Developing Mathematics in the Developing World

March 14, 2008


The panel members, including a representative from each of the major developing regions in the world, along with three Europeans, were (from left) Alain Damlamian (Paris), Tsou Sheung Tsun (Oxford), moderator Andreas Griewank (Berlin), Fatima Abu Salem (Lebanon), Juan Otero (Cuba), Amiya Pani (India), and Jan Persens (South Africa).

Levis Eneya

Brain drain, political and cultural barriers, employment of mathematicians . . .

These were some of the issues that dominated discussions among panel members and the audience in the round-table session Developing Mathematics in the Developing World held at ICIAM '07. Moderated by Andreas Griewank of Humboldt University Berlin, the panel comprised one speaker from each of the main developing regions of the world---Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East---as well as three from Europe. The panel members were Jan Persens (South Africa), Amiya Pani (India), Juan Otero (Cuba), Fatima Abu Salem (Lebanon), Alain Damlamian (Paris), and Tsou Sheung Tsun (Oxford).

After a pre-recorded presentation by Abu Salem on the historical contributions of Arabic scientists to the development of mathematics, Griewank introduced the session by observing that mathematicians from "developed" countries have reason to be humble and learn from the developing world, which has, after all, demonstrated immense potential. Almost every speaker acknowledged brain drain as a major impediment to the development of mathematics in these regions. They agreed unanimously that given the persistence of brain drain-- resulting from political and cultural barriers, lack of well-paying jobs for mathematicians, lack of resources for conducting research, and similar obstacles--the dream of developing mathematics in these regions will remain distant. Otero gave some stunning statistics about brain drain:

* In the last 40 years, more than 1.2 million professionals from Latin America and the Caribbean have emigrated to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. An average of 70 scientists a day have emigrated from Latin America during this period.

* About 90% of the 150 million people around the world involved in science and technology activities are concentrated in the seven most industrialized nations.

* As a result of migration, a number of countries, particularly small nations in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America, have lost more than 30% of their inhabitants with higher education.

* The Caribbean islands, where nearly all nations are English-speaking, report the world's highest brain drain, with 8 of every 10 university graduates having left their native countries.

* More than 70% of the software programmers employed by the American Microsoft Corporation are from India and Latin America.

Persens had an optimistic view of the situation: "My gut feeling is that in the final analysis it may not be a matter of ‘brain drain' versus ‘brain gain' but rather ‘brain circulation' as a potential win–win situation. It is in this sense that some leaders argue that brain drain avoids ‘brain waste' because developing countries sometimes cannot provide developmental and capacity-building opportunities for their skilled citizens." It has been suggested that there is a silent policy of "storing brain power overseas" for subsequent use, as experienced in Korea and Taiwan and, more recently, in China and India. A massive return of expatriates to these countries has reversed the brain drain to some extent. This is not yet the case in several Latin American and African countries.

Abu Salem argued that in some regions, political instability coupled with corrupt political systems negatively affects the development of mathematics. In the absence of political freedom and Western-style democracy, a government rarely devotes meaningful efforts to innovative research, lest a "public awakening" should come about. She also observed that while poverty perhaps makes it difficult to work, fear for one's life makes it almost impossible. Experienced for prolonged periods of time, fear of this kind can drive people's thinking into a dark and bitter abyss, where the abstract and aesthetic sides of mathematics have no appeal.

How can individual mathematicians from developed countries help their counterparts in developing regions? Session moderator Andreas Griewank had several suggestions, some involving personal contacts---making scholarships and positions accessible to students and researchers from developing countries, for example---and others as simple as making their publications electronically available.

According to Pani, lack of employment opportunities for mathematicians, apart from teaching in colleges and universities, has been a major driving force of the brain drain. It has also served to discourage potential good students, who choose to study other disciplines instead. In agreement, some members of the audience pointed to the existing weakness in interactions between industry and mathematicians in developing countries, and wondered whether the time had come to change the types of mathematics emphasized. Here, Otero had a ready answer: "Our countries have big common social and economic problems, such as sustainable exploitation of natural resources and epidemic control. Therefore, making efforts to improve the level of mathematics [that would lead to solutions of these problems] is not a luxury." Mathematicians, of course, should have a solid theoretical background, he said, but this requires political will on the part of governments to include development strategies for mathematics in the more general development plans for their countries. Members of the audience saw a need to identify strategies or organizations that could help persuade governments to support the development of mathematics in their countries.

On remedies for the problems of developing mathematics in the developing world, Tsou Sheung got the ball rolling with the slogan "Mathematicians Can Help Mathematicians!" This, she elaborated, could be done through individual donations, through the organization of "cameo" courses that well-known mathematicians could be invited to teach, and through a "stepping-stone approach," in which those trained in a program are required, in turn, to train others. The latter approach is already working in Brazil, China, India, and Vietnam. Some members of the audience expressed the opinion that in the past 20 years or so, colleges and universities in developing countries have not produced quality mathematics teachers or lecturers, and they wondered how this issue could be addressed.

Persens pointed out that it is crucial for efforts at improving capacity and mitigating brain drain to be explicit; otherwise, the impact could be insignificant. He applauded the establishment of regional centers of excellence in developing regions and the support for existing ones, as approved by the meeting of government ministers from 58 European and African countries in Rabat, Morocco, in July 2006, and expressed the hope that more organizations would come forward to help establish such centers. Griewank observed that individual mathematicians from developed countries can help their counterparts in developing regions by, among other things, making scholarships and positions accessible to students/researchers from the developing countries, directly inviting participants and speakers from the developing countries to workshops and conferences, participating in the organization of meetings and programs in developing countries, starting long-term collaborations with "twins" in developing regions, and making their own publications electronically available.

The panel and audience concluded that developing mathematics in the developing world requires concerted efforts of mathematicians and governments in both worlds. Beneficial actions could include the organization of sandwich programs, in which students acquire part of their training in a developed country; support for student and faculty exchanges; reduction in the brain power imported from developing regions by developed countries, through efforts to motivate and train their own young people; making scientists' pay competitive with that in other professions; communicating the importance of mathematics to economic and social development; ensuring that universities and colleges cover core sciences; and devising local programs for coaching students.

At the end of the session, the panel members drew up a non-exhaustive list of organizations and contacts for developing mathematics in the developing world:

ANSTI, UNESCO (J.G.M. Massaquoi)
CDC of EMS (Tsou Sheung Tsun)
CDC of IMU (Herb Clemens)
CIMO, Helsinki (Matti Heiliö, Lappeenranta)
CIMPA, Nice (Michel Jambu)
DAAD, Bonn, Nairobi, Delhi, Johannesburg . . . (German Government)
ICIAM (Alain Damlamian)
ICMI, Paris (Michelle Artigue)
ICTP, Trieste (Le Dung Trang)
ISP, Uppsala (Leif Abrahamsson)
London Mathematical Society (John Ball)
MSI, www.msi-sig.org
NRF, Pretoria (www.nrf.ac.za)
SARIMA Rennes (Phillipe Bernard )
SIAM/NSF (Barbara Keyfitz, Tony Chan)
SIU/NUFU, Bergen (Ragni Piene, Oslo)
TWAS, Nairobi (H.A. Hassan).

Levis Eneya is a PhD student in mathematics at Humboldt University Berlin, on study leave from the University of Malawi.


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