Invest in Research or Continue to Trail the Rest of the World [opinion]

The NRM government made a promise to Ugandans in the 2011 campaign that it had a plan that would unleash prosperity for all.

Although it might be too early to judge whether the current government programmes are indeed delivering this prosperity, we can plausibly infer that whatever is going on appears to point to anything but prosperity.

The country’s GDP growth – a measure of the health of an economy – for last financial year (201314) averaged merely 4.8 per cent, quite surprising for a country with capacity to grow faster.

This implies that opportunities of wealth creation for many Ugandans are increasingly shrinking rather than expanding as the NRM government would like us to believe. But why has the economy continued to shrink?

Or: how did some countries like South Korea that were equally underdeveloped in the 1960s just like Uganda, manage to grow faster and expand opportunities for their people and yet Uganda seems to be struggling?

The debate on what accounts for growth is an old one. It has shifted positions and perspectives largely because of the interaction of many factors that are difficult to correctly and precisely disentangle.

Nonetheless, there are some fundamentals around which consensus has been generated: education, physical infrastructure and institutions. The first two can be achieved even within a fairly corrupt state, but the last one is a complex one.

Many will perhaps argue that the government of Uganda has expanded education opportunities for many Ugandans during the past two decades more than ever before. While this claim is irrefutable, we should also note that government’s education strategy has given much priority to primary education and less on secondary and tertiary education.

As a consequence, tertiary institutions, particularly universities, have seen their research budgets dwindle over the years, so much that this precedent has totally obliterated the culture and incentive for carrying out research at these institutions.

Whatever relic of research budgets they run nowadays, they are mainly donor-funded, which sometimes come with conditions to support research activities that are of interest to donors. This at times might not be in line with the country’s development needs.

But why is research so important for development? Research generates new ideas, which are the cornerstone for discovering newer and better ways of doing things, or in a science jargon for improving technology.

But don’t these ideas of doing things more productively vastly exist everywhere in the world? Sure enough, they do. But why have we failed to import and adapt them to solve our pervasive technological incapability?

It is because the ideas generated elsewhere are mostly suitable to contexts where they emerge but which might not be similar to Uganda’s context. And secondly, investing in research allows the country to holistically develop the entire knowledge generation infrastructure which allows adaptation to local needs easier.

Countries that have moved ahead discovered this secret almost fifty years ago and invested heavily in building research institutions. African countries, on the other hand, uncharacteristically and audaciously cut research budgets to universities.

As a result, today, we continue to export raw coffee, cotton, and other low-value agricultural commodities in exchange for ipads, imacs, Japanese second-hand cars and other sophisticated high-value products from other countries.

This is to the detriment of our balance of payment accounts. John Stuart Mill once said: “Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow.”

To borrow from Mill’s maxim, it is apparent that we have unfortunately, either deliberately or inaertently, destroyed or neglected the soil – universities – where they grow and as a result we continue to lumber behind the rest of the world.

The writer is a graduate student at the London School of Economics.

Source : The Observer