By Dibussi Tande
“Caught up with daily survival, people in these societies do not necessarily see the value in building [Science & Technology] capacity because the payoffs are not generally immediate. Indeed, the need to meet external debt servicing requirements and other urgent short-term priorities make it very difficult even for honest policymakers to allocate their meager national budgets to improve infrastructure, education, science, and health” - The Rand Corporation
In an earlier article titled “Stuck on the fringes of the knowledge economy”, I pointed out that although Cameroon had the potential to become a technological power house in central Africa, it had so far failed to exploit this potential because of a lack of leadership and vision. As a result, Cameroon was missing out on the benefits of 21st century technological advances in general and the knowledge economy in particular -- both of which held the keys to sustainable socio-economic development and membership in the global economy.
A study by the RAND Corporation released early this month comes to reinforce this argument by painting a rather gloomy and bleak picture of Cameroon’s technological position in the world. According to the report titled The Global Technology Revolution 2020, Cameroon is among the world’s scientifically lagging countries -- alongside Fiji, Chad Nepal, etc. -- which have “have fewer drivers for, and face many more barriers to, technology implementation,” and are also “burdened by problem-plagued political systems, a lack of resources or infrastructure, and class disparities.”
According to the study, countries in the same category as Cameroon will be unable to benefit from future technological advances because of a lack of “science and technology capacity”. This capacity encompasses
“…human capacity (such as the level of education and scientific literacy of a country's people) and physical capacity (including transport and freight infrastructures, schools, hospitals, research facilities and utilities), as well as broader dimensions such as their systems of governance, banking, law, education and health.”
As a result of their “low level of S&T capacity and poor standing in other economic development indicators” these countries will at best be able only to acquire Technological Applications (TAs) “…that require a low level of institutional, human, and physical capacity to implement.” These TAs include “cheap solar energy for remote or portable applications; ways to purify water that won't require major infrastructure; and rural wireless communications.”
In the view of the authors of the study,
“Countries in [Cameroon’s] group have the capacity to acquire only the five TAs that require a minimum level of S&T capacity—cheap solar energy, rural wireless communications, GM crops, filters and catalysts, and cheap autonomous housing. Although these countries have the capacity to acquire only a small number of TAs, these TAs—if implemented on a broad scale and in a sustainable manner—have the potential to improve livelihood for the vast majority of their populations who live in poverty.”
The report, however, warns that:
“Capacity to acquire a TA does not necessarily equal capacity to implement, because the latter requires a threshold level of physical, human, and institutional capacity; financial resources; and the social, political, and sometimes even cultural environment necessary to maintain and sustain widespread use of the TA.”
In the particular case of Cameroon, the report identifies seven major types of barriers to technology development: (a) cost/financing; (b) laws/policies; (c) social values, public opinions, politics; (d) infrastructure;(e) investment in research and development; (f) education and literacy;(g) governance and stability.
To shed light on these barriers, the study points out that the United Nations Knowledge Economy Index (which assesses and ranks countries based on national innovation system, economic incentive regime, education, and information infrastructure) ranks Cameroon worst than every country in the Rand study - including Nepal and the Dominican Republic. (Two countries in the study, Chad and Fiji, are not listed in the World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index).
The study also points out that Cameroon ranked 148 out of 177 countries on the 2003 UN Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI measures achievement in three human development areas - a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy), knowledge (measured by a combination of adult literacy and combined primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollment ratios), and a decent standard of living (measured by real per capital gross domestic product).
Overcoming the Barriers
The study rightly points out that “The lack of money and financial mechanisms to enable implementation of TAs is a major barrier”, alongside “laws and policies, as well as good governance and stability, are typically in short supply in these countries”. In addition,
“Widespread corruption and abuse present another severe handicap for these countries. Money allocated to development activities frequently ends up in the pockets of corrupt officials and their families and friends, and rulers often treat the national treasury as their personal bank account.”
The study nonetheless concludes that the situation can be turned around if these countries embark on “fundamental and lasting changes to make politics competitive and increase government transparency and accountability”. This will require leadership and vision at national level, and an appreciation of the long term benefits of technology:
“At the national level, policymakers have to see value in investing in these TAs and follow through with actions (e.g., budget allocations, laws, awareness campaigns, and enforcement efforts) to promote their implementation in a sustainable manner.”