Fitting Kwame the cabbie into the brain drain equation

The following post is by Yaw Nyarko, a Professor of Economics at NYU and founding director of Africa House. Not too long ago I got in a cab in New York with a Ghanaian taxi driver named Kwame. He remembered picking me up several years ago. What a memory he has. Anyway, he told me he has four children: one is a doctor and the two youngest are in private school. He said his kids were doing exceptionally well, and he is paying for elite schooling from his taxi driver salary.

Aid Watch has blogged about a paper I co-authored which argues four ways the benefits of brain drain could outweigh the costs to African countries. Kwame made those arguments real to me. I wondered again why we rarely consider the gains to the migrants themselves when talking about the African brain drain.

Kwame said he was glad to see me, but he nearly died this year. “Died?” I asked, not sure I heard him clearly through all the Manhattan traffic. Yes, he explained, he got malaria while in Ghana; it was cerebral malaria which was not properly treated. Clearly, this was one brain drainer who still went back to his home country and cared about public services there.

I was going to dinner with the Minister of Health for Ghana that same evening. I thought to myself that I should tell the Minister that Kwame believes something should be done about the open sewers in the country and there should be more insecticide spraying as was done in the Nkrumah era.

I got out of the taxi and left a huge tip. I felt very proud of Kwame as I thought of his four children educated off his taxi earnings. I also reminded myself to redo the calculations on the pluses and minuses of the brain drain to account for the Kwame’s.