Atta Ur Rehman
Pakistan today has the slowest growing economy in South Asia with the GDP of Myanmar growing at 8.6 percent, Bhutan at 8.4 percent, India at 7.5 percent and Bangladesh 6.6 percent.
The government claims to have a GDP growth of 4.7 percent but independent experts disagree and insist that it is well below 4 percent. What has gone wrong? We seem to have no idea that we now live in a world where the most important resource is knowledge. We continue to spend only about 2 percent of our GDP on education, despite hollow promises by successive governments. With our educational system in tatters we can never progress since a knowledge-based economy requires the establishment of high-technology industries.
There has been a radical change in the last 50 years in the way nations can develop. Natural resources now have very little importance, and account for only a small fraction of the world’s GDP. The real wealth lies in the ability of nations to manufacture and export medium- and high-technology goods of high quality. This requires a radical change in the priorities that the planning and finance ministries of fast-emerging economies now accord to projects where the single most important crosscutting theme is the production and export of high-tech goods.
The key steps necessary were highlighted in a document prepared under my supervision, ‘Technology based Industrial Vision and Strategy for Socio-economic Development’, which was approved by the Cabinet on August 30, 2007. Some of the recommendations are also presented here.
Technology transfer must be mandatory in all FDI projects. For this to occur, we need to develop a critical mass of a highly-trained and well-educated work force that can meet the very demanding manpower needs of high technology industry. There is a serious mismatch between the capabilities of school graduates and the need for highly advanced skills by the industry. Vocational training institutes of world standard should be established by upgrading existing institutions and by providing top class faculty and appropriate laboratories. The shortage of science teachers can be addressed by introducing a system of contract appointments for unemployed graduates.
In order to introduce quality and accountability in our education system we must benchmark all our educational institutes and give them a national rating based on some transparent criteria such as qualified teacher-to-student ration, performance of students in matriculation and intermediate examinations, etc.
A regular audit should be undertaken each year and the rankings revised accordingly. This will create a healthy national competition among the institutions. This was done when I was chairman of the HEC by ranking all private universities, as W, X, Y or Z categories, which resulted in sub-standard institutions striving to achieve the minimum eligibility criteria (X category) for a university, or face public shame.
The advanced countries have 2500-3000 scientists/engineers per million
population. Some of the existing colleges should be converted from just those offering BA/BSc degrees to ‘Community Technical Colleges’ which produce skilled manpower in areas such as electronics, mechanics, medical technology, refrigeration, plumbing, design, computer programming and production technologies.
Mechanisms should be introduced to link R&D efforts to industry, agriculture, services and defence sectors (incentive schemes, tax holidays, technology parks, access to venture capital etc). We also need to create awareness about ‘quality’ in all our institutions, particularly in the educational and production sectors. Special emphasis should be given to the translation of new knowledge into new technological products ensuring the development of small, medium and large-sized industries in the country.
In this context, science parks should be developed with interdisciplinary ethos where the best of scientists and technologists from all disciplines are attracted. ‘Foresight’ exercises should be regularly carried out to assess the present and future needs of technology, the niche opportunities for Pakistan and the projected impact of such technologies on social, economic, health and environmental aspects.
Efforts are needed to promote R&D and technological innovation, to introduce technologies through strategic incentivisation and to diffuse technologies to the production sectors for which effective mechanisms will need to be developed and implemented.
To develop a competitive edge in the changing global scenario, world-class ‘centres of excellence’ should be created in selected priority fields so that Pakistan becomes internationally competitive — and in some cases a world leader. These centres should be tasked to nurture high quality talent in various fields of science and engineering, and establish linkages with industry, agriculture and health and to tackle major national problems. Centres of excellence should also be established in technology development and technology commercialisation.
There is need to develop a corporate culture for scientific institutions so that their output can be utilised. R&D institutions should, therefore, set up strong commercial units which can develop effective liaison with industry. These units should be properly funded, be managed by suitable senior level marketing personnel and be given appropriate funding so that they can invest in areas of importance for commercialisation and strong marketing initiatives undertaken by the institutions.
One of the major obstacles to utilisation of research results is the absence of process engineering companies in Pakistan which can take the design data of pilot/demonstration levels and provide total turn-key technology to the industrial sector. Such institutions need to be developed urgently.
Mechanisms should be introduced to offer incentives to the private sector to encourage research and development efforts in industry through access to venture capital, tax incentives, and government sharing of costs for such research. Banks and other financial institutions should be directed to provide soft loans for esablishing R&D units on less than the prevailing mark-up/commercial rates.
The government in turn should make it mandatory for the private sector to spend a certain percentage of their profit on R&D activities according to the needs of the country and in areas where R&D can lead to the development of import substitute products and help enhance exports.
The most important crosscutting issue across all sectors is that of proper governance. This involves the induction of high quality professionals who are experts in various fields into corresponding ministries in the government. The secretaries themselves must be the best experts available in their respective fields and they should be backed by think tanks which should be set up in various sectors. Each team of professionals in the think tanks should work closely with the relevant ministries and the private sector in order to achieve well-defined targets.
The real wealth of Pakistan lies in its 100 million youth who are below the age of 20. In order to transition to a knowledge economy we need to unleash their creativity through a high quality educational system. For this to occur, we need a visionary, technocrat and honest government, which can free itself from the stranglehold of feudal landlords and embark on knowledge-driven growth.