union for university professors and lecturers in Cameroon, said the allowance is having some effect.

“There is clear evidence that people have started coming back to universities,” he said. “Research has picked up.”

Foutcha noted, however, that the allowance does not always come on time, and even with the allowance professors make a pretty small salary. Still, he said, the new program is a step in the right direction.

Private groups are also working to support research in Cameroon. An organization called Global Viral Forecasting (GVF) has set up a laboratory in Yaoundé to search for emerging viruses in Africa’s forests, which gave the world diseases such as HIV and Ebola.

An American researcher started GVF, but many of the lead staff are Cameroonian scientists.

Cyrille Djoko, director of GVF’s Central Africa laboratory, said hiring local researchers is good for the science because they have more consistent access to the forests. It also keeps scientists working in Cameroon, “most of whom are only thinking about going abroad to look for greener pastures,” he said.

Ives Magloire Kengne, the water researcher at the University of Yaoundé, said he has received offers to go abroad but has decided to stay, in part, due to pride.

“We have to have people who stay,” he said. “If we all leave, who is going to build Cameroon? It’s a question I often pose to friends. If we all leave Africa, who is going to come and build it up?”

PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.