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Stem the exodus from Africa, or it will impoverish us all

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IN 1982, at the beginning of a consulting career that was to take me to 35 countries, 18 of them in my home continent of Africa, I was breakfasting in the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar-es-Salaam when the state-run Daily News arrived.  

At the time, this newspaper and its Swahili language counterpart were the only ones permitted in President Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania – a decayed one-party socialist state held together with great bandages of aid money.  

He had been addressing a party gathering, and his triumphalist message there was: ‘Once we were rich and poor, now we are all poor together!’ The Daily News recorded that this declaration was greeted with resounding applause. 

Tanzania is now a multi-party state, but it is still run by Nyerere’s political party, and until recently at its helm was another leader with wacky ideas about government, democracy and economics, but with a more brutalist approach to their enforcement. More than 40 per cent of Tanzanians, like the rest of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, think seriously of migrating. 

Overall, that is a great many people. Impoverished Africa is a huge population time bomb – look at these two graphs, compiled from the World Bank’s database. 

You can create these graphs yourself. The per capita gross domestic product data for sub-Saharan Africa can be found here and that for the EU here (note that these plots stop short of the global downturn from Covid-19 in 2020). The population predictions can be found here

In simple terms over the past 30 years, the GDP per African has crept up from 3,000 US dollars to 4,000. During the same period, GDP per person in the European Union rose from 28,000 dollars to 43,000.  

However, the EU’s population is expected to languish over the rest of this century at around 400million, while sub-Saharan Africa’s will explode to more than two billion by 2050 and over four billion by 2100. 

What to do? Most of sub-Saharan Africa is a byword for corruption, hunger, disease and war, but the four horsemen are the least of it. None of our attempts to halt this decline have prospered.  

In 2013, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that the aid total since 1960 had been about 2.6trillion US dollars in cash terms, which works out at about 4.7trillion dollars at 2013 prices. 

Yet the African continent does not lack talented people, as I found at a relatively young age when I studied at the racially integrated University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, states whose names have vanished into history.  

Such racial mixing was rare in the essentially segregated societies of those countries, and it was sobering to encounter young black men (there were essentially no women) who were cleverer than me. This experience guided our decision to stay in the newly-independent Zimbabwe in 1980. 

The problem with Africa’s talent is that it leaves Africa. The best and the brightest can use their skills to get jobs in the West that pay an order-of-magnitude more than they would earn back home.  

Long story short, in 2009 I arrived in London from a job in upcountry Burkina Faso, and needed to have the stitches taken out from wounds I had received while being beaten up and driven off our modest property by Robert Mugabe’s thugs. (My wife was beaten as well). I came across a NHS walk-in clinic in Slough and, lo and behold, the doctor who did the job was a black Zimbabwean. 

The health situation in Zimbabwe is, in common with the rest of Africa, horrendous. Only scattered mission hospitals, with their modest independent funding, can offer a halfway proper service to the average rural inhabitant.  

In the cities there are reasonably-equipped and staffed private hospitals, but the great majority of the population cannot afford them, and the government’s own institutions are in continuous crisis from a lack of medicines and nursing essentials. 

About half of the UK’s annual development assistance budget of £15billion was spent on Africa (it will probably be temporarily less now due to Covid-19 expenditure). 

To get that Zimbabwean doctor in Slough to return home to work in a local hospital, his salary there will need to be topped up to the equivalent of perhaps £60,000 a year. This will give him a lifestyle that, because of the lower cost of living, would be superior to what he would be enjoying in the United Kingdom.  

Other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions will probably require about the same. So the normal aid budget could pay for attracting about 125,000 well-qualified and experienced African professionals back to their home countries. 

This number is not great in relation to the current population of sub-Saharan Africa of a billion or so – about one in 10,000 – but it would have a disproportionate influence. For these skilled, exiled Africans have had to understand and master the way that the successful parts of the world work, and they will want to replicate this at home. 

More, their money would be largely spent directly in Africa; an unknowable amount of the aid budget, perhaps most of it, is spent at home, on goods and services that are deemed needed by the continent. 

The graphs illustrate the real threat to Europe’s culture and prosperity. If immigration from Africa is not strictly controlled, all of mankind will suffer. We too will be all poor together. 

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John Hollaway
John Hollaway is a retired mining consultant, having worked in 35 countries. He is the author of the All Poor Together trilogy, a semi-autobiographical account of development assistance in Africa and the reasons for its failure.

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