September 1 2016

Beyond ‘Brain Drain’

Career Choices, Return Paths and Social Contributions of African Alumni

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This study by six universities, and supported by the MasterCard Foundation, has found African university alumni who have studied overseas do continue to contribute to their communities regardless of if they return to Africa.

Overwhelmingly, the alumni who participated in the study indicated a deep commitment to Africa and to African development. The report findings and the remarkable diversity of alumni experiences encourages us to move beyond a binary narrative under which alumni either return to Africa or do not. Instead of looking at the diaspora and seeing ‘brain drain’, we now have rich and compelling insight into how alumni have sought to contribute to Africa from afar, or through ‘brain circulation’ involving episodic physical presence in Africa. The alumni who participated credit their global networks with helping them to advance their goals, irrespective of where they live.

The report also found that a greater proportion of women settle in the diaspora, relative to men. Women alumni who participated in the study reported daunting institutional and systemic obstacles in Africa such as unemployment, under employment and tensions with organizational leadership. It is crucial that we acknowledge this, and prepare and support young women as they confront these issues.

The study followed the career and life trajectories of almost 300 African alumni who graduated between 1966 and 2014 from six universities in Canada, United States or Costa Rica. Through survey research and in-depth interviews, the Project investigated why these African alumni pursued higher education abroad, their reflections on their international university experience, the paths they pursued after graduation, and how they have contributed to social transformation on the African continent.

The Project, a joint research initiative of six universities, emerged from the Foundation’s desire to support Scholars as they graduate and move on to work or further study. A number of our partner universities have long track records of hosting African students abroad, and when Dr. Robin Marsh from University of California, Berkeley and her collaborators from five other universities in North and Central America proposed to follow up on their African alumni, we immediately saw the potential to learn from them in ways that could strengthen our own Program.

The resulting work provides several valuable – and in some cases, surprising – insights. Including that students who go abroad for graduate study are significantly more likely to return to Africa than those who go abroad for undergraduate study. This supports the Foundation’s decision to invest heavily in undergraduate education in Africa, at institutions like Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Makerere University, and Ashesi University.

As students begin to graduate in large numbers from The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program – our signature program providing access to secondary and higher education for young people in Africa who are committed to giving back to their communities – we continue to follow them in an effort to understand their experiences. Specifically we are looking at their career choices, obstacles and pathways helpful in their own transitions, leadership and social contributions, as well as studying ways to meet the unique needs of the thousands of young women who will take part in the Scholars Program. We will be interested to see where their paths converge with those of their predecessors.

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