"Engineering Education Vital for Africa's Growth"
Op-Ed, The East African
October 16, 2006
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
African countries are seeking ways to revive economic growth and expand their role in the global economy, but their efforts are hampered by poor infrastructure.
The growing interest in investing in Africa’s infrastructure provides an opportunity for the continent to strengthen its engineering capabilities.
Poor infrastructure and inadequate infrastructure services are among the major factors that hinder the continent’s development. Without adequate infrastructure, Africa will not be able to harness the power of science and innovation to meet development objectives and be competitive in international markets.
Infrastructure promotes agricultural trade and helps integrate economies into world markets. It is also fundamental to human development, including the delivery of health and education services. Infrastructure investments further represent untapped potential for the creation of productive employment.
REGIONAL PROJECTS such as the proposed modernisation of the Kenya-Uganda railway can serve as a critical foundation for building domestic engineering capabilities. But more concerted international efforts are needed to address Africa’s engineering needs.
A first step in moving ahead will involve challenging the worldwide engineering community to come up with solutions relevant to Africa. An example is provided by the Grainger Foundation through the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE), which is offering $1 million for an economical way to treat arsenic-contaminated groundwater in Bangladesh and other countries. African countries could launch complementary challenges.
Engineering academies can also recognise and honour young engineers and practitioners who have played important roles in providing innovative solutions to sustainable development challenges. There are a growing number of initiatives such as Engineers without Borders (EwB) that provide opportunities for young people to participate in international development, which could be strengthened by the support of engineering academies.
AN EXAMPLE of such activities is the Mondialogo Engineering Award, which encourages engineering students in developing and developed countries to establish international teams to work on projects that seek to implement the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It is a joint initiative of DaimlerChrysler and the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
The development policies advocated for Africa in the past two decades have generally failed to draw from experiences elsewhere. As a result, critical lessons regarding the role of engineering in development were either ignored or their application discouraged.
A step forward would be for the science and engineering community to launch a global review of the lessons learned from international development efforts over the past 50 years. The focus of such a study should be to identify good practices and inspirational models, not simply to measure the impact of engineering on sustainable development.
One of the key challenges facing Africa lies in finding ways to strengthen engineering education. This involves creating and strengthening training activities, as well as creating new engineering schools.
Current efforts in Africa to rethink the future of higher education may provide important opportunities for creating long-term research and training partnerships through mechanisms such as twinning of universities.
Africa is in the early stages of developing its scientific academies and seeking to bring their expertise to bear on sustainable development policy.
The continent has 12 national science academies — in Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe — and one continental academy — the African Academy of Sciences.
Only South Africa has an engineering academy. There may be a role for international engineering academies to help African countries strengthen the engineering components of existing academies or to help strengthen separate engineering academies, when created.
The African Union presidential summit on science and technology to be held in Addis Ababa in January 2007 will provide a rare opportunity for African leaders to demonstrate leadership in seeking to bring the continent into the knowledge-based global economy. They can do so by linking engineering education to the revival of interest in investing in Africa’s infrastructure.
Professor Calestous Juma teaches international development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This article is based on his 2006 Hinton Lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering, delivered in London on October 3
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