To return or not to return, that is the question: highly skilled return migrants to Ghana
16 January 2017
It was 2011 when I was myself confronted with this very question. It was a pivotal year for me personally and professionally: I was on leave in Ghana for six months, recovering from serious health issues, and also contemplating my future at my current university. During my leave I often met up with peers from primary and secondary school and made new friends through these networks. Many of them had lived in the diaspora for years, attending university and then working, but had recently returned to live in Ghana. There was a general sense of excitement amongst them, a sense of duty and obligation to give something back to Ghana, to share the skills, knowledge and expertise they had gained while living abroad, and to achieve a renewed sense of home and belonging after years of feeling like a perpetual foreigner elsewhere. It seemed that opportunities abounded. The more conversations we had, the more I reflected on my own situation and the precariousness of my life in the US, despite my status as a highly educated professional with what many would consider an ideal job as a tenure-track faculty member at a liberal arts college. But appearances can be deceiving, and after a rather challenging 2010, I began to seriously consider an alternative. So this was how I found myself in Ghana, speaking to and interacting with people whose experiences were similar to mine, who had taken the bold step to return and, with it, to change their lives.
Skilled professional migration is an integral part of processes of globalisation and the global labour markets that connect and transform people and places. However, comparatively little attention is paid to return flows of skilled African professionals, and their own narratives are often dominated by discussions about the migration–development nexus (see for example Faist 2008) in which return movements are seen as part of broader ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain circulation’. Based on their own narratives, my work examines how skilled professional Ghanaian return migrants articulate and navigate the challenges of readjustment. The research project on which this blog and my forthcoming presentation is based aims not only to study these highly skilled Ghanaians’ experiences of return migration, but on a personal level offered me a chance to inform my own decision-making about the possibility of return. My presentation will focus on the employment and entrepreneurial experiences of highly skilled Ghanaian women and men who have returned to Ghana in the last decade. For many return migrants, securing a job in Ghana was often the immediate catalyst to their actual physical move back. Many of the return migrants felt that their families and/or children could join them later; as my research showed, however, this is not as straightforward as anticipated. In this and other facets of life, there is often a disconnect between the expectations of return among returnees and the realities and challenges they encounter in assimilating after years away. And nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace.
Returning to strengthening economies
Recent years have witnessed significant movements of highly skilled professionals returning to their countries of origin whose economies are, like Ghana’s, experiencing a resurgent growth. In 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Ghana was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, driven by an emerging oil and gas industry, a diversified economy, a growing base of consumers and significant foreign investment, and by the stable democracy it has maintained for the past twenty years. Yet, while it is often acknowledged that skilled professional migration constitutes an integral component of development, less attention is given to the actual day-to-day experiences and narratives of skilled Ghanaian professionals who have returned. Respondents in my own research showed me that they were establishing businesses and creating particular niches (consultancies, IT services, high-end catering), along with helping both private companies and public/civil organisations to improve their online and offline visibility, as well as running management training modules. It is this gap between theorisation and lived experience that my research seeks to bridge.
Navigating challenges in the workplace
Drawing on their narratives, I explore how men and women face and navigate the challenges they encounter in the workplace as both employees and employers, and how they do so in particular, gendered ways. My respondents’ narratives show that while they appreciated the healthier work–life balance and support of the extended family that they found on returning to work in Ghana, both men and women encountered resentment from their colleagues, who often have negative perceptions of returnees securing the best jobs. Women also face the added pressures of local patriarchal expectations that compound general attitudes of resentment. Mavis encapsulates the attitudes returnee women like her encounter when expressing their opinions or ideas: “A woman is seen not heard!”
Given their skills and expertise, these highly skilled return migrants are often appointed to senior positions in which they have to navigate a different work ethic and norms that challenge their ability to fully integrate into the workplace. The migrants told me they expected a certain pace of work, commitment and achievement which they were accustomed to in the west but did not find was widespread among local Ghanaians. One male respondent told me: ‘A big challenge is implementing what [skills/knowledge] you’ve brought back. When I demanded a strict work ethic, it has led to high staff turnover. Most Ghanaians come to work with a different attitude. They are not about making a difference. They come and sit down and don’t know what to do. You can’t just tell them what to do and they do it. You have to give them instructions. You have to be extremely specific because there is that gap … As an entrepreneur I cannot leave the work to them. I have to be there to oversee everything. When I leave Ghana for two weeks, when I come back they’ve messed up everything!’ Many were also frustrated by local workplace hierarchical structures, including local patron–client relationships (sometimes across ethnic or old boys’ network lines). Another male respondent told me ‘I have to rely on friends that went to school here [Ghana] and have the networks or those connections to get certain things done, [whereas] I should be able to walk into the office and talk to a person and not care and still get things done’. These feelings of frustration and resentment have led to several of those I interviewed opting to begin their own businesses and work for themselves. In turn the local Ghanaian workers have their own frustrations, with one local worker expressing his bitterness about the returnees thus: ‘You returnees are taking all the jobs. You guys make it seem as if we are “‘the other’”. While the disconnect of return can occur across all facets of life, and is a two-way street, for my highly skilled respondents the workplace is one such arena in which this disconnect plays out in ways they had not necessarily anticipated.
West is not always best
According to some returnees, it is not only one’s length of time in the diaspora, but also the attitude one has towards return, that shapes one’s return experiences. Often the returnees who express frustrations with their lives in Ghanaian workplaces had expected to operate in much the same way as they did in the diaspora. There is a certain perception that their own skills, knowledge and expertise were superior to those of local Ghanaian workers and it took some time for some to acknowledge that they had to go through a mental and attitudinal shift to integrate into the particular cultural norms that operated in their new workplaces in order for them to actually see some substantive results. A female respondent told me: ‘You are often caught in the middle between what you think should be done based on your experiences over there, and what you need to do to get things done. They see you as imposing Western ways of doing things on them and they resist that. So, you have to do a mental shift to figure out how things work here to get people to buy into your vision… but it’s not easy at all.’ Irrespective of the challenges and frustrations they face on their return, these professionals bring with them a wealth of resources, expertise and access to global networks that have a substantial impact on economic development (see for example Ammassari 2004). For my own part, while I did seek employment opportunities in Ghana to potentially precipitate my own return, securing tenure has put a hold on those plans. Through my research, however, I continue to inform myself and others about the realities and challenges these men and women returnees face in assimilation and, in particular, how they negotiate their new roles in the Ghanaian workplace.
Madeleine Wong will present her research as part of IMI’s Hilary term seminar series ‘Migration to, through and from Africa: An African conversation’. Join us at 1pm on Wednesday 18 January to hear ‘Skilled Ghanaian return migrants navigating the gendered politics of “adjustment”’.
 ‘Mavis’ is a pseudonym.
Ammassari, Savina (2004) “From nation-building to entrepreneurship: the impact of élite return migrants in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana” Population, Space and Place 10(2):133-154
Faist, Thomas (2008) “Migrants as transnational development agents: an inquiry into the newest round of the migration–development nexus” Population, Space and Place 14 (1): 21-42
About the author
Dr. Madeleine Wong is an Associate Professor in the Global Studies Department at St. Lawrence University. As a Ghanaian from a multiracial – Chinese-Ghanaian – family she has a diverse education that spans geographical areas from Ghana to England to the US and to Canada. Dr. Wong’s research and scholarly work explores processes of globalisation, particularly as they relate to questions of ‘development’, as they dictate migration flows and transnationalism, and the gendered impacts on families and diasporic communities. She has worked on topics including globalisation and health care migration, gendered and diasporic identities, remittances and development, state strategies and policy responses to migration. Dr. Wong is currently working on a project that examines the gendered experiences of highly educated and highly skilled return Ghanaian migrants regarding how they negotiate the challenges and impacts of their return on the local economy, in the workplace, and on local and transnational family and community dynamics.
IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.