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Using Information To Drive Economy

Monday, September 5, 2011 - 00:00 -- BY NIAMH BRANNIGAN

The African Union has just released four reports that assess the environmental, institutional and individual leadership capacity needs for the Knowledge Society in Africa. The reports which GESCI helped to develop provide us with a rare opportunity to get to grips with the concept of the Knowledge Society through hard data, and a breakdown of policies and plans that contribute to its development in Mauritius, Tanzania, South Africa and Zambia.

The reports describe knowledge societies as those based on the creation, dissemination and utilisation of information and knowledge, and those in which knowledge assets are deliberately accorded more importance than capital and labour assets in the economy. In a knowledge economy, knowledge and innovation are regarded as the key engines of economic growth.

The reports tell us that for knowledge societies to be realised education must be viewed as a vehicle for socio-economic development. ICT, the report goes on to say, should act as an enabler for both innovation and education and that awareness must be raised regarding the significance of science and technology for building innovation systems.

Central to the cultivation of knowledge societies in Africa is also the role of leadership, the reports confirm. Better leadership will lead to better policy making and thus sustainable and appropriate implementation of education, and science and technology policies across systems. Leadership in the Knowledge Society requires new mindsets (i.e. shifts in thinking), new skills and capacities to provide leadership politically, economically and socially in environments that are rapidly changing.

In this regard leaders need to adopt more creative and strategic thinking, new approaches to problem solving and acquire the skills for team building, collaboration and effective communication and the technical and technological capabilities for higher levels of efficiency, productivity and impact in planning, implementation and evaluation processes including foresighting and forecasting.

In all of the four countries surveyed, there are clear policy frameworks emerging for moving from a resource based economy into a knowledge based economy. Education, ICT, Science Technology and Innovation (STI) are recognised as vital components of this change. Infrastructure presents challenges for access on a physical level and opportunities for exponential growth and change on a virtual level.

However, in all countries surveyed education and training infrastructure is proving inadequate to meet the demands of expanding school populations resulting from the successes of Education For All (EFA) and Universal Primary Completion (UPC) policies. Many schools particularly in rural zones lack basic facilities and access to reliable electricity is a problem. Yet the exponential growth of mobile telecommunications in each country presents a scenario of a virtual future that may not be so dependent on a physical one. Education systems are slowly being transformed, while there are continuing concerns regarding school infrastructure, teacher availability, skills training and employability.

The factors enabling and constraining development towards Knowledge based Societies and Economies are similar across the four countries surveyed and are essentially similar to other regions in the world. While there are differences in relation to the KS vision and objectives, there are several common factors which have underpinned KS development in each of the four countries. What differentiates the rate of transition towards knowledge based economic development in each country is the degree to which the KS agenda is articulated from national to local levels in the various faces of national policy, strategy and implementation in the KS Education, ICT, Science and Technology and Innovation pillars.

The country reports have demonstrated the progress that has been made in the development of Knowledge Society agendas related to the pillars of Education, ICT, Science and Technology and Innovation in the four African countries surveyed. The progress that has been achieved in each country particularly over the first decade of the 21st century has been remarkable.

However, in terms of broad development towards Knowledge Society status, the process is still at an early stage. The country reports present a picture of diverging understandings of key Knowledge Society concepts at all system levels. The need is for a comprehensive approach to address the human capital development challenges as well as the structural transformation that development towards a knowledge led future will entail.

The country reports point to a need for drivers and managers with expertise in the KS pillars of ICT, Education and Science and Technology, especially at senior and middle management levels.

National level strategy and coordination mechanisms, interrelationships among sector and ministry based policies and strategies, capacity to translate the vision, mission and value frameworks into strategies and activities and to develop messages about the significance of the KS pillars for organisational and national development are generally lacking.

Brannigan is the Communications Manager at GESCI.