WASHINGTON, March 30, 2011—Twenty years ago Yanga Dijiba boarded a flight bound to the United States from N'Djili airport in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dijiba, who has not returned since, recalls the motivation that prompted him to leave his country.
“I come from a family of 10 children,” Dijiba, now in his forties, says. “I thought to myself, with a family this big, we will need a lot of money. But money tends to come to those who have a solid education, so right then I knew what to do.”
At the time, he says, getting a graduate degree required a student to find a faculty mentor who would guide them through the process. Trouble was, most professors had very little time to devote to students, because they were paid too little and as a result most had to look for additional jobs to make ends meet. “That’s when I realized I had to go overseas,” Dijiba says.
With the help of a generous sponsor, he enrolled at the University of Kentucky. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Northern Arizona University; and then a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of New Mexico, with emphasis in spectroscopy, an arcane field which, when asked to put in layman's terms, he defines as “the study of the interaction of light with matter.”
Dijiba immediately sought to fulfill his longstanding dream of teaching with a stint as part-time professor at the University of New Mexico. Then he started to explore ways to give back to Africa. His quest led him to the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a nonprofit on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Established in 1820, USP issues standards for the quality of medicines sold around the world. Dijiba found himself at home at the Promoting the Quality of Medicines (PQM) division, a unit that fights the spread of counterfeit and substandard drugs mostly in developing countries, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Every day Dijiba analyzes samples of medical drugs to ascertain that their active ingredients are genuine and are included in the appropriate quantities. Last year he traveled to Mali, where he led a series of hands-on seminars with researchers and lab technicians as part of a capacity-building program that will enable professionals in these countries to detect substandard drugs themselves and ultimately be pre-certified by the World Health Organization.
A recent study conducted by Dijiba's division revealed that as much as 30 percent of all medicines sold in three countries in Africa - both through authorized channels and informally - are inadequate. Thanks in part to PQM’s work, Liberia recently adopted a law that tries to fight counterfeit medicines by establishing a regulatory authority on pharmaceutical matters.
“A lot of things that some take for granted in advanced countries are not even existent in many parts of the world,” Dijiba says. “Back in Congo, I used to look at ministers and heads of department with some admiration. Today, I'm dreaming differently.” He says he hopes to see PQM do some work in DR Congo.
Now a proud American citizen, Dijiba is one of an estimated 30.6 million Africans who live outside their country of origin. A new report by the World Bank estimates that in 2010 African migrants sent nearly US$40 billion back home in the form of remittances. The actual amount is likely higher, the report notes, because undocumented transfers are not taken into account.
Many ways back home
Highly skilled migrants like Dijiba predominantly travel outside Africa, a fact that is controversial in many respects. Data published in 2000 show that one out of every eight Africans with a university education lives in an industrialized country. Although they represent less than three percent of the total labor force in Africa, highly skilled workers account for more than 35 percent of all migrants. This denies their home countries skills and competencies that are badly needed. Small countries like Cape Verde, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea and Seychelles are particularly affected, as well as nations that have been plagued by conflict.
There is growing recognition of the need to resolve this dilemma, and a few possible solutions have been suggested to that effect. As an example, the Pan-African University’s Nyerere Program aims to facilitate academic knowledge-sharing and promote equal development by linking advanced faculty and universities with those in countries that have less skills and resources.
Research has also shown that some indirect measures, such as allowing dual citizenship or improving the business environment, can boost the contribution of diasporas.
Another promising opportunity is the issuance of diaspora bonds, which are particularly attractive for countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana, which have large emigrant populations in high-income nations. In a context where state resources are more strained than ever, aid stagnant and private capital flows reticent as a result of perceived political risk and other factors, African countries can package present and future remittances as collateral to unlock additional funding from a hesitant private sector.
“Sub-Saharan Africa can potentially raise an additional five to ten billion dollars a year through these bonds,” notes Dilip Ratha, lead economist and remittances expert at the World Bank. “Taken individually, the remittances sent by migrants do make a difference in the lives of their families and communities, but imagine the impact when these resources are pooled together for a targeted investment in infrastructure, health, or education. The possibilities are immense.”