A couple of weeks ago I heard an anecdote about a woman leaving Lagos airport. An immigration officer chided her about leaving the country and not staying behind to help. He asked her why she chose to live in London instead of Lagos. She tried to think of all the arguments she could make but the only thing that came to her mind was electricity. So she told him that at least in London she had electricity. When she retold this story she was embarrassed she could not come up with a more compelling reason for living abroad than the electricity situation. A week after I heard this story I too was in Lagos for the first time in lets just say a very long time and I recalled the woman’s comments. Due to my personal interest in development and human capital I went to Lagos with fresh eyes and a hunger to be pleased, a hunger desperate to be satisfied. What struck me was how much Lagos had changed but stayed the same, like a bigger, meaner version of itself. Within hours of being in Lagos I could relate to the woman who complained about the lack of electricity. Within a few days I could add notorious traffic jams to the list of ‘excuses’ I can give chatty customs officials. Add to that the legendary culture of backhands.
This got me thinking about the barriers that diaspora face in relocating home. One evening I was at dinner with a number of fairly wealthy Nigerian couples. What struck me was how they all seemed to live double lives. They were part of the social fabric of Lagos but all their children were either in America or Europe. The successful parents wanted their children to move back after university and take over the family business or something along those lines but most of their children had decided to stay away. They would rather pursue middle class aspirations in the West than have wealth and status in Nigeria. Why? A lot of their children, on returning home, could not see themselves living with backup generators and behind heavily guarded mansions. They were happy with a small flat in a city where they felt safe and free. Do not underestimate the importance of safety and freedom.
I have just spent a day with parliamentarians and academics from Africa discussing barriers to Science Technology and Innovation (STI) in Africa. As usual in these things a few people appealed to Diaspora intellectual capital to return home and pretty much suggested that failure to do so was some sort of selfishness, almost anti-African. It got me thinking that the appeal, to some sort of Africanism is not enough, it will not bring people back. You cannot ignore the issues diaspora academics face as some sort of selfishness because it is a very real impediment. To carry out world class research you need world-class facilities. Simple. To ask someone to sacrifice their quality of life for Africanism is a failure to recognise the very real issues, perceived or otherwise, facing research diaspora. There was an interesting suggestion from an academic based at University of Dar e salaam. He said to take the brightest African diaspora researchers out of some of the best institutions in the world and put them in under resourced institutions due to some sense of Africanism will be a profound waste. We need to allow them to carry out the best research in the best institutions while tapping into their intellectual capital. Can diaspora research contribute from a distance? Answers on a postcard please.