THE BLOG

Why Do We Take Doctors From Countries That Really Need Them?

01/28/2014 05:25 EST | Updated 03/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Last year the Canadian health care system managed to save $400 million. Sounds great, right? Now what if we told you that Canada did it by poaching trained doctors from the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world? According to a recent study by the University of Ottawa, even as Canadian aid programs are giving to help Africa build better health care systems, our health care system is taking away their doctors.

According to Canada-based Cuso International, between 1990 and 2006, Ethiopia trained 3,700 doctors -- only 700 of them stayed to work there. Africa's health care system isn't the only sector hemorrhaging skilled workers -- there are currently more African-born engineers and scientists living in Canada and the U.S. than in the entire continent of Africa.

It's called brain drain. In 2000, brain drain caused a panic in Canada when reports suggested we were losing as many as 65,000 of our citizens every year to the U.S. It turned out that, for the most part, Canada was gaining as many professionals as it lost. Africa has not been so lucky. The International Organization for Migration estimates that Africa has lost more than 460,000 educated professionals since 1990.

When the African Union marked its 50th anniversary, stemming the African brain drain was identified one of its top priorities.

As a starting point, African leaders hope to mitigate the brain drain by recruiting expatriate African professionals to return home for a visit and lend their skills as short-term volunteers on development projects. Cuso International is working with the African Union on such a project.

Endashaw Inoldie, an Ethiopian-Canadian and recent Cuso volunteer, explained that using so-called diaspora volunteers can be cheaper and more hassle-free than using Canadian-born volunteers because they can hit the ground running.

"An Ethiopian-Canadian can share their experience in the field and have no problem with language or cultural shock," he told us.

Inoldie fled political upheaval in Ethiopia in 2001 to study sociology at the University of Western Ontario in London. He became a career advisor in Edmonton and Fort MacMurray, before volunteering with Cuso and returning in 2011 to Ethiopia. There, he helped build a database to connect Ethiopian institutions like hospitals and universities with skilled diaspora volunteers from North America.

Inoldie was better equipped to handle work on the ground than his roommate, a Canadian aid worker with no Ethiopian roots, volunteering at the Ethiopian Ministry of Education in the capital of Addis Ababa. The roommate had to inform Ethiopians in communities around the capital about a new English language program, but between his rudimentary Amharic, Canadian accent, and inability speak any local dialects, few could understand him. Inoldie received a desperate phone call from his roommate, who asked for his help as a translator.

For members of the African diaspora who can't afford to take time off to volunteer, they can share their skills with their homeland without leaving the comfort of their adopted western home. Tech company Hewlett-Packard and the United Nations agency UNESCO have partnered on a project called the Brain Gain Initiative that uses cloud computing technology to link researchers at African universities with expatriate scientists abroad. As an example: using remote sensors and internet technology, Cameroonian ex-pat Christophe Bobda, an engineering professor at the University of Arkansas, works with Dr. Emmanuel Tonye at Yaoundé University, in Cameroon's capital, to study air pollution in African cities.

Helping African nations use the talents of their diaspora populations for development mitigates the impact of the African brain drain. But this is not a long-term solution. To prosper, Africa must keep her brilliant children home. And developed nations like Canada have a role to play here, too.

For a start, we must address the issues in our own health care system that requires us to draw so many health professionals from developing countries where they are needed more. UNESCO suggests that building African centres of academic excellence -- such as the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which we wrote about last fall -- will create opportunities that entice Africa's brightest minds to stay home.

African nations, for their part, must improve wage and living conditions so home becomes the land of opportunity for native-born doctors, engineers and scientists. For donor countries like Canada, applying some of our aid dollars to support professional retention programs in developing countries would be a wise investment in the long-term progress of Africa.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.