The EU Should Build Skills in Africa, Not Just Promote Mobility

This blog, originally posted in November 2020, has been updated and reposted as part of a series by CGD ahead of the EU-Africa Summit which will begin on February 17, 2022. This series presents proposals for priorities, and commentary on whether a meaningful reconstruction of the relationship between the two continents is likely.

Late in 2020, the European Union (EU) released its New Pact on Migration and Asylum. It aimed, among other things, to implement “Talent Partnerships” with African countries. These Talent Partnerships were to better link migration and skills development, a move we heralded.

Since that time, much progress has been made. New pilot projects have been agreed and the broader narrative has focused more on the development benefit, or, what Africa gets out of their migration partnership with the EU. Yet these projects could go further, with European countries channeling aid and investment to actually build skills and talent within Africa for Africa, thereby countering “brain drain” and making the partnership truly mutually beneficial.

Based on discussions with EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, and conversations at the Vienna Migration Conference, this blog outlines how the European Commission can put Talent Partnerships (that generate meaningful benefits for countries of origin, countries of destination, and migrants themselves) into practice.

What are “Talent Partnerships”?

There is still much mystery surrounding the implementation of the Talent Partnerships. They were officially launched on June 11, 2021, with Commissioner Johansson stating:

“We need legal migration: Europe's working age population is shrinking and many key sectors face skills shortages, like healthcare and agriculture. Talent Partnerships will help match the skills of candidates to work in Europe with labour market needs. Talent Partnerships will also give Europe a great tool to work together with our partner countries on all aspects of migration, something that's been missing up to now.”

Mobility for study, work, and training would all be included within the Talent Partnerships. Crucially, they also are to contain capacity building activities in areas such as labour market forecasting, education and training, integration, and diaspora mobilization.

It appears the Talent Partnerships framework will largely be used to support and scale the existing pilot projects, which have been supported by the European Commission-funded Migration Partnerships Facility (MPF) since 2016. The MPF has channelled €30 million to more than 40 projects in 15 Member States and 12 partner countries. Last week, the fourth round of funding was opened, with a total envelope of  €15.2 million.

These projects are often conducted bilaterally, between a European and non-European country, aiming to bring skilled professionals into Europe while also providing a development benefit for the country of origin. This development benefit could be in the form of additional skilled workers (like in our Global Skill Partnership model) and/or through circularity and remittances. They often focus on mid-level professions where few legal pathways to Europe exist.

Yet the idea of scaling these pilot projects to encompass the entirety of the EU seems incredibly difficult. Countries in the region appear to be at one of three stages along a continuum: refusing the need for mid-level migration to plug skills gaps and address aging demographics; acknowledging that need, but wanting to conduct recruitment in a targeted (and potentially exploitative) way; to formulating genuine partnerships which promote development on both sides.

This creates a very difficult starting point to have genuine discussions about how to implement new EU-wide legal migration pathways. In addition, these countries all have different demographic trends (read: levels of desperation), different skill needs, different languages, and different education and training systems. Agreeing Talent Partnerships that satisfy the needs of all stakeholders therefore strikes us as an impossible task, at least in the short-term.

One way forward

Instead, over the next five years, policymakers should be thinking about bilateral or multilateral agreements between “coalitions of the willing.” On one side would be individual or multiple European Member States with rapidly aging populations and large mid-level gaps, interested in collaborating on new legal migration instruments and harmonizing curriculum requirements.

On the other side would be individual or multiple third countries with rapidly growing youth populations, high levels of primary education, established vocational training providers, and relative government stability. These countries are likely to be exhibiting high emigration pressure to Europe, and therefore also likely to be the same countries with which Member States will need to develop comprehensive agreements to facilitate increased returns under the new Pact.

Such an approach will need careful consideration of many elements, including the development impact of the pathway, and the precise skillset involved.

Ensure mutual development benefits

These new Talent Partnerships can’t be extractive. Too many legal migration pathways take the best and most qualified talent from countries of origin and give very little in return. This approach won’t work for three main reasons:

  1. Countries of origin will increasingly have more bargaining power. European countries are becoming more desperate to recruit skilled talent, and also need cooperation to increase returns. This should embolden countries of origin to push for more.
  2. They do little to address concerns about “brain drain,” which worries many countries of origin (particularly in the healthcare sector).
  3. They do little to directly promote development within countries of origin. The standard argument is to fall back on circularity and remittances to argue the development benefit of legal pathways. This fallback is not enough. We need to proactively work to improve education and training in countries of origin, and expand the labor market, if we are to have any hope of addressing irregular migration and increasing economic development.

Instead, these partnerships could take the form of a Global Skill Partnership, promoting a Triple Win approach for countries of origin, destination, and the migrant themselves. In the model, the country of destination agrees to provide technology and finance to train potential migrants with targeted skills in the country of origin, prior to migration, and gets migrants with precisely the skills they need to integrate and contribute best upon arrival. The country of origin agrees to provide that training and gets support for the training of non-migrants too – increasing rather than draining human capital. This “dual track” approach ensures that the global stock of workers within a certain skill is increased and development objectives can be achieved.

Such an approach will require very careful thinking about the sectors within which to work, the skills developed as part of the partnership, and the alignment of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) systems. It will also require extensive engagement across and between stakeholders. Ministries of the Interior, Labor, and Foreign Affairs all need to be involved, along with specialist Ministries. We need industry associations and specific companies to dictate the skills needed. Labor unions and migrant rights associations need to uphold safeguards. And diaspora groups need to help facilitate integration and remittances. This approach is time consuming, transaction heavy, and expensive, but necessary.

Finally, policymakers need to pilot, evaluate, and scale. The best partnerships can then expand to more people, and maybe also new countries of origin and destination within a multilateral approach. Demonstrating the benefit of the approach to all involved, especially employers in countries of destination, will help get other countries on board. This is how Europe could, over the long-term, move towards more of a Talent Partnership approach.

Choose your skills carefully

There is no point training people in a specific skillset, or opening legal migration pathways in a particular skillset, if that skillset is not in demand. The private sector needs to be involved from day one—detailing the extent of the skills gap, designing the curriculum and training, and collaborating with their counterparts on the other end. This system needs to be flexible and adaptive, able to shift if demand shifts.

This system obviously looks different depending on the sector you are looking at. For example, in healthcare, the skillset needed is unlikely to fundamentally shift over the next five years. You could therefore set a healthcare curriculum to train nurses in countries of origin to meet both local and European needs, while also investing in healthcare systems to improve attraction and retention rates. The demand across Europe for healthcare workers is also unlikely to shift in the long-term, especially if driven by public employers, so Member States could set up a long-term talent pipeline.

A sector like information technology (IT) may be more politically palatable than healthcare, since there are fewer language issues and concerns about “brain drain”, and more interest in additional collaborations such as offshoring and remote work. But it will be difficult to train for a specific skillset as the needs of the IT sector move so quickly. What is in demand now, may not be in demand two years from now when the workers are trained. Some pathways, like Belgium’s pilot project with Morocco, PALIM, are attempting to do this. Yet IT may be one of those sectors that is better suited to an EU Talent Pool, rather than long-term partnerships.

The Role of the EU

All of the discussion in this blog has focused on the individual competency of Member States to enact bilateral or multilateral agreements. So what role can, or should, the EU play in the implementation of Talent Partnerships? Here we believe there are four distinct, yet complementary, roles:

  1. Provide funding to support pilot projects by, for example, increasing the budget of the MPF. Member States can find it difficult to agree politically to put taxpayer money on the line to expand migration partnerships. And the private sector may not yet see the benefit enough to want to financially support the pipeline. Pathways can (and should!) transition into a more sustainable funding model, but initial seed funding will likely be necessary.
  2. Harmonize curriculum and training requirements as much as possible. As stated above, it will be incredibly difficult to do this across the EU. But if the EU, perhaps the DG for Employment, Social Affairs, and Inclusion, could work with clusters of Member States to explore harmonization of requirements, this would go a long way to developing training needs abroad.
  3. Play a matching function among Member States. Following on from this, the EU is the only entity which has a bird’s-eye-view of which Member States are more likely to be interested in developing such pathways, in which skillsets, and with which countries of origin. They could spot unlikely matches (such as Lithuania’s pilot project with Nigeria, Digital Explorers) and facilitate conversations.
  4. Promote the benefit of migration. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, has long been an outspoken advocate for the role of migrants. In a recent interview with CGD President Masood Ahmed, she mentioned “migration is part of our society and part of the prosperity of the European Union.” Such rhetoric can have a positive impact on the way politicians and the public view the role of third country migration in the EU, which will be integral to getting any new projects off the ground.

Note: the original version of this blog, now updated, was part two of three pieces focused on the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Part one focused on why both returns and legal pathways are needed to effectively manage migration, and part three focused on how to create a true partnership of equals with Africa.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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