Document Type

Migration and Development (MAD) Series

Publication Date



Significant numbers of African-trained health workers migrate every year to developed countries including Canada. They leave severely crippled health systems in a region where life expectancy is only 50 years of age, 16 per cent of children die before their fifth birthday and the HIV/AIDS crisis continues to burgeon. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) totals over 660 million, with a ratio of fewer than 13 physicians per 100,000.

SSA has seen a resurgence of various diseases that were thought to be receding, while public health systems remain inadequately staffed. According to one report, the region needs approximately 700,000 physicians to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Understaffing results in stress and increased workloads. Many of the remaining health professionals are ill-motivated, not only because of their workload, but also because they are poorly paid, poorly equipped and have limited career opportunities. These, in turn, lead to a downward spiral where workers migrate, crippling the system, placing greater strain on the remaining workers who themselves seek to migrate out of the poor working conditions. The ultimate result is an incontestable crisis in health human resources throughout SSA, the region suffering most from the brain drain of health care professionals. The situation in SSA has become severe enough that the final report of the Joint Learning Initiative on Human Resources for Health – a two-year global initiative sponsored by a number of donors studying various aspects of human resources for health performance – has concluded that the future of global health and development in the 21st century lies in the management of the crisis in human resources for health.

There is a considerable body of literature attesting to the fact that the migration of skilled professionals from developing to developed countries is large and increasing dramatically. While different experts espouse different reasons for the increase, all agree that it is happening. Developing countries are hit hardest by the brain drain as they lose sometimes staggering portions of their college-educated workers to wealthy countries which can better weather their relatively smaller losses of skilled workers. Highly skilled professionals account for 65 per cent of migrants moving to industrialized countries. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that about 20,000 Africans leave Africa every year to take up employment in industrialized countries. We do not know how many of these are health care professionals (largely because of inadequate systems for gathering such statistics in African countries).11 The World Health Organization (WHO), however, found that a quarter to two-thirds of health workers interviewed in a recent study expressed an intention to migrate.

Historically, and specific to the SSA context, the brain drain has meant not only the exodus of human capital but financial resources as well, as African health care professionals left countries with their savings and reinvested very little of their foreign earnings back into the region. There is only recent evidence suggesting that, while the numbers of professionals leaving continue to increase, émigrés are slowly reinvesting some of their earnings back into their countries. Other research raises doubts about the value of such reinvestments, however, particularly when they are in the form of remittances that are generally private welfare transfers back to family members and are often used for consumption rather than for savings.

In recognition of the enormous challenge posed by the international migration of health personnel to health systems in developing countries, the World Health Organization has proclaimed 2005-2015 the decade on human resources for health (HRH).