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Traditional understandings of the African academic diaspora in terms of loss or ‘brain drain’ do not sit well with Patrício Langa, a sociologist and associate professor of higher education who straddles two academic portfolios in two African countries – one at the Institute for Post-School Studies (IPSS) of the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, and another at Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique.
“I take issue with those who restrict the notion of the ‘academic diaspora’ to ‘brain drain’, especially when they are referring to Africa or the developing world as the losing side,” he told University World News in an interview following last November’s Forum and Workshop on the Role of the African Diaspora in the Revitalisation of Higher Education in Africa, hosted in Ethiopia by the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University, Canada, in partnership with the African Union Citizens and Diaspora Directorate and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
For Langa, brain drain happens not when an African scholar leaves his or her country to pursue academic opportunities elsewhere, but when that scholar turns their back on the academy to embrace the “politics of bread and butter”, goes into business or works as cheap labour for the non-governmental sector – “not because they are really interested in those areas, but because they can’t afford to work at university”.
Not a ‘brain on the run’
According to Langa, the African scholar who moves from his or her country to continue to serve science is not a “brain on the run” because “his or her scientific work will always be accessible to everyone, no matter where he or she is”.
Even if academic work is reduced to teaching, such brains would still be available to give occasional lectures in their home countries, he said.
Langa argues that the expression ‘brain drain’ is “unfair” because it suggests that those who go out and find employment overseas are “brains” and those who stay on the continent, like him, are “lesser brains”.
“This creates the myth that the diaspora knows better than those who remain on the continent … Some of us on the continent do much more with limited resources,” he said.
Based at the IPSS in South Africa, Langa is indeed walking the talk. Perceiving the value of diasporan exchange, about five years ago he successfully applied for a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York for the IPSS to host African based scholars and African diaspora scholars within a project coordinated by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and known as “From brain drain to brain gain : Working with African diaspora to strengthen the expertise in higher education, science and innovation in Africa”.
In 2016, Professor Teboho Moja, a distinguished professor of higher education at New York University, was the first diaspora scholar to be hosted by the IPSS under the diaspora initiative. Enabled by a CODESRIA and CCNY sponsorship combined, more than 10 African based and African diaspora scholars visited the IPSS between 2016 and 2018.
Langa says this kind of initiative, run through CODESRIA, which aims at strengthening relations between African academics in the diaspora and African universities, and other mobility schemes with similar goals focused on the sharing of teaching and research capacity, are the kinds of opportunities that African governments should be promoting – one of the recurrent arguments emerging from November’s Addis Ababa forum.
In a paper published in a special issue of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa entitled “Scholars on the Move : Reclaiming the African diaspora to support African higher education”, Langa, who co-edited the edition with Dr Samuel Fongwa of the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria, highlights the concept of multiple academic affiliations (MAAs) as one way to redress knowledge and academic inequities globally and in emerging countries and reconceptualise the diaspora in terms of “brain gain, brain circulation and brain-sharing” – particularly as it affects African universities.
Citing the example of Ugandan-born academic Mahmood Mamdani who, like Langa himself, holds two formal academic appointments in two countries (Uganda and the United States) – and on two continents – Langa argues that multiple affiliations could facilitate “translocal” brain-sharing – a form of international academic exchange and engagement which may or may not include physical mobility but still allows for an exchange and sharing of knowledge.
He argues that MAAs and brain-sharing, “particularly in the age of digitalisation, broaden both the scope and the possibility of a win-win situation by sharing the academic and intellectual capacity of highly productive [African] academics through capitalising on MAAs and collaboration between [African] universities and their diaspora scholars”.
However, most African universities do not have a framework to cope with anything other than a physically present worker, he argues. This is as a result of large student classes on campuses, requiring the physical presence of lecturers, as well as traditional conceptions of academic work as teaching – in a literal class.
“The traditional idea of academic work being defined as teaching in class reinforces the predisposition of most African universities to oppose international collaboration and mobility,” he writes.
Joint degree programmes are another way to promote collaboration between African based scholars and Africa diaspora scholars, where all sides have similar opportunities for academic exchange and MAAs. However as Langa notes, as they stand, generally speaking, European partners, including the African diaspora, regularly benefit more than their African based scholar partners from these programmes.
So where does that leave the African based scholar ?
Langa argues that academics who are based on the continent as well as in the diaspora can explore new forms of mutually-beneficial engagement – joint curriculum development, shared graduate student supervision, joint research projects and joint grant applications – which extend beyond the “duration of a summer holiday”.
He said a continued focus on the disadvantages of academic migration – brain drain – obstructs the “innovative interactions” that both African based scholars and diaspora scholars have forged on both sides, involving their home and host institutions.
Langa suggests that while there are still many challenges to overcome, particularly in African institutions, the collaborations between African based and African diaspora scholars are gradually gaining financial support from international funding agencies such as the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme, the Intra-Africa Academic Mobility Scheme, CODESRIA and the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, which are crucial in promoting more equitable and fair African based and African diaspora scholar engagements.
But he also notes that such engagement needs to be aligned with revised contractual conditions for academic staff, allowing more flexibility (virtual engagements) and multiple affiliation.
In the end, the call is for more research.
“MAAs have not been studied extensively, despite their enormous potential to redress knowledge and academic inequities globally, but specifically in emerging countries. By curbing the effects of brain drain and promoting brain gain, brain circulation and brain-sharing, it is recommended that MAAs be explored in more detail in future research and policy,” concludes Langa.