Linking Knowledge and Business
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Africa)
March 9, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
The recent eighth African Union (AU) summit of heads of state and governments, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was convened with a focus on the role that science, technology, and innovation can play to boost Africa’s socio—economic development.
This meeting provided Africa’s leaders with practical technical, institutional, and policy-oriented solutions that can be implemented to move the continent’s strategic plans ahead.
Much of the conduct of development cooperation is focused on "discourses" about a variety of possible options for development, with the pervasive use of terms like "poverty reduction" or "poverty elimination."
The language of "poverty reduction" has done more harm than good. It has put emphasis on short-term interventions such as relief efforts at the expense of long-term competence-building programmes that raise economic productivity and expand opportunities for wider access to productive assets.
The time has come to make a transition from a discourse-based, debate-filled approach to a new vision emphasising practical outputs to ultimately serve the poor.
Much of the funding allocated for conferences could be better used to support study tours to learn from practical experiences around the world. Such tours will reveal that at least three key factors contributed to the rapid economic transformation of emerging economies.
First, they invested significantly in basic infrastructure like facilities, structures, associated equipment, services and institutional plans that facilitate the flows of goods and services. Infrastructure is a mosaic of interactive physical (public utilities, public works, transport sectors, and research facilities) and institutional arrangements (legal systems for property rights and contract enforcement) needed for the proper functioning of economic systems. It serves as a foundation for local technological learning by acting as the centres of diffusion of skills into the rest of society.
All stages of an infrastructure project (including planning, design, construction and operation) involve the use of a wide range of engineering inputs and institutional as well as management arrangements.
Given their physical, organisational and institutional complexity, infrastructure facilities and services involve adequate technical capabilities on the part of engineers, managers, government officials, and others involved in these projects.
Secondly, they created and nurtured the development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) through a network of incentives and support systems.
Creating links between knowledge generation and business development is the most important challenge facing Africa. For Africa to promote the development of local technology, it needs to review its incentive structures to determine their relevance to innovation. Policy-makers need to develop, apply and emphasise the important role of engineering, technology and SME development in human welfare improvement and sustainable development.
Thirdly, governments supported, funded and promoted institutions of higher technical learning (especially in the engineering sciences), as well as academies of engineering and technological sciences, professional engineering and technological associations, and industrial and trade associations.
Engineering education is increasingly recognised as a critical aspect of the development process, especially with the growing awareness of the role of science and innovation in economic renewal.
The AU summit provided African presidents with the information they needed to make the practical investments in their countries that develop infrastructure, incubate SME’s, and promote technical education. Only through such measures can African economies radically reinvent themselves.
Calestous Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalization Project. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London and foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.
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