Interview: Didier Acouetey
To what extent does demand for skilled labour necessitate a return of the African diaspora?
DIDIER ACOUETEY: There certainly has been a brain drain and, while data varies, it is estimated that 70,000 to 100,000 qualified Africans leave each year. Human capital is necessary for development, and economic growth in Africa has varied between 5% and 8% per annum. As such, there is naturally very high demand for skilled labour and Africans who have studied abroad. The needs are not possible to quantify, but to compensate those who leave, some have to come back, assuming the labour market can absorb them. Many leave due to weak job markets, but the skills the diaspora have gained abroad are useful for African economies, including the public sector. The diaspora also participates by sending money transfers, which now match levels of international aid at around $50bn per year. Yet, this money supports consumption, and thus has a limited effect on development and investment. In addition, there are several investment funds and platforms run by the diaspora that contribute to the continent’s development.
What are the necessary conditions to convince Africans abroad to return?
ACOUETEY: The first condition is environmental, with war and dangerous living conditions being deal-breakers. The political situation also has to be tolerable. Third, job quality must be enticing. Fourth, financial conditions are also necessary. If all four of these can be met, Africans abroad do return. To avoid having others leave, it is necessary for the continent to provide good education locally and to reduce unemployment rates.
How has the quality of education and of skilled labourers been evolving in Africa?
ACOUETEY: The quality of education has eroded in recent years, beginning with restructuring programmes initiated in the 1980s that slashed health and education budgets. There have also been many strikes. While governments continue to spend significant money on education, they have not been able to follow the numerical growth and demand resulting from population increases, so there has been insufficient infrastructure investment. The quality of the learning experience has been degraded and teachers have not been recruited or paid enough to ensure a good education. Additionally, the educational degrees on offer have not been aligned with the job market’s needs. There has been an abundance of degrees in economics, literature, law and sociology, which were useful public sector work, but these types of skills have not satisfied demand for high-skilled labour from the fast-growing agri-business and telecoms sectors, which require different skill sets.
Private business schools have partially compensated for this supply shortfall, though their quality varies and tends to provide soft management skills rather than the technical skills that are needed. As infrastructure investment increases, companies have recruited technical staff from abroad. These individuals also often have professional experience in developed markets.
In what way can African private sector “champions” learn from the South-east Asian experience?
ACOUETEY: Much has been made of the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in recent years, and the African continent is also on the up. However, becoming an emerging economy cannot be achieved without a strong private sector and without “champions”. Companies such as Azalaï, South African Airways, Kenya Airways, Ecobank and Mobile Telephone Networks are currently shaping the economic landscape of Africa, but they need to diversify their partnerships. The Asian tigers developed their economies in a short timeframe thanks, in part, to investment in human capital and cheaper technology.
Further, Asian countries currently have more disposable cash than the US and EU, so it is logical for Africans to seek partnerships in Asia. Meanwhile, Africans have to devise their own strategy for such partnerships to flourish and for their economies to develop further.
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