Talented Expats Returning to Developing Home Countries: Advice

Recently the World Economic Forum highlighted the challenges that thousands of talented expats face when looking to put their new found knowledge and qualifications into practice and transform their home countries. Most recently this can be highlighted on the African continent, where developing economies are experiencing a “reverse brain-drain”.

D3 co-founder Akash Ghai answers questions on how young expats might overcome barriers to progression and ultimately become change-makers in their home countries.

Q: Do returning graduates need to develop the skill-set of pushing for reform in order to address both institutional failures and cultural and social norms that inhibit developing countries?

A: Returning graduates need to quickly clue themselves up on all of the issues affecting their country. A lot can change within a developing country over a 2-5 year period and unless a graduate is constantly in the know-how about what is going on and making frequent trips home, it can be very difficult to understand what the issues are let alone know how to address them.

Graduates must constantly adapt whatever it is they learn in their host country to the local environment of their home country. It is less so about having the necessary skill set and more so about having the right mentality and approach to reinterpret knowledge and skills that will benefit developing countries.

Q: What can host countries do further to facilitate the qualities that you’ve mentioned? Is there more that can be done by universities and colleges, or do you see the international community becoming more involved?

A: Host countries, which are often set in the developed world, need to enable graduates to critically think about applying what it is they learn to their home countries. The “think global, act local” concept springs to mind. Educators and institutions are at times bound by textbooks and theology which doesn’t lend itself to helping returning graduates apply what they have learned into practice. Conversely, students are at times hesitant to ask questions for fear of “looking silly” or feel as though they are unable to communicate themselves effectively. However the ethos is on the student to approach lecturers and teachers to try and understand how what they are learning could be applied in different contexts. 

Yet, with technology becoming a conduit to address access to education, the arrival of advanced virtual learning environments means that the barriers for returning students are starting to slowly come down.

In fact, the barriers that make it a difficult decision to travel abroad to study in the first place, including time and expense, are being made irrelevant by the universal availability of online courses meeting internationally accredited standards. This includes the possibility of learning through some of the worlds leading universities and colleges through massively open online courses (MOOCs).

Q: The article highlights one of the biggest obstacles: senior government leaders are entrusted with the management of sizable budgets, minimal oversight, unclear objectives, little accountability and misaligned pay structures that distort behaviors. Its clear that legal reforms are going to play a big part in challenging the norm in many African countries and it is up to government to decentralize decision-making powers. How might returning graduates play a part in bringing about this change?

A: Graduates need to take the approach to influence a cultural shift – and understand that they have a role to play in supporting government. They cannot be change-makers unless they fully understand the socio-economic, cultural and political issues that are playing out in their home countries. Legal reform isn’t something that is going to take place overnight, in Africa or anywhere else for that matter. The traditional approach, or “this is how its always been”, is and always will be the most challenging mentality to move away from.

You’ll need to set personal goals that tie into the issues you wish to change. You must network with people of influence: that is people that hold public office, people in business, community leaders, public figures and the media. Figure out how you can be of value to these people. Ultimately, you need to demonstrate that there is a better way to do things.

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