Brain Drain in African Higher Education: Motivations and Methods for Bolstering African Educational Opportunities

This guest blog was written by Redeemer University student Ian DeJong at the end of his second year of undergraduate study as an international relations major and philosophy minor. He wrote the paper specifically for GSC, as he was asked to survey some of our scholars working in Africa in light of the issue of brain drain. The essay was edited by Dr. Schuurman and Dr. Goranson.

An alarm is sounded in the article in Foreign Policy by Eric A. Miller (August 16, 2022) where he analyzes the dangerous prospect of China’s military overreach into African territories, and concludes it  “threaten[s] natural resource and strategic mineral extraction vital to Africa’s economic future.” The final statement of the article warns: “Silence and apathy will ensure a Chinese base in West Africa becomes a matter of when, not if.” 

“Silence and apathy”–why is there a lack of concern for the African continent in the face of such economic oppression and military imperialism?  There are enough problems already: the continent is under stress from poverty, underdevelopment, war, terrorism, disease, and much more. So, where is the public advocacy from journalists or well-educated scholars in Africa—not just in negotiations with China, but in threats from all forces that might not be seeking the welfare of the African people? After discussing this matter with a few GSC Scholars, I conclude that the lack of advocacy for justice is partially, if not, considerably attributable to the brain drain problem in higher education. 

Brain drain is typically understood as the growing trend of educated, emerging leaders from developing countries emigrating to foreign nations that offer better vocational opportunities, higher pay, and more desirable living conditions. Giannoccolo (2009) offers a careful definition that draws on a wide literature:

The term “Brain Drain” is used as a synonym for the movement of human capital, where the net flow of expertise is heavily in one direction (Salt 1997). Use of the word ‘Brain’ pertains to any skill, competency or attribute that is a potential asset. Use of the word ‘Drain’ implies that this rate of exit is at a greater level than ‘normal’ or than what might be desired. Linking the two implies that the departure of the most talented at an appreciable rate (Bushnell and Choy 2001).

Most often, the issue of brain drain has been rightfully understood as a downside to economic improvement within a given nation, leading to high unemployment and failing support for health care and infrastructure. Yet, there has been very little attention given to the brain drain problem in the education sector, which not only cripples their educational leadership, but leads to the deterioration of quality of life in one’s home country. 

This article aims to extend this conversation beyond the economic considerations of brain drain and find a balance between the freedom of migration and the need to develop indigenous African scholarship. All in all, a thriving community is best informed by community development-focused journalists, social workers, political advisors, and professors. When African scholars aspire to undertake “better” opportunities in the West, their home country loses its brightest and best champions for local justice and peace, and instead these scholars turn to address Western concerns which are on the whole, less urgent. Should we discourage ambitious African students who desire to better themselves academically and materially with an education of their choice? How does one encourage “brain recirculation” without placing harsh quotas on immigration and limiting individual freedom? It’s complex. A dialogue on brain drain always involves a “rat’s nest of contradictions,” as GSC scholar Stephen Ney argues. 

When African scholars aspire to undertake “better” opportunities in the West, their home country loses its brightest and best champions for local justice and peace…

So, a key question becomes: how can a non-governmental organization like GSC embrace the pursuit of higher education while also avoiding the type of brain drain that results in social disadvantages? Most importantly for faith-based organizations: how do Christians maintain a gospel-centred worldview in our approach to this global problem?

Key to this discussion is the matter of motivation. We live in a world bent on status and success, and personal comfort and prestige are a temptation basic to our human nature. To be clear: fully understanding the motivations behind migration and educational decisions is difficult and requires discernment. In addition, there are many cultural differences within the African continent, including nationality, socio-economic class, and even ecclesiology. Motivations are diverse and mixed and should not be assumed. What we do assume is that retaining local scholars who are not only bent on self-advancement is better for community development.

Moreover, not every African country suffers from brain drain to the same extent. This can be observed in the Human flight and brain drain index on, where some African nations range between 4 and 8.7 on a 10-point index. Taking all these differences into account, the following notes from interviews with four professors who teach in various parts of the continent offer a glimpse into some strategic thinking and theological applications that are making a difference when it comes to brain drain. The Christian faith offers a motivation for mitigating brain drain that may not solve all the problems, but it can be an inspiration for social change. Such motivation inspires creativity in method, and we will examine a few of the strategies that mitigate brain drain.

Is Brain Drain Good for the World?

First and foremost, not all agree that brain drain is a negative phenomenon. Some consider brain drain only a temporary stage in a longer process of socio-economic development. Emigrating to a technologically and educationally advanced country equips immigrants with the knowledge and skills necessary for development should they return to their home country. This is the argument made by German political scientist Uwe Hunger in an essay titled “The ‘Brain Gain’ Hypothesis,” where, for example, India witnessed a technological revolution and major improvements in the IT industry because of the skills learned from the United States. As we see below, GSC scholars, too, suggest that brain drain does not generate only negative effects. 

Global Scholar, Stephen Ney works in Sierra Leone, and he explained that when a family member moves overseas for a more desirable education, he or she may add “prestige” to the family. Likewise, DRC professor Dia Diafwila, who teaches online to Africa from Ottawa, Ontario, has experienced mostly positive outcomes from brain drain. Firstly, it is not the case in every country that students will move for better educational opportunities. This can be said about Senegal, for example, which already has a substantial education system in place. Secondly, migration across borders can deliver opportunities for diversity and partnership between overseas communities, which can be especially successful in a digital age. Diafwila lives in Ottawa, Canada, but creates on-line educational opportunities through African educational institutions, offering courses and even degrees to African students. So his own departure from Africa has led to educational resources for hundreds of African students. Nevertheless, a whole slew of challenges remain. Electronic classrooms are a boon, but they are not the ideal learning environment.

In Christian terms, individual freedom must serve something beyond itself.

Some contend the most successful model of international development is seeking freedom: the freedom for inhabitants of developing nations to pursue their educational desires. This argument is pushed by development economists like Amartya Sen, author of Development as Freedom. One must realize, however, that upholding the virtue of “freedom” (defined as upward and transatlantic mobility) is often at the expense of losing the best models for faithful living and educated leadership in the given community. Human capital is lost to the places that need it most. One person’s perceived freedom may come at a cost to a whole community. In Christian terms, individual freedom must serve something beyond itself. Such normative freedom is not just a lack of social constraints, but being fruitful in a position with deep meaning and purpose.

The Causes and Problems of Brain Drain

For John Span, a professor of theology who specializes in Christian-Muslim relations in South Africa, brain drain is less prevalent in South Africa than it was in his experience with Egypt (South Africa scores 4.8 on the brain drain and human flight index, whereas Egypt scores 5.1). The reason for this is linked to religious persecution in Egypt.  Span found that Egyptians experience more of a spiritual calling to find their home in North America. 

As previously stated, the origins of migration are linked to political injustice and failing workforces, but another factor that is seldom considered is the lingering colonial influence on the education system in Africa, where students have been historically prepared for life in the home of the colonizer. And as the story continues, in the home country of the (former) colonizer, there is only a small but growing awareness of global issues. In a recent article by Times Higher Education by Simon Baker, researcher Pauline Essah reports that African students typically emigrate to the Global North “to study things that are relevant to the Northern institutions. It is very often not focused on the African needs.”

Biblical scholar Manhee Yoon who teaches at the University of The Gambia, has not encountered brain drain to the same extent as other professors, mostly because pursuing education in another country is highly difficult (yet The Gambia scores a 7.2). Migration involves getting admission to a Western educational institution and obtaining a visa; and if they aim to find a better job outside of their home country, it is usually through the “backway” across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Migration is perceived to be a quick fix for the individual, but it is more a mixed experience for most.

Historical Trends

The negative effects of brain drain are empirically supported by many instances around the globe. As scholar George Odhiambo reports, “the number of Africans heading out of the continent was small during the 1960s, but later increased due to the deterioration of social, political and economic conditions. It is estimated that 27,000 highly educated Africans migrated to developed countries between 1960 and 1975, increased to 40,000 annually during the following decade, peaked at about 80,000 in 1987 but has leveled to about 20,000 a year since 1990.” The effects of this, Odhiambo argues, are seen in the decline of intellectual life across East Africa and other regions. Intellectual life arguably adds to cultural life and community development.

Nigeria (which scores a 6.6 on the human flight and brain drain index) has witnessed the challenging effects of brain drain, having one university made public that “more than 70 percent of the young and promising academics retained by the university through mentorship have all left the country for greener pastures due to the poor conditions of service in the country.” This seems truly tragic. What can be done to keep human capital in the places where creative thought, a passion for social change, and educational resources are most needed?

Strategies Beyond Education Reform

In a conversation with Bethleham Telahun, a close relative of mine and a graduate of international public policy, I learned the education system she left in her home country, Ethiopia (a 6.3 on the brain drain index), requires several arduous national exams with not enough opportunities for second chances if students fail. There is no doubt that this system needs reform, and in several other African nations too, where authoritarian governments are on the rise, the education systems do not have the same freedom that, for example, Canadian students experience.

Political power is not the only solution to every problem of injustice, not just because the willingness and ability of governments tends to be mixed, but there are other advancements to be made by schools, missional churches, international enterprises, and non-government organizations. As international student, Beth suggests, an educational experience in the West is not enough; it must be accompanied by entrepreneurial aid or vocational training. Moreover, a full-service of leadership development requires networking and trust-based relationships that set students up for growing into their vocations. This requires a variety of institutions working together for a common end of African development.

Technology can help. As mentioned, GSC scholar Dia Diafwala states that an effective approach is to improve digital education and advance use of electronic resources like Zoom. This might expand new forms of learning like distance education, where one can receive the benefits of learning from a university abroad while remaining at home. In this case, there is less of a connection between student and professor, which is why it is important for professors like Diafwala to occasionally visit the DRC (where he teaches from Ottawa, Ontario). But distance education requires various institutions to work together transnationally, and this is working in limited ways in many countries.

John Span also discusses a correlation between funding, sponsorship, and institutional establishment on the continent itself. For example, what proved to be very beneficial was the American Puritan Reformed theological seminary, which brought a master’s degree education to some countries in Africa, allowing them to continue ministry within the continent and encourage higher education for African students. One drawback is the perception, even made by African residents, that anything produced in Africa is inferior, which is why there needs to be more scholarly systems in place, so academic content is assessed more favourably. 

There is a way to change that narrative of inferiority. It requires stimulating the African economy through assisting African entrepreneurship and training. The African scholarly community needs a contextualized vision for academic excellence and “African money to free up African scholars to write in the African context,” as Dr. Span says. The continent already has commitments to peer-reviewed journals, but it needs improvement in editing and publishing. Furthermore, Dr. Diafwala argues that foreign aid is insufficient for educational development; what they need is the transfer of knowledge and techniques so that Africans can advance education on their own. Only from there will local scholars enhance their advocacy against political injustice, neocolonialism, and external interests from such superpowers as China.

As far as encouraging African scholars who have settled in the West to participate back in their home country, this not only requires “sowing the vision for academic excellence,” but it also demands more leaders to see the value of it for the flourishing of the land of their ancestors. This returns us to the question of motivation.

With a theological lens, John Span says that the struggle of his students and emerging scholars who were drawn into opportunities in Western education comes from a prosperity gospel that neglects the theology of suffering; meaning that if you “have the brains,” you are entitled to a place of academic prestige and material wealth. But as Stephen Ney argues, sometimes that is precisely what Christians are called to do: pursue downward mobility and solidarity with the poor, rather than self-advancement. Ney offers a valuable missiological notion: the ministry of presence. To make oneself available and live among the African communities that lack basic development is symbolic of the gospel because it includes personal sacrifice and the willingness to give up oneself for the betterment of others, just as Jesus did.

This is a noble calling that few would eagerly embrace, but it is the Way that Christ calls his students to follow. It can be the motivation that shapes trends against brain drain.

Hope in Student Motivation and Character

Matters of technique and strategy need to be complemented by matters of character. The necessary step to encourage emerging scholars to remain at home is hope. Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek wrote a book titled The Courage of Hopelessness, which argues against the mainstream messages of hope to conquer our most pressing global problems and emboldens us to know that there are no easy solutions at our disposal. However, what this Marxist-Hegelian analysis fails to see is that hope is a virtue, not just a prescriptive antidote for overcoming defeat when it is reasonable. We ought to embrace our eschatological purpose in this world, awaiting the kingdom of God and expecting that it will partially come in this world and fully come in the next. Emerging scholars will stay as a support for their own community if they have that message of hope for change. From true hope, we will be able to witness true advocacy against injustice and poverty.

Additionally, developing scholarships in Africa requires seeing students not as mere brains who are vital resources to their country but as whole human beings who are created in the image of God and have some complexity and decision-making power in their lives. Scholarships empower the students as they make educational decisions for their life, family, church and community. Such a strategy is the basis for the Christian Studies Centre at the University of the Gambia, and while the funds come from North America through GSC and some of the professors are Western-educated, the funds are used to offer an education to Christians who live in The Gambia and a few other West African countries. Students are trained and have their dreams and motivations formed in a Christian classroom; then they graduate to become leaders in their community, church, and government institutions. Recently, a graduate of the school became a chaplain in The Gambian military; this kind of spiritual leadership is vital for any country. Unlike online education, the professors are physically present for their students and able to see their immediate context and needs. They help shape the students’ vision for life. This scholarship project has been a creative and stewardly solution to the brain drain problem, as the costs of dozens of scholarships in The Gambia are remarkably less than the cost of sending just one student to be educated in the West. 

Scholarship students at The University of The Gambia, Christian Studies Department

Manhee Yoon explained how Scripture helps us in the struggle and temptations of brain drain, and his comments form a beautiful challenge for Christians involved in higher education in Africa: 

Jesus came down to earth, and his coming down became salvation for the world. So I teach my students that they should not look to go to places they want to go, but rather go to the places where they are needed. We Christians do everything for the glory of God, which means serving others in need. Therefore, we equip ourselves academically, but use the knowledge and training for the purpose of serving others. If there are more needs in their home country, that is where they should come back, but if there are enough human resources in their home country, they can go to other places where there is a greater need for their service.

This self-sacrificial ethic is not just imitating the attitude of Jesus Christ, it is a participation in his on-going ministry to the world. Living into this story provides a motivation to seek the flourishing of one’s own home rather than seeking a more lucrative career in a far-off country.

In sum, the problem of brain drain deprives African countries of some of their brightest and best. While it may lead to some positive developments for the home country in some instances, the overall effect is a loss of human capital for positive social change. There are alternatives to this status quo, including distance education, building the local educational infrastructure, and developing scholarship programs that empower students in their own geographical regions. Ultimately, it takes a conviction that one is called to put the needs of others before one’s own material advantage. The life and death of Christ–the heart of the Christian gospel–provide inspiration for such sacrificial living for local flourishing. International development strategies need to address motivation and not just method if they are to make a difference in a world bent on personal advancement and success.


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Miller, Eric A. “More Chinese Military Bases in Africa: A Question of When, Not If.” Foreign Policy, August 16, 2022.

Odhiambo, George. “Brain Drain in Higher Education: Lost Hope or Opportunity?.” Bulgarian Comparative Education Society (2012): 265-270. 

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Žižek, Slavoj. The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously. London: Penguin, 1985.

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