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Opinions of Saturday, 22 August 2009

Columnist: Oteng, Maxwell

A National Conversation About Unconventional Ideas For Development


By Maxwell Oteng,

Thought # 4: Pursue Energy Revolution Based on Renewable Energy Sources Throughout the history of the economic man, energy accessibility and availability has been one of the key drivers (if not the mainstay) of economic and social development of societies. Expanding access to reliable sources of energy for agriculture, industry, commerce, and households, governments not only spurs expansion of output, but also it leads to increased growth in productivity which in turn spurs further expansion of output. In effect, access to reliable energy sources brings about economic dynamism through the interlocking spurs of the magic of multiplier effects. However, in Ghana, energy unreliability has become a fact of life – no Ghanaian needs to be reminded of that. The unfortunate thing is that, like any major challenges the country faces, we seem to have persistently failed to find a sustainable solution to our energy problems. So it is understandable that Ghanaians would greet the announcement of the discovery of oil in the country with great fanfare and exaggerated euphoria. It’s hoped that with this discovery, the problem of unreliability of energy may finally be put in the dustbin of history. But wait a minute: the history of other developing countries with significant oil discoveries and productions should compel us to tamper our euphoria with a dose of reality and stride with caution. Look at our neighbor, Nigeria. There is no reason Nigeria should not be among the “Economic Big Boys”, given all of its resource endowments, particularly oil resources. Instead it has become a country of too many contradictions, and a basket case of the so-called “curse-of-oil” nation. In the meantime, while we [Africans] are asleep at the wheels, Europe is taking futuristic steps aimed at expropriating our most important natural resources, solar power, to propel its economy and livelihood in the near future (You can read reports on this issue at This is the neo-scramble for Africa, eerily similar to situations in the colonial era.

As we get closer to the beginning of oil production, we must think about how we can avoid falling into the trap of “the curse of oil”. There are lessons we can learn from other oil-producing developing countries. Instead of waiting for these challenges to fester before we take reactive measures to deal with them, must take forward-looking steps by establishing a presidential commission to draw lessons to be learned from other countries even though our history, cultural, political and socio-economic circumstances may be different from those countries. I suggest that we should not use our oil revenues to subsidize the consumption of oil. Instead we should use some of our oil revenues to establish a Renewable Energy Fund from which grants, subsidies, and no-interest loans will be provided for innovation and research, development and deployment (RD&D) in renewable energy (especially solar energy) and also support behavioral changes that encourage efficient and reduced energy usage in our homes, workplaces and lifestyles.

Thought #5: Retooling our Education System If any system needs retooling in its functionality and purpose to make it more suited to the needs of our country, it is the education sector. In many ways our education system has become anachronistic with products that are more suited for pre-Independence societal needs than post-Independence societal needs. It is about time we developed a civic- and community-service-based education system that puts service to community at its very center. We should have an education system that provides avenues for students’ involvement in their communities [and maybe communities’ involvement in their schools too]. For example, in our tertiary institutions, one semester of community service must be made a requirement for obtaining a diploma (degree). The community service may be teaching math or a Ghanaian language in a primary school or working at a health post somewhere in rural Ghana.

In reorganizing the curriculums of higher education in particular, emphasis must be placed on collaborative, interdepartmental approaches designed around solving society’s problems. The objective is to create problem-focused programs that rely on the synergy of interdisciplinary approach of research and teaching. Create, for example, a Water program at the University of Cape Coast. Water in Cape Coast is a notoriously perennial problem) just as it is pressing in most communities in Ghana. Given population growth, water is likely to become one of the pressing issues the country will face in the next few decades. The quantity, quality and distribution of water pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social sciences, natural sciences, urban planning, law, business, engineering, religion etc. The interaction of different perspectives will yield new theoretical insights and eventually bring about unexpected practical solutions.

Thought #6: Innovation and Technology Revolution There are several things we can learn from Asian Tigers. One of them is their ongoing encouragement of technology adoption and diversification. Creative destruction is the engine of economic growth as famously argued by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter. According to him, it is innovation that “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” However, this “creative destruction” driven by technical innovation and entrepreneurialism, must be encouraged by good economic policies. So while it is not necessarily the government’s role to create wealth, the government nonetheless has an important role to play in creating an enabling environment in which innovators can generate new ideas and entrepreneurs can turn these ideas into new products, new companies and new jobs.

Not only is innovation crucial for our economic development, in this globalized world, it is those countries that produce the most important new products and services that can capture a premium in world markets to enable them pay higher wages to their citizens and improve their standards of living. There are several steps we can take to promote innovation and technology adoption. Some of these are: ? Establishing a Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology. This council should be charged to make recommendations to the President about: (1) Research and development needs for the country; (2) Energy efficiency to strengthen the nation’s economy; and (3) what initiatives cab be put in place to maximize government productivity gains from technology, eliminate redundant systems, and significantly improve government’s quality of service for citizens and businesses.

? Serious Education Reform: We have to emphasize, improve and expand Mathematics, Science and Technology Education. We need to promote serious education reform that puts improvements in math and science education at the forefront, strengthen mathematics and science teaching and education at all levels of our education system and demands accountability and responsibility from all stakeholders of education – administrators, political leaders, teachers, parents and students. We need to create a system-wide mathematics and science partnership program that will link elementary and secondary schools with universities, and other tertiary institutions. This is where we can make use of my suggestion elsewhere for a one-semester community-service requirement for students in our tertiary institutions. We may even be able to draw on the large pool of Ghanaian talents abroad for this purpose if a properly designed and well-coordinated system is put in place.

? Promote research, development and deployment (RD&D). We must set up a financial facility for RD&D to support research initiatives in our universities. This facility must be extended to the private sector too. Another way to incentivize the private sector will be the provision of the research and experimentation tax credit. To support entrepreneurship, we must minimize bureaucratic redtape that impedes entrepreneurial initiatives, reform the import-duty system to allow technology-enhancing equipment and other investment capital to be brought into the country duty-free or at significantly low import duties, and give tax credits and subsidies to successful entrepreneurs, especially small business ones.

? Encourage Broadband Development and Deployment. There is no doubt that the Internet has revolutionized production, management and organizational processes. Those countries where Internet technology is readily available and widely accessible have been able to derive significant productivity gains from it. We are playing catch up with the rest of the world and we need to step up our efforts to make Internet usage percolate the nooks and crannies of our country. It is probably going to take us several more years before we get Internet accessibility to all schools. That does not mean we can do anything to help our students and non-students develop new technological skills. We must establish Technology Centers in every district where schools can take turns or rotate to bring their students in to learn about how to use the Internet and other basic programs such as “Excel”, PowerPoint, MS Word, etc. Through this, we can position them to develop the skills needed to make Ghana competitive in the global economy. Other Technology Centers could be national development shops for producing “appropriate technologies” to help our farmers and small businesses to increase their productivity. These centers will essentially be a replication of "SUAME MAGAZINE" in our rural areas. While the concept could be similar to the SUAME MAGAZINE in organization and structure, the centers do not have to be solely automobile oriented. In some areas the focus can be furniture making. In others areas, it can be dressmaking, building technology, etc or in some instances a combination of these. Not only will these centers open up opportunities for our youth to learn trades to be self-reliant instead of looking up to the government's sector for jobs, but also they can have other unintended positive externalities on the development of the localities where they are set up. Let us charge all District Chief Executives to come up with their plans for technology centers for their districts.

So what are your unconventional ideas or thoughts for moving Ghana forward? Share them. Let the national conversation about ideas begin!