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December 30, 2020

Transition times

Opinion

December 30, 2020

In today’s world, knowledge has become the key driver for socio-economic development. Nations are no longer built just by investing in brick and mortar, roads and bridges, or dams and power houses but by unleashing the creative potential of their youth by massive investments in education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.

So, in order to transition to a knowledge economy, we need to empower and reform the ‘triple helix’ involving the educational system; government policies; and the private sector. Each of these players has critically important roles to play.

Education comes first. The foundations of a creative mind are laid at the school level, so we must improve the quality of education in schools and colleges. We have about 23 million children out of school. The standards of primary and secondary education are so poor that about half of 10-year-old students have linguistic competencies of six-year-old students and about half of grade 5 students have competencies of grade 2 students in math, English and some other subjects.

The facilities in schools are dismal, with 42 percent of government primary schools in the rural areas lacking electricity; 40 percent lacking access to clean drinking water and 49 percent lacking functioning toilets. The status of colleges is no better so students that enter universities are ill prepared for higher education. This is the result of a feudal system of parliamentary democracy which has given the lowest priority to education.

On April 19, 2010, the 18th Amendment to the constitution guaranteed free and compulsory education via Article 25A- for all 5-16-year olds as a fundamental right. However, 10 years have passed with little progress. Indeed, huge damage has been done by the 18th Amendment to education by placing it under the provinces with differing standards, curricula and examination systems. This needs to be reversed so that all students follow a single national curriculum and appear in a single national exam. Colleges and universities need to adequately prepare high-quality human talent with problem-solving abilities needed in each sector.

Associated with the universities and research centers should be technology parks and business incubators to provide opportunities for industries and researchers to develop new products and processes as well as facilities for young entrepreneurs to establish new start-up companies. These facilities should include legal and financial services, mentorship and professional management advisers. An Educational Emergency needs to be declared immediately and at least 10 percent of the national budget allocated to education with one-third of it being allocated to higher education.

The second player, the government, must be led by a visionary leadership that understands the importance of a knowledge economy and is willing to go beyond lip service to major resource allocations and implementation of proper policies. This involves a number of steps including preparation of a time-bound strategy and action plan, setting in place policies for promotion of high-technology industries through offering venture capital and long-term tax breaks, as well as investments to improve educational standards.

In order to develop a knowledge economy, the first step is to develop a clear roadmap by a well-established and documented procedure – a Delphi type ‘foresight exercise’. This process involves a thorough and careful analysis of each sector in consultation with the relevant experts, government departments, and, most importantly the private sector. This involves an assessment of the human and natural resources of the country, the emerging technologies, and the resulting niche opportunities as well as future growth areas with emphasis on manufacture and export of high technology (high value) goods.

In 2004, the Pakistan Cabinet decided that such a technology-based Industrial Vision and Strategy for Pakistan’s Socio-economic Development should be carried out under my leadership. This would set a clear national path to determine how the country could transition to a knowledge economy and rid itself of hunger and poverty that engulf large sectors of our urban and rural population. Over the subsequent two years, an intensive exercise was carried out to determine the roadmap within the 13 key sectors. The 300-page document was approved by the Cabinet in August 2007 but after the change of government, little has been done to implement it. A presidential system of democracy is far more suited for Pakistan than the present corrupt parliamentary system in which the provincial governments are exhibiting extreme reluctance to pass power and funding to local bodies.

The third pillar, the private sector, has to play a critically important role in building a strong knowledge economy. A glaring difference between R&D expenditure in developing countries and technologically advanced countries is that in the advanced world most of the R&D expenditure comes from the private sector whereas in the developing world the investment made by the private sector is miniscule, the government being the main provider of research funding. Such funding is not focused on new industrial products, productivity or product quality and exports.

However, there are two other key factors that need to be addressed. One is good governance based strictly on merit so that a highly competitive system can be set up in which only the best can occupy key positions in the government. This is particularly applicable to the bureaucracy, members of parliament and ministers. The second is the reform of the judicial system that ensures swift and effective justice so that the corrupt are punished within months.

The path is clear. All we need now is political will to implement it. The journey has begun under the able leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan who has formed a Knowledge Economy Task Force, and projects worth over Rs120 billion are currently under approval. Considering that the total development budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology under the previous government was less than one billion rupees, the Knowledge Economy projects are beginning to make a monumental difference.

The writer is chairman PM National Task Force on Science and Technology, former minister, and former founding chairman of the HEC.

Email: [email protected]