News Column

Africa's Development Bottlenecks

May 26, 2014

Lonzen Rugira

ONCE EVERY year the African Development Bank (AfDB) holds an assembly somewhere on the continent. This year was special, for the Bank was marking 50 years since its establishment in 1964 with a mission to 'promote sustainable economic growth and reduce poverty in Africa.'

And so, important guests descended on Kigali, the host city. Some of these were serving and retired heads of state and government, as well as successful business persons from all over the world.

More importantly, these dignitaries didn't come to simply exchange pleasantries. Serious matters of Africa's transformation were discussed. And most were candid discussions.

The topics discussed ranged from energy, trade, investment, markets, infrastructure, natural resources, to accountability and transparency, and to peace and security.

By and large, this was a successful conference. It was helped by the caliber of speakers and panel discussants most of whom were seasoned veterans with enough practical experience in their various endeavors to cause transformation in their respective capacities.

That they had failed or succeeded during their tenure was a matter of secondary importance to the experience they were sharing.

Thus, when former presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo spoke on the challenges of leadership and institution building, we trusted that they had expertise in what they were telling us and most, therefore, listened attentively.

A keen observer would have left with two impressions. First, the plethora of priorities discussed points to the fact that our continent still faces enormous challenges in efforts geared at social transformation.

To place this enormity in its proper perspective is to appreciate that in a week dedicated to social transformation, the subjects of education and health could not find themselves on the agenda.

The fact of the matter remains that we shall need a healthy and educated population in order to achieve meaningful transformation. Lest we forget, development is about people.

Which brings me to something that ought to cause concern for all of us: Our children can neither read nor count. According to a study conducted by two East African organizations working in the area of education, only 30 percent and 60 percent of primary three students can read or count at primary two level, respectively.

During the launch of the report, a member of the team that conducted the research had an even more alarming declaration: "By the time they reach the last year of primary school, one out of five East African children still have not acquired these skills."

Our university students aren't fairing any better, either: At least half of the graduates in East Africa, and 48 per cent in Rwanda, are 'half baked' and 'not competent for the job market,' according to a story carried by The East African.

For those lucky enough to get employed, they lack confidence and can't take initiative while on the job, the same study observes.

More importantly, shortages in creativity and ingenuity have consequences for development. Indeed, education, in its real sense, is supposed to produce a thinking person capable of responding to a changing environment.

It is such a person who may be facilitated with 'common good' things to act as a runway for their ingenuity. This is how education can be differentiated from credentialism (possession of degrees, certificates, and diplomas). As things stand, however, one would expect serious impediments in transforming a youth which can neither read nor count.

To be sure, the ADB conference served the important purpose of contributing towards building a consensus on Africa's development 'bottlenecks.' What is now required is to match these set of priorities with aspects that ensure that we have an educated and healthy population.

It is true that we face a reality of competing priorities. It is a chicken-egg paradox. However, just because something is difficult doesn't mean it can't be done.

East Africans know that our region has often found the will to do things that previously we could only dream about. Take the inter-east African railway. What resource pooling has done for the railway system can be replicated in other areas of strategic intervention.

In the area of education, for instance, resource pooling could create world class universities capable of birthing graduates with abilities to serve as catalysts for meaningful socioeconomic transformation.

Thereafter would be details of matching academic centers of excellence with the consensus area identified from the conference. In this regard would be centers of excellence in ICT, agriculture, investment and commerce. Also important would be a center of excellence in Leadership and Public Service.

Finally, it is worth reminding that in matters of development the golden rule ought to be to "seek ye first the kingdom of human development, and all the rest shall be added onto you."

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Source: AllAfrica

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