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Speeches & Transcripts

Speech by Makhtar Diop at the University of Michigan STEM-Africa Initiative Third Biennial Conference

Makhtar Diop, World Bank's Vice President for the Africa Region

Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

April 1, 2014

As Prepared for Delivery


Honorable Ministers, Provost/Vice-Provost, Members of the faculty, Students, Ladies and Gentlemen, All protocols observed.

I am delighted to be here today, to speak about the challenges and opportunities for building science and technology capacity in Africa, in partnership with global leaders in higher education such as the University of Michigan.  But first, as an avid basketball fan myself, I must congratulate you on the Wolverines’ outstanding run throughout ‘March Madness’, capped by the thrilling victory over Tennessee on Friday night, as well as that very close game against Kentucky on Sunday.  You have much to be very proud of – and that makes it an added pleasure to be here in Ann Arbor today.

On to the business at hand.  Allow me, first, to thank Professors Khumbah and Kannatey-Asibu for hosting this important event, and for their leadership in building partnerships with African universities and for bringing together specialists and practitioners, in a wide array of fields, who are interested in Africa.  This is the first initiative of its kind, and it is creating a powerful network of like-minded academics throughout the U.S. higher-education community. 

The African Studies Center here at Michigan clearly demonstrates the University’s commitment to deep and meaningful ties to the continent – in science and technology, research, education, and cultural events.  The STEM-Africa Initiative has nurtured young scientists and advanced research networks with institutions in Africa, and your African Presidential Scholars Program makes important contributions to the career development of African faculty who come to Michigan and benefit from the mentorship of a Michigan faculty member.  Study Abroad programs in South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya provide enriching opportunities for Michigan students to experience the continent -- and may I suggest that you consider a program in a Francophone country, such as my home country of Senegal.

“STEM-Africa” is an issue that has been close to my heart for years and it is crucial to Africa’s success in the 21st century.  How can we build on this and do even bigger, better things together?

As many of you know, more than 50 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is younger than 25 years of age, and every year for the next decade we expect 11 million African youth to enter the job market.  This so-called demographic dividend offers a tremendous opportunity for Africa to build a valuable base of human capital that will serve as the engine for the economic transformation of our continent. To be clear:  it represents a “dividend” only if these young people of educated, trained, and employable.  As such, our challenge is to improve learning outcomes. After decades of limited engagement in post-secondary education, the World Bank Group and other partners are directing a long-overdue focus on higher education and, most importantly, on the content of university studies and the skills students need to enter the job market and contribute to Africa’s growth and development. 

We are now at a crossroads:  the challenge is to make the leap from “Yes, We Can” to “Yes, We Do”.  Africa has accomplished exceptional economic growth over the past decade, averaging 4.5% per year, underpinned by prudent macroeconomic management. Now it is time to build economic growth that is accompanied by reduced poverty and inequality, and greater value addition on the continent.  With new mineral discoveries seemingly every month, the ability of Africans to extract, refine and market these resources is increasingly important. With Africa’s booming cities, the ability to feed urban populations through increased agricultural productivity and build enhanced infrastructure to deliver crops is critical to food security.  And it is not just a trajectory of continued economic growth – it is also the sustainability of Africa’s growth. The disproportionate impact of climate change on Africa represents a robust opportunity for joint research (on coastal impacts of rising sea levels, drought-resistant seed varieties, and renewable energy, to name a few) with win-win benefits for scientists both in and outside the continent.  Similarly, collaborative work in medicine can build scientific knowledge for local and international physicians, as building strong institutions will be critical to achieving the next breakthroughs in diseases such as HIV/AIDS.  Most recently, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa dramatizes the need for local capacity for testing, diagnosis and laboratories.  Likewise, the richness of African biodiversity and the vast array of DNA barcoding offer extraordinary research opportunities for African and foreign scientists alike.

How do we get there, to achieve this value-addition in Africa? We must correct long-standing imbalances in the educational systems in the continent, and make up for long delays in developing science and technology capabilities in Africa.  This is, in part, a legacy of Africa’s colonial past, where school curricula were designed to produce a cadre of civil servants to administer the government, with an emphasis on non-scientific disciplines.  Today, Africa’s stock of graduates with secondary- and tertiary-level skills is highly skewed towards the humanities and social sciences, while the proportion of African students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics averages less than 25 percent.  Women are under-represented in science and technology-related courses and professions in the continent as well.  To reverse this trend, the new generation of talented and ambitious young Africans must be equipped with the modern skills and knowledge they need to formulate and implement African solutions for Africa’s challenges.  Hence the imperative for STEM-Africa: collaboration is critical to successful scientific endeavors, and U.S. and African universities have much to gain from joining forces.

The African Diaspora community here in the US represents a powerful engine for science and technology advancement in the continent.  Without them it would be difficult to generate new interest in supporting the STEM fields in Africa.  Catalyzing the rich contributions of the African Diaspora will require support from a range of stakeholders – policymakers, IFIs, and academics -- both here and in Africa.  The US higher education system is the global leader in knowledge generation, with significant numbers of Africans taking their university degrees at American institutions.  This partnership, and this conference today, marks a first important step in operationalizing the contribution of non-Africa-based institutions to building the STEM capacity of the continent. 

Three weeks ago, I was in Rwanda for a forum on Higher Education, Science and Technology, which featured ministers from a number of African countries as well as academics and scientists from notable partner countries such as India and China, with strong support from Brazil and Korea.  The two-day conference closed with a “Call to Action” that set ambitious goals for strategic investments in science and technology to accelerate Africa’s development into a knowledge-based society within one generation.  Specifically, the conference set a bold target of doubling the percentage of African university graduates in the science and technology fields within a decade – by 2025.  This, too, offers a lesson to be learned from the past, where African countries focused on reaching universal primary enrollment.  We now see the importance of learning outcomes and actual service delivery.  Training in science, technology and mathematics is critical to improving the quality of instruction and learning.  Instruments to improve educational quality include external examiners, benchmarking, and increasing the cross-country comparability of standards.  As Professor Khumbah proposed at dinner last night, why not develop an African GRE which would help to further measure improved outcomes in African Higher Education?

These bold objectives require a different set of choices to be made by African countries, and a different approach to be taken by our friends and partners, including universities outside Africa, and by development institutions such as the World Bank.  There have been a number of initiatives in recent years – for example, the African University of Science and Technology, in Abuja, Nigeria.  This type of institution must be taken to scale, and consolidated into a bolder initiative across the continent. 

Producing those well-trained teachers, who will build the human capital of the next generation of African students, is a costly venture.  It requires selective, coordinated investments in regional Centers of Excellence, to optimize limited resources and create synergies across sub-regional groups of countries.  I don’t pretend that these are easy decisions – where to locate a particular Center of Excellence – as national pride and politics are often a factor.   

The World Bank has ongoing operations that support science and technology in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Senegal. Later this month we will present to our Board our “Africa Centers of Excellence Project,” which will bring together universities across the continent to address common development challenges.  The project will focus on key sectors including extractive industries, energy, environment, health, agriculture, and ICT.  While the Phase One project will focus on universities in West and Central Africa, the Bank will launch a Phase Two project in the coming year with a focus on Eastern and Southern Africa.  Working together, these regional partners can build joint laboratories, set common standards for R&D and, most importantly, share knowledge and expertise.  The STEM-Africa coalition brings together, in a powerful way, all of you gathered here today, foundations, the private sector, and international financial institutions like the World Bank, aligned around priorities set by the African academic community.  Beyond the borders of the continent, we are tapping the vast experience of Brazil, China, India and Korea under the umbrella of our Partnership for the Applied Sciences, Education and Technology (or PASET). This South-South learning initiative is a rich source of knowledge to help build the higher education capabilities in African institutions.

In the past, so-called “sandwich programs” have played an important role in higher education abroad.  But universities in Africa need to achieve the next level of home-grown excellence.  A number of US and European universities have built campuses and programs overseas – notably in Asia and the Middle East – but the next frontier is Africa.  One US university has opened a campus in Rwanda, and the first cohort of students from this center will graduate later this year.  This is an important example of cooperation and support from a foreign university, by building the campus and program in Africa, adapted to local cultural norms and requirements, to strengthen the human capital of Africans in the continent. Those universities who are “first-movers” will have a significant advantage as this is a growing market that will only become larger as the African economic growth remains robust. This represents a massive opportunity to export knowledge, but also to undertake mutually beneficial research and learning, in Africa. 

While partnerships between universities will help advance the quality and depth of scientific education, we must also ensure that students can apply what they learn once they graduate.  Part of the solution is engaging the private sector to support such centers – for example, extractives companies can help to support funding for university programs in science and technology, and thereby invest in the next generation of technicians and corporate recruits. It requires innovative partnerships and coalitions -- funding these universities cannot be the sole responsibility of the public sector.  Closer links between universities and the private sector will help ensure that students are graduating with skills that reflect what employers actually need.  I have encouraged African Ministers of Higher Education to boost private representation on their university boards, to get employers involved in vocational training programs, and to work directly with the private sector on curriculum design.  We are also encouraging private sector partners in Africa to offer apprenticeships, internships, and certification programs, to help bridge the gap between what’s being taught in universities and the realities of the job market.

This has always been a major strength here in the United States, and I’m pleased to see a number of African institutions are moving in the same direction. Public universities in Kenya were among the first to pursue academic reform and open up their boards to representatives from the private sector and civil society. The same is happening in Senegal, where strengthening links with employers is a key element of a new reform agenda to improve the quality and relevance of higher education.  Some prominent members of the private sector in Africa have already voiced their keen interest to join and support this movement.  The World Bank will soon host a roundtable with these notable private sector leaders, and sign an MOU next month for cooperative ventures.   

As we undertake this exciting initiative, the key is a shared commitment to a coherent and coordinated approach, lest we have multiple programs, and we must avoid duplication. Let us set a shared objective that by the end of next year, we commit to present an agreed set of critical actions to African heads of state and policymakers for their consideration.  If they are endorsed, we will commit to work together to implement them.   

I look forward to deepening this partnership with U. Michigan, and other US universities, to help deploy the “best and the brightest” to help address Africa’s challenges.  Students here in the audience today, the doctoral researchers of tomorrow, and your professors, are well-placed to engage in academic exchanges in Africa to help meet these ambitious goals.  I welcome your ideas on exchange programs and joint research to make it a reality.

The time has never been more auspicious for STEM-Africa:  the youth of Africa will drive the growth and prosperity of the continent into the next generation - but only if we equip them to do so.  I thank you again for the honor of opening today’s session, and for your leadership here in Michigan to advance robust partnerships with African universities.  I look forward to working with you to take this dynamic agenda forward.     

Thank you."