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Tackling Human Resources in Africa

How one institute leverages overseas talent to develop its research strategy.

By | January 1, 2009

<figcaption>Laboratory class at the Ardhi Institute in Tanzania Credit: © Jorgen Schytte / Peter Arnold Inc.</figcaption>
Laboratory class at the Ardhi Institute in Tanzania Credit: © Jorgen Schytte / Peter Arnold Inc.

Developing countries are suffering severely from a lack of human resources in medicine and the biomedical sciences. Africa in particular has a crisis, with many countries experiencing chronic shortages of biomedical engineers, medical and research laboratory technicians, medical doctors and basic scientists. The problem was officially acknowledged at an emergency meeting in Douala, Cameroon, in June 2007, attended by delegates from 18 west and central African countries.

Several initiatives have now been launched, including one in our country of Cameroon. Measures at the national level include more competitive salaries and part-time positions for Cameroonians or experts of Cameroonian origin working in developed countries. The part-time opportunity allows experts to keep their positions in developed countries while spending several weeks to months every year working in Africa. This program is being implemented at our institute, the the Chantal Biya International Center for Research and Prevention of HIV/AIDS (CIRCB).

Launched in February 2006 by Chantal Biya (the first lady of the state) with the support of eminent researchers such as Luc Montagnier, Robert Gallo and Vittorio Colizzi, the CIRCB has sought solutions to the crisis in human resources from the outset. The first scientists recruited were lured back from Italy, in part by state-of-the-art equipment, competitive salaries (compared to regular civil servants) and open-ended contracts. CIRCB maintains strong partnerships and collaborations with eminent Italian scientists and institutions.

Notwithstanding the success of CIRCB, it has been difficult to attract highly qualified Cameroonians to positions in research institutions and universities in the country. While the package currently offered at CIRCB is attractive to professionals who are at the early stage of their career, it is less attractive to advanced experts who are established in developed countries and in many cases hold leadership positions. For this other group of émigré professionals, returning to settle back home permanently may not be a realistic option. Nonetheless, many overseas researchers remain strongly attached to their country and an increasing number have made career-changing decision to abandon basic science for applied research which is a lot more relevant to the research environment back home. In doing so, they can help develop skills that are needed throughout Africa without the need to permanently relocate.

The CIRCB will give émigré professionals short-term consulting contracts. Some tasks, such as grant and manuscript writing, conference participation, research with collaborating institutions, can be performed abroad while other tasks—laboratory work, supervision and auditing, transfer of new technologies and knowledge and training of staff—are performed during short visits at the CIRCB.

Such arrangements are "win-win" situations. For the consultant, spending 2 to 8 weeks in his home country that he may have left many years ago as a student is an opportunity to make a significant contribution. Indeed, having a professional linkage with his/her home country is usually more highly valued than the remuneration associated with it. For the host institution, these agreements provide access to expertise that is not readily available on the ground but is absolutely necessary for achieving its goals.

The first phase of this approach will soon be evaluated with a comprehensive assessment of the contribution made by émigré scientists and others with skills needed at the CIRCB. Such a review will suggest adjustments with an emphasis on promoting both productivity and the CIRCB competitiveness at the international level.

We anticipate important policy gains through this initiative to contribute to the mitigation of the effects of "brain drain" throughout developing countries.

Odile Oukem-Boyer, Giulia Cappelli, and Pierre Fouda are a part of the Chantal Biya International Center for Research and Prevention of HIV/AIDS (CIRCB) in Yaounde, Cameroon; Appolinaire Djikeng is a part of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md.

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