Speeches & Transcripts

Speech by Makhtar Diop at the High-level Forum on Higher Education, Science and Technology in Africa

March 13, 2014

Makhtar Diop, World Bank's Vice President for the Africa Region High-level Forum on Higher Education, Science and Technology in Africa Kigali, Rwanda

As Prepared for Delivery

Let me thank you, Mr. Minister, and your Government, for hosting this important event.  I am delighted to see so much enthusiasm, at the highest level of policy-making, for a topic that has been close to my heart for years and that is crucial for Africa’s success in the 21st Century.

Higher education is now front and center of the development debate – and with good reason.  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 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. 

After a decade of exceptional economic growth in Africa, with GDP rising by an average of 4.5 percent per year during the last decade, it is time to build even more diversified and competitive economies.  This solid record of sustained economic growth must be accompanied by a reduction in poverty and inequality, and increased opportunities for shared prosperity on our continent. With new mineral discoveries seemingly every month, the ability to extract, refine and market these resources is increasingly critical. As Africa now features the world’s highest rate of urbanization, the ability to feed urban populations through increased agricultural productivity and enhanced infrastructure to deliver crops to market is equally important. With online learning a growing source of education for students worldwide, including Africa, the quality and access to broadband services, and online content, should be a home-grown African imperative. These are but a few of the examples of the transformation of the African economy that is underway, but which needs the proper set of tools to be fully realized.

To achieve such shared growth, we must equip the new generation of talented and ambitious young Africans with the skills and knowledge to enable them to formulate and implement African solutions for Africa’s challenges. 

Hence the imperative for this High Level Forum on Higher Education Science and Technology.  We have made strong progress in getting more children into primary and secondary school, with a number of African countries on track to achieve the MDG for universal primary enrollment and gender parity. Today, our challenge is to improve learning outcomes and take those students completing primary and secondary school to the next level.  Similarly, 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, importantly, the content of university studies and the skills needed to enter the job market and contribute to Africa’s growth and development. 

The university systems in many African countries still reflect the legacy of our colonial past – the curricula were designed to produce a cadre of civil servants to administer the government, with an emphasis on non-scientific disciplines which were only available to a small minority of students. Today, we need to reverse that trend, to allow Africa to take its rightful place in the fully integrated global economy.  

Africa’s stock of graduates with secondary- and tertiary-level skills is highly skewed towards the humanities and social sciences, while the proportion of students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is very low, averaging less than 25 percent in the region. Further, women are under-represented in science and technology-related courses and professions in the Continent.

The link between technological capacity and economic growth is clear. Harnessing new technologies increases productivity, employment opportunities, and the ability to move up the production value chain.

Today, research shows that more than 60 percent of the difference between countries—in terms of their growth rates and worker incomes—is a result of differences in total factor productivity, particularly human factor productivity, which are in turn derived from differences in technology. Compared with low-income countries, OECD members have 12 times per capita the number of scientists and engineers working in R&D, and publish 25 times as many scientific journal articles.

To be more competitive, expand trade, and remove barriers to enter new markets, Africa must expand knowledge and expertise in science and technology. From increased agricultural productivity to higher energy production, from more efficient and broadly available ICT services to better employability around the extractive industries, building human capital in science and technology is critical to empower Africa to take advantage of its strengths.  The six-fold increase in FDI flows into Africa over the last ten years further highlights the pressing need to build local expertise in extractives, agriculture, infrastructure and services.    

We have made efforts in recent years to expand investment in the sciences. The African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) have joined forces to tackle the issue head on and have formulated a “Science and Technology Consolidated Action Plan.” We at the World Bank are fully behind this plan.

NEPAD is setting up centers of excellence in the biosciences, water sciences, and technology, while the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) promotes the use of science and technology to boost agricultural productivity.

I would also like to acknowledge and vision and leadership of H.E. Paul Kagame in reforming the education system here in Rwanda, and for serving as a champion of innovation and technology.  In preparing for my trip to Kigali this week, I was reminded of a speech that President Kagame delivered at MIT in September 2008, titled “The Imperative of Science and Technology in Accelerating African and Rwandan Development”.  At that time, President Kagame recognized the centrality of utilizing science and technology to effect Africa’s transformation.  Innovation and entrepreneurship remain pressing priorities today to maximize the potential of Rwanda’s—and the continent’s—most precious resource: its human capital. 

As this afternoon’s Call to Action will articulate, even more collaborative action is needed to build on this momentum. The World Bank has ongoing operations that support science and technology in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Senegal, and we will soon 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, I can commit to you today that the Bank will also launch a Phase Two project in the coming year with a focus on Eastern and Southern Africa.

Regional partnerships such as this will help universities pool their limited resources and achieve economies of scale, allowing them to set up joint laboratories, set common standards for R&D and, most importantly, share knowledge and expertise.  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.

Advances in communication technology offer added opportunities to leverage Africa’s research diaspora in Europe and North America. African academics working abroad are a tremendous asset we must not overlook – and greater efforts are needed to tap this valuable resource.  

While collaboration will help improve the quality and depth of scientific education, the key is to ensure that students can apply what they’ve learned once they graduate, and to do so in contributing to the economic transformation of the continent.

Which brings me to my second point:  we need much stronger links between universities and the private sector. It is the best way to ensure that students are graduating with skills that reflect what employers actually need. Let’s get the private sector better represented on our university boards, let’s get employers involved in vocational training programs, and let’s work with them on curriculum design.  And in a more practical sense, let’s encourage private sector partners to offer apprenticeships, internships, and certification programs. These steps will help bridge the gap between what’s being taught in universities and the realities of the job market.

Third, let me emphasize that to make lasting progress in science-based education, investments must be made at all levels – from primary school to university. If students aren’t proficient in basic math and science by the time they leave secondary school, they won’t be able to pursue science- and math-based courses at a higher level. Many schools across the continent lack appropriate math and science instruction, and students are emerging with disturbingly low levels of proficiency relative to international benchmarks.

Investments in science and technology at the tertiary level can help overcome this bottleneck by providing better training for teachers and by enabling research on national policies for science and technology at every level of the education system.

Finally, I would like to address the issue of equal access. Women are dramatically under-represented in most science- and technology- related courses and professions.  Rwanda has achieved impressive results in improving school access for girls at the primary and secondary level.  Yet the gender divide is wide when it comes to higher education - especially in science and technology degrees where less than 30 percent of students are women. This critical gap is similar across the region and we must all do more to address it. Tackling the root causes of absenteeism and low examination grades is but one of several key factors in boosting the retention and admission rates for women in higher education.

Equitable access must be at the heart of any modern education system. It helps to confront inequality - which persists in too many African countries today - and it creates an even larger reservoir of talented and eager young people who will thrive and contribute to the continent’s growth and prosperity.  

To sum up, investing in science and technology is critical if Africa is to be competitive in the global economy. Strengthening cooperation among higher education institutions across the continent and beyond, linking up with the private sector, improving basic math and science education in schools, and ensuring equitable access are all key elements in making higher education more relevant to today’s economic and social challenges.    

Ladies and gentlemen, I encourage you to not only take bold steps to improve the quality of science and technology education, but also to undertake the necessary reforms to attract the private sector.   

As the Bank commits to support this initiative, including the Africa Centers of Excellence Projects that I described earlier, our collective efforts are needed to address the lingering challenges.  Let us set some bold targets:  that we will see a doubling of the percentage of university students graduating from African universities with degrees in mathematics, science and technology in ten years’ time, in 2025. This will require, obviously, a concerted commitment to increase resource allocations to mathematics, reading and science at the primary and secondary levels, to form the foundational building blocks for the higher education system we are seeking to advance with this High Level Forum.  I would also invite the Ministers present here today to undertake a census of your university graduates to determine the number of degrees completed in mathematics, science and technology in your respective countries.  This is an important first step to set quantitative targets, and will give us the necessary benchmark against which to measure our collective progress.

Being here in Rwanda makes it clear that the Government has a clear focus on measurable targets.  Allow me to stress we must focus on: Results, Results, Results; Implementation, Implementation, Implementation; and Measurable Targets, Measurable Targets, Measurable Targets.

The time has never been more auspicious to focus on higher education, particularly in science, technology and mathematics.  The burgeoning youth population 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 opportunity to open today’s session, and I look forward to working with you to implement the dynamic outcomes.   

Thank you.

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