By Olakunle Soriyan
This is the 21st century thought: That without your consent, you and I and everyone in the world now lives in a period of heightened awareness. Globalisation, International trade, digital technology and easy access to information are facilitating rapid economic growth all over the globe. Nations are bracing up to the need to strengthen key institutions, and most importantly, bracing up to the necessity of building a large base of knowledge workers skilled in science and engineering, technology and the service industries. The need to educate the population and deploy them to diverse parts of the economy to invent new knowledge and form intellectual capital is no longer a luxury; it has become the bar of entry. These are the realities of our times, and they could be quite disturbing when we consider the Nigerian or African situation.
Here, there is a death of development. Having identified human capital development and its rightful deployment as a critical variable for economic advancement in today’s world, it becomes imperative we take a closer look at our educational system and the direction in which labour is distributed across the different sectors of the economy. Even a cursory inspection will reveal the disequilibrium inherent, with a large chunk of the nation’s human capital moving towards the banking sector, telecommunications, oil and gas. This produces some fundamental challenges. Science, technology, engineering and innovation play essential roles in the creation of wealth and economic growth all across the globe. They generate employment and well-being through the invention and the commercialization of new products and services; they help reduce poverty, improve education, health, nutrition and trade; and are essential for building new capacities that are critical in the 21st century.
The United States, despite its ongoing economic challenges still has a GDP that outweighs China and India combined and still retains the strongest global competitiveness rating. The reasons are not far-fetched: U.S based companies currently hold an edge over their counterparts in knowledge driven sectors like Software design and pharmaceutical research, not mentioning that their network of universities remain the envy of the rest of the world. Harvard Business School’s Juan Enriquez was right on the button when he said: “As a developing country you can lower inflation, reduce corruption, cut your budget, privatize and still not get rich, because you are not generating knowledge, just products.” Ultimately, if you do not generate and export knowledge, you are a non-starter in today’s 21st century global economy. But just where and how is knowledge generated and exported? Enter the University. All smart nations understand that they cannot create wealth without creating knowledge; all smart nations understand that they cannot create knowledge without educating their people and all smart nations understand that they cannot educate their people without investing considerably in building and sustaining avant-garde academic and research institutions. The truth is: it would be a pure waste of effort and resources to build universities with the aim of creating knowledge when the knowledge created would not be deployed appropriately.
In the Nigerian economy, hunger and the desire for comfort is the key arbiter for choosing a career path. A critical mass of human capital potentials, talents who could be deployed into strategic areas of the economy to shore up national competitiveness, are locked up in banking institutions, telecoms and oil and gas firms. We have biochemist working as client service personnel in telecommunication firms and computer scientists seeking accounts for banks. The Nigerian economy is experiencing a terrible explosion as it loses hundreds of professionals each year to the Europe, America and Asia. It’s a zero sum game we are playing. Poor nations are either refusing to shift vital talents to the most critical growth-inducing sectors within the same country (in science and technology especially); or they are reinforcing a World Bank study that shows that the poorest countries around the world continue to export half of their scientific and engineering talent to advanced economies. As a matter of fact, skilled workers from Nigeria represent two-thirds of total emigrants from the country to OECD countries. The most threatening is the ongoing implosion as thousands of the professionals left behind now migrate to those sectors of the economy that promise instant and robust financial remunerations. The challenge is actually multi-faceted.
First, we have the government whose low level investment in the outmoded educational sector proves its shallow understanding of what it takes to win in the 21st century. And then, we have weak financial support systems to nurture entrepreneurship. Already, infrastructural deficiencies and sloppy government policies account for more than 50% of failed start up’s. The fact is, starting a small business in Nigeria, regardless of the brilliance of your idea, is an expedition to the moon. Keep it in mind however, that with every failed start up, another brilliant idea with export potential dies; a new invention, a key innovative product is threatened, and the continent is on the verge of losing another bright talent to the West. What if Sergey Brin and Larry Page were Nigerians? What if Mark Zuckerberg, Jerry Yang or Bill Gates were wild eyed geeks just fresh out of the University of Lagos? Their inventions may probably have never seen the light of day, and they, maybe, would have ended up in a bank or any other firm willing to pay well enough to (unintentionally and sincerely) bury their ideas.
The challenge of Third World Africa in producing the relevant innovation necessary to drive economic advancement is rooted in its past, present and prevailing experiences of economic backwardness. Having endured grueling years of oppression, poverty and pain, through slave trade, colonization and irresponsible governance from their own people, the average African is trained from his childhood, through symbols and experiences, to esteem and pursue a comfortable lifestyle. Education, business and work in general, are primarily perceived as escape latches out of the doldrums of poverty. Growing up, we were pointed to and encouraged to aspire towards the status of the rich Uncle or Aunt, neighbor or friend of the family, who drove a fancy car, lived in a plush neighbourhood and took vacations every summer. These symbols set the standard for all our pursuits, and our quest for material freedom became the predominant motive for productivity. This is why droves of the nation’s human capital are heading for the banks and oil companies regardless of the ideas they sustain or the disciplines they studied. Poor nations and poor people naively and foolishly trade creativity by selling to the highest bidder. This is a key challenge we face as the world closes in on us. Our organizations may very well be making critical contributions to national growth; but they may very well have become a graveyard, burying a great mass of the nation’s human potential, talents much needed to drive development. As the foundations of today and tomorrow’s economic empires cease to be built upon natural resources and land mass, but on the human mind, can we say the banking, telecommunications and oil and gas sectors of the economy are not altogether guilty of aiding and abetting the death of development? Just food for thought.