Those extremely generous African philanthropists are at it again. You’d think they’d be overwhelmed by compassion fatigue after all these centuries of enriching the rich Western world, making possible so much of our development. And it even comes at the expense of their own well-being. You know — slaves, colonialism, ivory, racism, rubber, neo-colonialism, diamonds, cheap labour, coltan, odious debts. How humanitarian is that?

Globe and Mail readers will know what I’m referring to. An editorial and a major story by Geoffrey York, the paper’s Africa correspondent, have drawn attention to a new study that tallies the costs and benefits to Canada, Britain, the United States and Australia of all the African doctors they recruit. As always, we in the rich world owe a huge debt to Africa. As I documented in my book The Betrayal of Africa, in countless ways they’re the world’s real aid donors and we’re the lucky recipients.

How bountiful are they? Canada alone has saved about $400-million while African countries have forfeited billions in lost doctors. The four highly developed countries together have saved $4.5-billion in education costs by recruiting doctors from the nine African countries included in the study, while the nine have lost at least $2.2-billion and perhaps as much as $13.5-billion. Since most African countries spend between 30 and 200 times less per capita on health care than most rich countries, that’s really awful thoughtful of them.

Of course there are many other African countries magnanimously supplying doctors to other rich countries as well, not least to France, home to many thousands of doctors from francophone Africa. So the figures cited here are just a fraction of the total. Nor is it only doctors. In the health field, it’s indispensable nurses by the score. And then there are all the other African professionals who emigrate to the rich world if they can.

At the same time, we cry crocodile tears about Africa’s great need for capacity-building. There’s not a single African country that doesn’t face a stark scarcity of properly trained manpower to do everything from running government more efficiently (though I’m not sure how many rich countries have much to teach in that respect) to planning cities (or in this respect) to implementing better sanitation and water facilities to providing dental care.

International aid is often promoted precisely as capacity-building. In reality, as with so many other aspects of the rich world’s relationship to Africa, aid is really more of a gift to ourselves than to the apparent recipients. We seem to have gotten donor and beneficiary reversed here.

The consequences are devastating. There is not a single African nation that does not suffer from a dearth of trained teachers, health workers and public servants. Meanwhile there are hundreds of thousands of highly trained Africans now working in the West and more are coming as rich countries increasingly demand well-trained immigrants. Like that of other rich countries, the Canadian immigration model, as The Globe’s editorial puts it, “aims to attract the best and brightest from around the globe.” So while International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announces “new CIDA initiatives for Africa … focused on helping Africa fulfill its future potential,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is wooing Africans who could make Africa’s potential a reality.

Is this bureaucratic carelessness or rank hypocrisy? Canada’s case is typical of most rich countries. African governments spend preposterously large sums hiring foreign consultants on short costly contracts to perform the work that could have been done by their own lost experts. Is it necessary to point out that those sums often come out of the foreign aid that we, the so-called “donor” countries, provide? So a nice chunk of our aid goes to pay our own citizens to do work in Africa that Africans are doing in our own countries.

What talented, trained Africans need and deserve are incentives to stay home with their skills. There are an abundance of ways these incentives can be provided, not least through major investments in higher education across Africa. Yet even writing these words makes me feel that I’m wasting my breath and your time. Once again this week, at a big international meeting on aid in South Korea, we’ve been reminded of the usual ongoing failure of rich nations to live up to their aid commitments. And to celebrate World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the all-important Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis announced that drastic cutbacks in donor contributions means it must cancel its next round of grants; the implications are truly catastrophic for thousands of Africans. I guess African AIDS includes the need to share austerity with the rest of the 99 per cent.

But I find some solace in one of the most basic rules of human relationships. In civilized societies, debts must be repaid. The rich world owes Africa untold trillions for the human and physical resources it has drained from the continent over the past 600 years. Helping to keep Africa’s best and brightest at home (not to mention beating AIDS) would constitute a tiny down payment on that debt.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...