LSE’s Karl T Muth argues that America’s approach of bringing highly-skilled engineering and technology workers to Africa may be even more detrimental than the Chinese system of transporting their own equipment, raw materials and personnel. This post originally appeared on Global Policy.
On the left side of the Atlantic there is plenty of chatter about so-called STEM jobs. Employers searching for candidates for these Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics jobs (and often jobs requiring some aptitude in all four areas) are often looking for more workers than can be quickly trained or retasked. As a result, these jobs sit, vacant, or employers absorb a disproportionate (at least in historical terms) portion of worker retraining costs.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a push to bring foreign workers into the United States for training. And earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security finally (with Congressional approval) authorised a visa specifically for workers skilled in, or training in programmes that would lead to, STEM jobs.
The truth is that America already has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people with blue bird passports who are able to do these jobs.
But they’re doing STEM jobs overseas. Think across the State Department, the Department of Defense, USAID and its many projects and contractors, and so on. The Army Corps of Engineers alone has over 12,000 engineers and about 40,000 total personnel. But an engineer repairing a bridge in northern Juba can’t work on repairing a bridge in New Jersey (it should be noted that the Corps takes on domestic infrastructure projects and offers domestic disaster assistance in many situations, including recently in Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, though these activities do not utilise all Corps resources).
The STEM jobs that are being done by Americans who are directly, or through surrogate projects and agencies, tied to the U.S. government are often in Africa. This is unsurprising, as Africa has a huge number of difficult problems that are, at their core, engineering problems.
As an example, consider the exploitation of bauxite in South Sudan. Surface bauxite is common in South Sudan, and hence strip-mining is possible. But there is no one trained to operate the equipment needed, and no one trained to maintain the equipment when it fails. Even if this equipment existed, there are no rail or improved tarmac links between South Sudan and the logical export point at Mombasa. Even if there were, there is no excess electrical capacity at Mombasa to turn bauxite into alumina and alumina into aluminum, a terribly energy-intensive process.
Every step of this process is complex to oversee and difficult to coordinate. Yet, American engineers often work on projects like this. The supply chain and cost-of-commodity advantages are simply too remote for someone like Alcoa to make the investment, but the U.S. government will devote time, energy, and hundreds of highly-skilled people to these problems.
This is where one of the American criticisms of China’s activities in Africa does not, to me, ring true. America often criticises the Chinese for bringing their own equipment, raw materials, and personnel to Africa to, for instance, build a road. It is true that China will arrive to build a road (the new Bagamoyo road in Tanzania, for instance) and will bring its own unskilled workers, asphalt, and machinery. China will even bring, if the project is large enough, agricultural preparations to grow Chinese vegetables and spices for the project’s canteen. The men I see toiling on projects like the Bagamoyo causeway are unskilled labourers from southern China. They are not STEM workers.
However, I argue that America’s approach of bringing highly-skilled STEM workers to Africa may be even more detrimental than the Chinese system. It has three effects, all of which are undesirable.
The first is that it deprives the American market of highly-skilled workers, particularly engineers. While twenty years ago the profession of civil engineering was chiefly an extension of the civil service, with jobs primarily being housed in state or municipal government entities, the size of private development efforts has ballooned in the past two decades in America. As a result, having highly-skilled civil engineers in Kenya rather than California deprives not only the traditional (state-run) employers of this labour force, but also deprives private domestic projects of these workers’ talents. There are countless projects in the private sector that are as – if not more – starved for STEM talent than government projects.
Having tens of thousands of highly-skilled American workers overseas reduces, somewhat counterintuitively, the total amount of STEM labour. This is because American STEM workers are unavailable for domestic projects and, simultaneously, have a chilling effect on the enthusiasm for training STEM workers wherever they happen to be deployed.
The second problem is that it deprives Africa, particularly Anglophone east Africa, of the opportunity to develop its own human capital in this area. No local person is going to learn about engineering when Fred The Foreigner with five years of engineering experience is willing to do the work seemingly for nothing (Fred is paid by the U.S. military or USAID or some other American agency). Removing Fred makes local people far more able and eager to compete for these jobs and the education these jobs require. The enormous labour market distortions caused by “free people” (and by this I mean non-Africans who offer highly-skilled labour at highly-discounted cost) were never anticipated by DFID, USAID, or the other major players. The issue has grown from a kink in the labour supply curve to a wholesale destruction of opportunity for an African professional class whose evolution has been severely retarded, if not completely prevented.
The third – tied to, but distinguishable from, the second – is that the presence of foreign STEM talent in Africa, like so many neocolonial activities, removes the need for African problem-solving. This is a larger problem than the mere employment issue discussed, supra. It imposes an Occidental lens on activities that may be achievable through other means and thwarts local innovation with “whites-know-better” storylines that are inescapable and counterproductive. The age of paternalism is over. Having Africans forever apprentice to white masters, even with the most pure of intentions, is meaningless if Africans never truly obtain mastery themselves. As Mori Ōgai once wrote, “The man who sharpens a blade in daylight weeps at night that he will never forge a blade.”
Some will dismiss the third of these points; they will argue Africans should not reinvent the wheel and that Western firms like Alcoa and ExxonMobil and Rio Tinto can exploit African resources more efficiently than local entrepreneurial efforts. However, resource exploitation by these firms is often not the efficient perfection one might expect. More often than not, state resources are brought to bear (often with the help of the American, Australian, or British governments) to pave the way for these exploitation campaigns or to “fix” projects that are deep in the red (usually with a flurry of loans, tax credits, and subsidies). The truth is that some problems in Africa should, can, and will be solved by Africans.
These solutions will be good for Africa, good for America, good for the UK, and good for a cash-rich but commodity-starved world.
Anyone who has spent any time on the Continent can see there is much room for African innovation and enterprise.
Areas of Uganda are discovering a billion barrels of oil per quarter; since Ugandan law does not allow whites or foreigners to own land, these resources will almost certainly need to be exploited by local companies. Exploiting hardwood forests in northern Congo has presented a logistical challenge unsolved by Western whites in a century, but potentially soluble using traditional methods of floating logs on the Albertine Nile. The Koidu diamond mine in Sierra Leone, blasted using French open-reservoir techniques, is the most structurally-unstable mine in its region; other mine sites exploited using African-invented linked-tunnel methods have proven resilient, even with combat and explosions nearby.
If America wants to see these nearly-endless resources turn into trade goods (and clearly it does – a year ago, Tiffany & Co. began selling diamonds from the now-rehabilitated Koidu mine), it should stop sending engineers to Africa and, instead, start training Africans to be engineers. This investment would send American engineers in Africa home (thereby soothing America’s short-term STEM labour shortage problem), create legitimate and capable counterparts to American engineering firms, and eventually create innovative solutions to exploiting Africa’s rich resources, many of which have been technically or logistically inaccessible despite billions spent by the public and private sectors of wealthy countries.
Until America is willing to train Africans to a high standard – a standard equal to that of its own engineers – it will continue to enjoy all the inefficiencies of colonialism and none of its benefits.