Saturday May 28, 2022

For a knowledge economy

July 06, 2016

We live in a world in which knowledge has become the key driver for socio-economic development. Natural resources such as oil, gas, minerals, etc have diminishing importance. Countries that have realised that real wealth lies in their children and have invested massively in education, science, engineering and innovation have surged forward.

Singapore, with a population of about a quarter of that of Karachi (5.5 million), has exports of $588billion, about 26 times those of Pakistan. South Korea revamped its educational system, laying emphasis on higher education, science & technology. The country has increased its university enrolment from five percent of the age group in 1960 to about 80 percent of the same age group by 2014 – the result was an astonishing increase in its exports from $32 billion in 1960 to $725 billion in 2015 (Pakistan’s exports stagnate at about $23 billion).

The four pillars needed for progress today are knowledge, technology, innovation and, perhaps most important of all, an honest, visionary and technologically competent leadership that recognises the key role of high technology manufacture and exports in alleviating poverty and rapidly transforming a nation.

The first pillar, knowledge, can be subdivided into four critical sub-components. These are high-quality compulsory primary education, secondary, technical and university education compatible with the best international standards. To make this happen the emphasis must be to attract the brightest and highly qualified professionals into the teaching and research professions. This will need to be coupled with a central single world class examination system. Huge young populations in China and India are today being trained in hundreds of thousands in the race to develop strong knowledge economies, resulting sustained growth rates of between 7 and 10 percent annually.

China has been sending hundreds of thousands of bright young students abroad each year for higher studies, thereby laying the foundations of a very strong knowledge economy. The figures are truly astonishing. In the year 2015, China sent 523,700 students for studies abroad, and in the same year 409,100 students returned back to China after completing their studies (Angang Hu, Institute for Contemporary China Studies, Tsinghua University).

Pakistan has a population of about 1/7 that of China. If we were to take actions on a proportionately smaller scale as China, we should be sending 75,000 students abroad each year for higher studies. In reality, in spite of the best efforts of HEC, we are sending only about 800 students per year due to acute shortage of funds, a shocking reality. This needs to change dramatically with an additional grant of Rs800 billion annually to the HEC exclusively for manpower development including training of high-level technicians, establishment of top class schools for training nurses, establishment of technical universities, training of personnel for industrial Masters degrees in fields needed by industry, and PhD level training for universities. We must invest on a similar level as other rapidly developing Asian countries if we are to remain internationally competitive.

The second pillar is technology. What are our vision, strategy and implementation mechanisms? After 20 years, will we be world leaders in building ships, or manufacture of pharmaceuticals, or design and manufacture of computer chips? What are the niche opportunities in which we should focus our efforts? A ‘technology foresight’ process involving intensive consultations with technical experts in various disciplines, industry leaders, and economists has already been conducted in Pakistan as the result of a cabinet decision in which I was entrusted to lead such an exercise. The roadmap was finally approved on August 30, 2007 but it remains largely unimplemented.

We need to strengthen our centres of excellence in selected disciplines to provide the needed research inputs for new technology development. High-quality technical colleges with internationally recognised degrees and diplomas are urgently required to produce professional workers with the requisite skills needed by our industry. To produce industrial products conforming to world standards, there must be training programs and implementation systems so that our products are manufactured to certain minimum quality standards. This system, known as MSTQ (Metrology, Standards, Testing and Quality) is vitally important for our exports to be internationally accepted.

The third pillar is innovation. It is only when entrepreneurship can thrive that a nation can move forward rapidly. This requires four key measures to be taken. First, establishment of a network of technology parks where new ideas can be developed into products and processes. Second, government incentives to promote private-sector R&D so it is carried out largely in private industrial companies to give it commercial orientation and focus.

Third, establishment of industrial clusters in electronics, engineering goods, pharmaceuticals, sports goods, textiles etc, with all relevant facilities such as built-up space and uninterrupted services so that an industrialist can start manufacture within 48 hours. And fourth, rapid access to justice to solve industrial disputes accompanied by ease of starting new businesses so that a new company can be registered within 24 hours rather than several weeks.

The fourth and most important pillar is that of an honest, educated, enlightened and technologically competent leadership that understands what it takes to transition to a knowledge economy. In China many cabinet members are eminent scientists and engineers. In Korea the minister of education, science and technology has the status of a deputy prime minister. We must learn from this example.

Pakistan is blessed with a vast young population – about 100 million out of a population of 195 million are below the age of 20. We need to educate them properly and Pakistan can prosper. If we don’t, darkness lies ahead. This requires political will – the nation must decide that henceforth we will starve, if necessary, but divert major resources at least 10 percent of our GDP – to education. Malaysia has been spending 25 percent of its budget for the last 30 years on education. We must do the same.

Pakistan must wake up. Nations are not built by just building roads. We must first equip our children and unleash their creativity by investing in education, science, technology and innovation/entrepreneurship. This vision can only be realised under a strong technocrat government that understands the importance of a knowledge economy in today’s world, and under a presidential system of democracy as visualised by Quaid-e-Azam and noted in his own handwriting in his personal diary.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation and former chairman of the HEC. Email: