Tackle Scientific Illiteracy on a War Footing
Op-Ed, The East African, page 15
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
A recent article in the New York Times titled, “Accents of Africa: A New Outsourcing Frontier” (reproduced in The East African in our February 7–13 issue under headline “Habar…Hello? Kenya Enters Global Call Centre Market”) challenged Africa to upgrade its technological base as it seeks to be part of the global economy.
It stressed that Africa “needs to show the world that it can do more than pick minerals out of the ground and grow fruits and vegetables.” But doing more will require investments in higher education, especially in the scientific, technological and engineering fields.
It is this context that Uganda’s proposal to make core science subjects—physics, chemistry and biology—compulsory in high school is a bold move that should be emulated by other African countries.
When Africa needed people to replace departing colonial administrators, it created universities to meet the challenge. The jobs administrators have long been filled and Africa’s challenges now are: to meet human needs; compete in the global economy and protect the environment. These tasks require technical skills that can only be provided through proficiency in the core sciences.
In other words, the continent needs a population that is equipped with technical skills that are needed to solve practical problems.
This means investing more in technical higher education as stressed in Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development, a report of the UN Millennium Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation presented to the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month.
African universities will need to start revamping their curricula, improve teaching methods by creating linkages with the private sector. And above all, Africa must turn its attention to nurturing children from underprivileged families who are talented in the sciences. This simply means that beyond the social sciences, Africa will be aligning its educational systems with its long-term development needs.
MUCH OF the debate on the future of Africa has focused on issues such as corruption, poor governance and the international debt burden. These are indeed important issues that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
But the more fundamental change that will help Africa be a worthy member of the global community will come from deliberate efforts by leaders to promote the development and spread of technical skills in the population. This is also where efforts by the tehnically-proficient civil society organizations are needed most.
In Rwanda, for example, the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management (KIST) created in 1997 is playing an important role in building a new cadre if technical and entrepreneurial personnel of the country. KIST is also involved in practical projects in the energy, food processing and transportation sectors.
Rwanda is not alone in this league of enlightened countries. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and used part of the saved resources to support higher education. Today the Costa Rican army is made up of teachers, scientists, workers and other productive members of this country.
BUT BUILDING new institutions is not the only way to proceed. The challenge is upgrading existing universities and technical institutions through curricula reform. Training teachers how to teach core sciences and mathematics is key. The University of Hiroshima in Japan offers an exemplary model in this respect.
And African universities themselves should get away from prestige projects that do not have immediate relevance for the local population. Many these universities are being paraded as “centers of excellence”. Africa should learn to learn excellence through performance and not declare it through self-promotion.
African must also make better use of existing resources. There are persistent complaints of shortages of science teachers across the continent but the problem is not treated as a matter of urgency. If these countries were at war they would be mobilizing every able-bodied person into national defence. Why not do the same to tackle the scientific gap?
Technological illiteracy demands similar measures. Every able-minded citizen should spend part of their time teaching and sharing their expertise.
SUCH A national service if properly managed could also benefit from the contributions of Africans in the diaspora, many of whom could obtain adjunct appointments in local institutions.
In addition, non-Africans could also make important voluntary contributions to raising Africa’s scientific and technical literacy.
Finally, classrooms without doors and windows are a common feature of the educational scene. Indeed, donations of facilities such as computers and basic laboratory equipment are hampered by the poor state of school buildings. Improving schooling infrastructure should be a priority public works programme for African countries.
Countries are returning to peace should turn their military facilities to building schools and related facilities. Similarly, armies in countries that are not at war should turn their technical skills to building technical institutions which are the first frontier against poverty.
Calestous Juma is a Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and founding director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi
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