Friday, August 25, 2006

Investing in Science and Technology in West Africa

August 25th, 2006

The case for investing in science and technology in West Africa

Col. Kofi Abaka Jackson (rtd), a renowned Ghanaian inventor and energy research scientist has observed that, scientific knowledge and technology could salvage the West Africa sub-region from the claws of poverty and misery.

"Lack of scientific knowledge and skills have left us firmly in underdevelopment, poverty, diseases and sense dependency. The way to move out of poverty and misery is to equip our people with knowledge in science and technology." If West Africans employ technology in their endeavours, the sub-region can advance beyond the "primitive agriculture, agro-processing and foreign controlled extractive industries. We shall enter industrial production of goods and services, " he noted.

Col. Jackson was addressing an ECOWAS Parliamentary Workshop on the "Impact of Science and Technology in Promoting Regional Integration" in Accra. It was under the theme "Implementing Regional Protocols for Security and Development in the ECOWAS "Enhancing the Role of Parliament in Security". It was jointly sponsored by the Foundation for Security and Development in Africa (FOSDA) and UNDP, and had in attendance Parliamentarians from Ghana, Liberia, Senegal and Mali as well as civil society groups, academia and the media.

He regretted that although the sub-region is endowed with "awesome natural resources" coupled with the application of textbook economic principles besides the massive injunction of loans and aid from the IMF, World Bank and other donors, West African countries are reeling under the burden of indebtedness.

"We must develop by acquiring knowledge and the practical application of that knowledge, so that we have capacity to exploit our natural resources and have dominion over everything nature has created. This is our natural right and we ignore it to our peril."

Col. Jackson, who has 20 inventions to his credit with six of them patented, observed that, no nation can prosper without resorting to the use of science and technology, adding rather mournfully that, "we don’t acquire knowledge in science and technology, so we sit in the midst of natural wealth but wallow in poverty."

He observed that the lack of skills on the part of West Africans is the missing link in the economic development of the sub region. Key socio-economic indicators reveal that many West Africans lack access to social services, infrastructure and political institutions that are necessary for healthy and productive life- statistics in health, education, the position of women and income poverty are amongst the worst in the world.

For example, 100 million people (44 per cent of the total population of West Africa) live in severe poverty, surviving on less than a dollar a day and by 2015 the region’s population will increase from its present figure of 227 million to about 300 million, magnifying the challenge of halving severe poverty.

Per capita is lower than it was a decade ago and over the last three years, the region’s combined economic growth rate has averaged around 2 per cent, which is up to 4 per cent below the 6 per cent required to reach UNDP poverty goals.

According to World Food Programme (WFP), the West African sub-region has the lowest life expectancy at birth. There are 34 countries in the world with life expectancy of 49 years old and below, and 10 of these are in West Africa, with an average life expectancy as 46 years.

In addition, out of the 20 countries presenting the highest under-five mortality rate (per 1000 live births) half of them belong to West African sub-region.

Factors cited for the decline include a precipitous drop in the prices of important export commodities; low domestic investment and savings rates; plummeting foreign direct investment (now half the level of the early 1980s); high levels of external debt; and more ominously, the increasing cases of HIV/AIDS infection.

It is against this background that Col. Jackson thinks science and technology in addition to equipping the youth with employable skills can kick-start the sub region’s economic revolution

"A careful look at our educational system reveals that about 90 per cent of the children who enter school come out without skills and without the opportunity to develop themselves," Jackson emphasizes.

According to him, in Ghana for example about 300,000 children enter school each year. 200,000 of them drop out at the JSS level. 100,000 enter SSS. Of this number 20,000 enter Universities and about 10,000 go to polytechnics and other institutions. In effect, about 70,000 pupils drop out at the SSS level. This means 270,000 out of the 300,000 pupils leave school without acquiring any skills.

"They do not have opportunity to enter industry for apprenticeship training because there are no suitable industries. Far less than half of those who enter Universities come out as Scientists, Engineers, Doctors, Architects and other high professionals needed in the economy."

To make things worse, the country loses some of this scarce human capital who travel abroad in search of greener pastures. "The educational system therefore fails to give us people who can perform in the economy. How can we produce and create wealth without skilled hands? What is the economic goal of our educational system?"

Col. Jackson proposes the establishment of trade training schools for JSS and SSS students who drop out along the ladder to acquire skills. He believes that with this structure, the JSS and SSS graduates will end up becoming the high and middle-level professionals to spearhead the application of science and technology. The universities will therefore focus more on producing scientists, engineers, doctors and other high-level professionals.

Jackson is optimistic that such an educational system, which produces so much human capital, will reflect in every sphere of the lifestyles of West Africans and will place the economy on a strong footing.

"The economy enters rapid acceleration, the nation becomes rich, realistic wages are paid, brain drain stops and there is money for development. There will be greater political stability. Some of the national wealth is siphoned into the educational system so that more people can go to school.

Some of the participants proposed the establishment of sub-regional integrated educational institutions, especially an ECOWAS University, where ideas like that of Col. Jackson’s will be implemented for the benefit of West Africans. In addition, participants suggested that the teaching of both French and English should be made compulsory in schools in the sub-region.

An official of the ECOWAS Secretariat, Cyriaque Pawoumotom Agnekethom, revealed that ECOWAS at this stage of development is focusing more on issues of economy, defence and security, and that much premium, regrettably, has not been given to the issue of the harmonization of the different educational systems in the respective member states of ECOWAS.

Author: Ebenezer Hanson



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