Article - Issue 29, December 2006

A Conversation with Professor Calestous Juma

Professor Peter Guthrie FREng

Download the article (186 KB)

An Edited Extract Of A Conversation Between Professor Calestous Juma FRS And Professor Peter Guthrie OBE FREng On The Role Of Engineering In International Development

Podcasts available (see bottom of page)

Professor Juma talks to Ingenia on the eve of his Hinton Lecture © Dominic Joyeux

Professor Juma talks to Ingenia on the eve of his Hinton Lecture © Dominic Joyeux

Professor Calestous Juma delivered The Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2006 Hinton Lecture on ‘Redesigning African Economies’. He is an internationally-recognised authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development. Professor Peter Guthrie is a civil engineer, and Professor of Engineering for Sustainable Development at University of Cambridge. Over 25 years ago he set up RedR (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief, now RedR-IHE), supplying trained personnel for disaster relief at the request of charities, governments and non-governmental organisations. They talked in the Fellows’ Room of the Academy on the eve of the Hinton Lecture in October 2006.

PETER GUTHRIE: Professor Juma, can you outline what you plan to talk about in your Hinton Lecture?

CALESTOUS JUMA: The focus of my talk is on a new approach to Africa’s development that reflects the true character of the challenges facing the continent. I see those challenges as the need to improve the effectiveness of investments in the economic arena by focusing on continuous improvement. It is not possible to think about continuous improvement without some investment in scientific and technical competence. The reason I have focused the lecture on the role of infrastructure is because a large body of technical competence in economies diffuses from infrastructure investments. If a country is not investing in infrastructure projects, the chances are that it is not creating the foundations from which new technical skills will flow.

The idea is to take advantage of increased emphasis and interest in investment in infrastructure in Africa, and use it as a foundation for creating new technical skills that can be used and diffused in the economy.

It is evident that African economies are unlikely to grow if one is not able to move goods, services and ideas, but this ability is really a reflection of investment and infrastructure. That is what the paper is about.

PG: You talk about integrating Africa into the global economy, but it has some unique features and obviously a unique history. Its role and its relationship with the rest of the world is very different from South Asia or South East Asia, or South America.

CJ: Historically, Africa was defined as a supplier of raw materials, and as such, the infrastructure concerns were really about getting roads from the mines to the ports. It wasn’t intended to stimulate domestic industry.

Now there are two main issues. One is regional economic development, the argument that if you cannot trade regionally within the continent, you probably cannot trade internationally. The second issue is being able to integrate globally through trade, and that means redefining the place of Africa in the global economy through adding value to existing resources.

We are thinking about a new Africa that is a serious player in the global economy and that is why you see African presidents focusing on issues related to scientific and technological development.

PG: It is interesting that some people would need to have explained to them the connection between Millennium Development Goals, which are focused on poverty and poverty alleviation, and the introduction of education in engineering and science. There is a real relationship between the ability of an economy to deliver its own scientific and technological means, and poverty alleviation and the improvement of quality of life throughout the country.

CJ: The idea of poverty reduction is different from a growth-oriented strategy where you can empower people to solve their problems through economic means. If you only give people primary education, they can only produce to levels that are comparable to input from primary education. That is why if you want people to operate at a higher level, especially in the modern global economy, you must educate them to a higher level. I fear we are not likely to address the Millennium Development Goals unless we redefine Africa’s economic challenges in the context of endogenous capability for solving domestic problems.

The transcript of the 2006 Hinton Lecture has had a world-wide circulation and could have long term repercussions in the region

The transcript of the 2006 Hinton Lecture has had a world-wide circulation and could have long term repercussions in the region

PG: How might these skills be developed?

CJ: My view on the development of skills is that it is better to organise your skill development programmes around specific domestic programmes. If you decide that you want to expand your roads, for example, you would start by relying on domestic expertise. Only after you exhaust your domestic expertise do you start to reach out and seek input from others in the global economy. The first step in building capacity is linking to domestic programme-solving.

PG: To what extent are foreigners able to take on board the special circumstances and problems, and even more, the special capabilities of African situations so that they are not just exporting some exotic technological culture which may not be appropriate and applicable?

CJ: That is a very good question. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that where local governments have taken clear leadership in championing certain programmes, then that effort defines the parameters within which local and foreign experts operate. Without that strategic leadership on the part of the government, it makes it very difficult for any experts to operate, including local experts. That is why it is very important, particularly in the context of this discussion, to think about the role that African presidents perform. If African presidents clearly show leadership in certain areas of technological development, that becomes a defining framework within which local experts and foreigners operate.

In the case of Rwanda, the President has created an Office of Science and Technology. This is serving as a signal that he is serious about science and technology.Without that level of executive leadership, it is going to be very difficult to use any kind of expertise, whether it is local or foreign.

PG: Do you think there is a role for exploring appropriate standards which are tailored to the economic state of development, the aspirational aims of the people, and the political state of maturity in the country?

CJ: This is a very important point, not adequately addressed in technological discussions, which is the impact of standards on the capacity of Africans to innovate. Take the area of road transportation, again. If you do not have standards that allow for use of roads, you will not have investment in materials production for making roads. This excludes that whole area of expertise from contributing to the country’s development.

The initial baseline standards should not be used as an excuse to keep Africa at low levels of productivity, but as a starting point to allow them to learn how to manufacture new products, how to process new forms of information. I would argue that we need differentiated standards, one set for regional markets that are comparable to the level of technological development within Africa, and another for international markets. Some African countries may go straight into exporting internationally by fulfilling international standards, but there is a huge area of economic development that is not being met today, which is regional trade.

PG: But what implications do you see for the higher education sector when you have this? What you are talking about is really a logical progression through standards.

CJ: It is consistent with this view of incremental improvements. If you take the view that development is a process of continuous improvement, then it involves rising up, if you like, the standards ladder. You can think of it in terms of educational systems; that we should be investing in polytechnics so that we have a pool of people to engage with the basic technologies that are available today. It is through the use of those technologies that we are going to get a new generation of experts, who want to push their frontiers of technological innovation to the next level.

You need diversity in higher education. In fact, I am doing some separate work in which I am arguing that we should use high schools as a foundation for community development. If you can get young people engaging with technological development, that is what is going to give you the pool of people who will go into engineering schools. Today,we do not have that pool because high schools are not structured to produce technically trained people. That is going to be probably one of the biggest challenges facing Africa – how to make high schools responsive to the needs of the global economy.

Professor Peter Guthrie poses the questions for Calestous Juma © Dominic Joyeux

Professor Peter Guthrie poses the questions for Calestous Juma © Dominic Joyeux

PG: Do you think your paper really addresses the move away from investments in infrastructure projects, towards structural support, good governance, and so on? It has been rather an inglorious move away from providing what you say are the essential building blocks of progress: if you do not have the infrastructure, you cannot have anything else. It may not be a driver, but it is a necessary condition.

CJ: I would say that for Africa, this is probably the most difficult part of its economic transition: reductions in investment and infrastructure, driven by three fundamental arguments. The first is the ecological argument which shows that infrastructure projects lead to ecological degradation, therefore we should think of different ways of delivering goods and services. The second argument was the governance question. The infrastructure projects, because of their size, usually lead to corruption. The third is the skills question of arguing that domestic economies do not have enough skills to manage these large scale projects, and therefore we should not invest in them.

I have not found a very good alternative for moving goods, services and ideas that does not involve investment in infrastructure. I have not found any evidence that an economy can grow without effective mobility of goods, services and ideas. The real challenge is how to do it. It is no longer a question of whether it is desirable or not.

PG: It is a difficulty that major projects often impose a need for these institutional frameworks. They almost have to create their own policing to be effective in the long term.

CJ: The institutional context in which the projects function is critical and has always been ignored. Therefore one has to think of some kind of revolutionary relationship between the physical part and the institutional part. I think the Africa Commission report did a great job in highlighting the importance of a physical infrastructure with an effective institutional system that makes it work. This has raised fundamental questions on the role of governments, because if you cut back on the size of government, you should not expect to have the capacity to manage those large scale projects. We should go back to having smart governments that can manage those kinds of projects.

It is not accidental that the newly industrialised countries of Asia, starting with South Korea, had what they called developmental states. This was a bureaucracy that was focused largely on management projects and training to manage projects, and it insulated that whole framework of project management from overall political interference. It was a very clearly defined institutional structure that was intended to protect the projects from failure. To a large degree, this actually worked. We can learn from those lessons on how investment projects were insulated from political interference.

In Africa, it is exactly the reverse. Infrastructure projects are used as a basis for political campaigns by local Members of Parliament. It is totally politicised, and we need to think carefully about how to de-politicise the infrastructure of the projects.

PG: After you give your address tomorrow night, what would be the single most positive outcome you could hope for as a result of delivery?

CJ: I am very interested in seeing the extent to which this paper re-opens a debate on the role of engineering in development. If that debate can start to take place, I think we will be way ahead in terms of our thinking. At the moment, engineering is not on the development agenda. My challenge is to try to get this back on the agenda, with discussion as a starting point. I am very interested in redefining the context of the debate, because I think that a large part of the failure to use engineering and development has to do with the way it is perceived. The terms that we use exclude engineering, and so I would like to get that back on the political agenda.

There is a unique opportunity this year where African presidents are preparing for their first summit devoted to research, science and technology, which will be held in January 2007 in Addis Ababa. I intend to get copies of this in the hands of all presidential offices so that they start thinking about the role of engineering as a central component in development.

Further reference

Listen to the full conversation with Professor Juma:


[Top of the page]