By Dibussi Tande
"The ability of a society to produce, select, adapt, commercialize, and use knowledge is critical for sustained economic growth and improved living standards. Knowledge has become the most important factor in economic development." The World Bank.
The email from the IT department of a US-based company was a simple one:
"Due to civil disturbances in Bangalore, India, there is limited IT Services staff available in our Bangalore help desk location to provide telephone support. Our help desk locations in Ottawa and Dublin are providing extended services to alleviate this situation, but you may experience extended delays when contacting IT Services via phone.”
This brief email, which would have raised eyebrows two decades ago, is now just another mundane piece of workplace communications in the US. And, it succinctly sums up Thomas Friedman’s now famous assertion that the world is “flat” - i.e., that national boundaries are no longer relevant in today’s global economy, and that people and companies can now compete for jobs and market share on an equal footing, from anywhere in the world.
According to Friedman (in The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century), the dramatic developments in Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in the past decade, particularly the Internet and computer technologies, have created a new global economy where
"…intellectual work, intellectual capital, [can] be delivered from anywhere. It [can] be disaggregated, delivered, distributed, produced and put back together again -- and this [gives] a whole new degree of freedom to the way we do work, especially work of an intellectual nature."
The result, says a recent World Bank report, is a new economic reality where
“comparative advantages among nations come less and less from abundant natural resources or cheap labor and increasingly from technical innovations and the competitive use of knowledge—or from a combination of the two, as is illustrated by the success story of Bangalore, the capital of the Indian software industry.” (P. 8).
As I read the email on disturbances in Bangalore, I could not help but marvel at how India, a country which for all intents and purposes is still a “third world country” quickly understood the opportunity --and vacuum -- created by the digital revolution of the 1990s, and how it quickly adapted to the exigencies of new economy that ensued.
A decade ago, India was no different from most developing countries in Asia or even Africa. As an Indian financial expert quoted in Friedman’s book points out:
''India had no resources and no infrastructure. It produced people with quality and by quantity. But many of them rotted on the docks of India like vegetables. Only a relative few could get on ships and get out.
However, India was able to capitalize on the Internet boom of the late nineties and place itself at the frontline of the 21st century "knowledge economy". It did this by creating an enabling environment characterized by a renewed emphasis on science education, particularly in engineering and computer sciences at the tertiary level; huge investments in ICTs, particularly in a robust and reliable Internet system and a world class software industry; the establishment of business-friendly laws aimed at attracting foreign investment and multinationals; the adoption of less restrictive citizenship laws, to harness the potential of India’s mammoth Diaspora community, etc.
The results are there for all to see. Today, India’s graduates are no longer rotting “on the docks of India like vegetables” but have become frontline soldiers in a global digital economy. As the Indian financial expert puts it, “…we built this ocean crosser, called fiber-optic cable. For decades you had to leave India to be a professional. Now you can plug into the world from India. You don't have to go to Yale and go to work for Goldman Sachs.''
Cameroon's Unfulfilled Potential
Inevitably my thoughts turned to Cameroon, that country so strategically situated in the “armpit” of Africa, with the additional advantage of having one of the highest literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa and being officially bilingual in French and English.
This is also a country with a huge unexploited ICT potential particularly the high-performance fiber optic SAT3/WASC Submarine cable which has a terminal in Douala, and the COTCO fiber-optic link which runs across the entire length of the country along the Cameroon-Chad oil pipeline. No serious effort has been made to build the infrastructure within the country necessary to take advantage of these fiber optic links. So a country that has the potential to be at the forefront of the ICT revolution not only in the central African region but also in the rest of Africa is trailing the pack.
Today Cameroon is where India was some two decades ago – and it has the potential to become what India (or even Mauritius) is today. However, unlike India, Cameroon is crippled by the “civil service mentality”, and it lacks a crop of creative economic and political visionaries similar to those who transformed Bangalore from a sleepy backwater Indian town into an IT outsourcing and software Mecca.
Nowhere has that absence of vision been most manifested than in the country’s higher education system which was established primarily to train administrators for the post colonial government. Time has not changed the focus of Cameroon’s higher education system even as the world has moved on.
Apart from a few exceptions such as the Yaounde Polytechnic or the three Institutes of Technology in Bandjoun, Douala and Ngaoundere which graduate a meagre 100 or so students annually, Cameroon’s university system still churns out thousands of “pen pushers” each year rather than technology-savvy and innovative graduates with higher-order skills who are able to tackle the challenges globalization and knowledge societies. In Cameroon's universities, there is no particular emphasis on science and technology in general, or on research and development in particular, which are the cornerstone of the new economy.
An editorial in the economic monthly, The Entrepreneur (Vol. 1 No. 3 Jan. 2006 p. 2) brilliantly sums up the consequence of this misaligned educational system:
The deficit of knowledge and learning is killing Cameroon and Africa softly. Despite a proliferation of schools and colleges, the lack of true learning and creativity has held the African captive to underdevelopment. In Cameroon we have graduates who are just producing what they were taught in school, instead of producing new things…This has left Cameroon with millions of qualified illiterates and graduates who are failures as far as life and service is concerned. A Master's degree holder moves with little or no creativity. Thousands of poorly educated Cameroonians only wait for opportunities to work where others have worked. Few are involved in the creation of new things. The outdated education they received then gives birth to confusion.
Some might consider this analysis a little too bleak and apocalyptic. But the truth remains that Cameroon’s educational system is a relic of colonization which creates a dependent consumer society with little or no capacity for creativity, innovation and productivity. In this regard, Jeremy Weate's observation about Nigeria is truer for Cameroon:
The longer I live here, the more I realise that technological interventions or money pumped in by donors will do little to transform, unless there is a primary focus on business processes (whether in the commercial or the public sector)… Nigerians enjoy the benefits of cars, laptops, mobile phones and other modern technology, but live in a society which does not understand the discipline and rigour it takes to produce such technology. This creates an alienated culture where technology and modern industrial processes are seen as a mystery. No one seems to be able to solve the aviation crisis. No one seems to be able to create value-added manufacturing processes; no one seems to stem the tide of an import-economy, turning into an export-economy. So few technological interventions (in any sector) meet with any kind of success.
Being part of the knowledge economy is not just about benefiting from IT outsourcing opportunities. For developing countries, it is the most effective way of competing in the global economy, increasing economic productivity and improving general living standards. Countries that fail to become part of the knowledge society will therefore be stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, dependency and underdevelopment; “Lagging countries will miss out on opportunities to improve their economies through, for example, more efficient agricultural production and distribution systems— which would increase yields and lower the proportion of food wasted due to poor distribution—or by making exports more competitive through better metrology, standards, and quality testing”, says the World Bank report (pp. 10-11).