The 25th of April marked the 4th Annual World Malaria day. Most of the articles I read discussing updates about malaria lacked the voices of African thinkers, researchers, and physicians. I began to reflect on this different kind of brain drain; what I call an ‘accidental’ brain drain where the critical thinking involved in medical research is conducted by foreigners and thus there is a reduction in the development of African lead research and professional development. Africans are merely assistants, translators, or technicians and therefore do not benefit from the processes of research that lead to innovation.
This ability to problem solve and develop things organically is crucial in general, but it is specifically the life blood of medical education and development. Medicine is a complex and scientific field that is constantly evolving. The answer to the most complex medical questions come from a combination of asking the right questions, having the correct support to answer those questions, then using the scientific method (trial and error) to figure out what works. Imagination, accidents, and exploration coupled with experience lead to many of the breakthroughs that have changed medical science.
I recently dialogued with a South African graduate student in microbiology. He was sent to study malaria but was not granted his own project. He was reduced to working as a lab technician for his European Primary Investigator (PI). In the US, all graduate students are given their own projects to work on from start to finish and the PI is there for assistance and guidance. This anecdote illustrates a structural problem for Africans that result in intellectually undernourished professionals that, in my experience, is very common.
Of course this is not the panacea and I am not implying that Africans need to ‘learn how to think’ as there are many amazing African intellectuals working every day on African problems in Africa. Brain drain, lack of resources, and burn out due to an over burden on local professionals all take a huge toll on the health care profession. Neither am I saying that all foreigners should stay out of Africa. I am simply stating the grave importance of a paradigm shift regarding what role foreigners play in developing a plan of action for public health problems in Africa. This paradigm shift involves us as international assistants using our considerable resources to not merely advance our own careers, but to support African lead innovation (Studies detail triumphs, troubles of African innovators creating products for local health needs). This not only breeds larger and larger pools of innovators, but also gives African researchers and professionals the vital resource support they need to be advance their projects.
Walter Rooney discusses in the Underdevelopment of Africa, that the slow development of Africa is absolutely related to a racially motivated systematic exclusion of Africans from information about global discoveries. As a result, there were not as many avenues for Africans to use that information and reformulate it to work in their own way. ‘Accidental’ brain drain risks continuing this underdevelopment by leaving the complex medical problem solving to foreigners. We ask foreign experts to answer the research questions that will change our models of medicine (Anti-Mosquito Drives Stumble at Final Ten Per Cent) , we ask foreign students to reap the benefits of problem solving in our African home communities (MIT class studies Kenyan slum’s clinic quandary ).
One of the goals discussed by the Roll Back Malaria Campaign on this World Malaria Day is to “develop endemic countries’ capacity to control malaria” (World Malaria day- A Day to Act). To achieve this goal it is important to not just partner them with local professionals in a symbolic way but to include them as leaders and partners in the plan. We should have those professionals think about and talk about malaria in their communities, not merely listen to lectures from ‘international experts’. We should support them in their ideas. They may fail a few times (and we should support them even when they do), but that is how technology and scientific discoveries happen worldwide and more importantly, it is how people develop as thinkers and innovators.