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World Bank VP on science in Africa: Leaping from ‘Yes, we can’ to ‘Yes, we do’

April 2, 2014
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Makhtar Diop, vice president for Africa at the World  Bank. (Credit: Peter Smith)

Makhtar Diop is the vice president for the Africa region at the World Bank. (Credit: Peter Smith)

ANN ARBOR—Makhtar Diop is someone every African leader probably has on speed dial. As the World Bank’s vice president for Africa, he’s an extremely influential figure on the continent – one of the world’s fastest-growing economic regions.

Diop is passionate about promoting STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He believes that advancing these fields of study is crucial to sustaining Africa’s development. So the World Bank is betting big on STEM, investing $150 million in an initiative called the Africa Centers of Excellence, which aims to strengthen African higher education in the sciences. More money is expected to come in later phases.

Diop  discussed the new program on April 1 when he gave the keynote speech at a four-day African STEM conference at the University of Michigan, which has made STEM in Africa a key part of its global strategy.

He said that long-standing imbalances in Africa’s education system need to be corrected. Less than 25 percent of Africa’s graduates are majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Diop said. This is partly due to the legacy of Africa’s colonial past, when schools were set up to produce civil servants to run governments. This has created graduates with skills skewed toward the humanities and social sciences.

“Women are under-represented in science and technology-related courses and professions in the continent as well,” he said. “To reverse this trend, the new generation of talented and ambitious young Africans must be equipped with the modern skills and knowledge they need to formulate and implement African solutions for Africa’s challenges.”

The continent is an exciting place to do scientific research, he said. Seemingly every month, there are new mineral discoveries that create opportunities to develop new ways to extract, refine and market the resources. Booming cities are demanding better ways to grow crops and deliver them to markets. Africa’s rich biodiversity provides extraordinary research opportunities. The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa highlights the need for better testing and diagnosis.

“We are now at a crossroads,” Diop said. “The challenge is to make the leap from ‘Yes, we can,’ to ‘Yes, we do.'”

Here are a few excerpts from a brief interview with Diop on the sidelines of the conference, organized by U-M’s African Studies Center:

Global Michigan:  The most popular destinations for study-abroad for U-M students continue to be places like Spain, Italy and the U.K. How would you encourage students to go to Africa for an international learning experience?

Diop: Let’s try to talk more about Africa. I think this type of conference, and having students – not just African students but also American students – coming and showing interest in what we are doing is part of it. It’s clear that there are areas with Centers of Excellence in place that can receive them and really give them an environment where they can do serious work. This would be an element that would help them and make Africa more attractive. Areas like environmental studies – where Africa really has a lot to offer – or the work with wildlife. It’s clear there’s not a better place. Or the work in medical fields, identifying viruses and researching them. Or all the work related to commodities, including mining, oil and gas. If I were an engineer from the U.S. and I wanted to understand more about it, I would definitely go to Africa because this is where you are discovering everyday a new source for the extractive industries. So this is the place to go. As we all know, the first-movers always have an advantage. So my message to the current students at the University of Michigan is: Go now to Africa. Otherwise, you might miss the bandwagon, and it will be too late when the place is crowded because a lot of people are going to Africa. And by the way, it’s a nice place.

Global Michigan: What makes you feel so optimistic about Africa’s outlook?

Diop: Africa has been growing in the last decade at about 4.5 percent on average. In the middle of the financial crisis in 2008, Africa was consistently growing when the rest of the world, except Asia, was growing at a much slower pace. I think the trust and confidence in African economies are robust enough and can really sustain this growth path. This is due to very hard work from Africa’s population and leaders at a time when it was very difficult to implement some reforms, which are trying to align the level of expenditure with the growth rate of countries and cutting inflation, etc. Countries that made those hard decisions back in the 80s and 90s created a foundation that’s solid enough to be optimistic and be confident that Africa’s growth rate will be consistent and go to the next level of development.

Global Michigan: With science and technology, what does Africa need the most?

Diop: Africa has had a lot of commodity booms in the past. But these episodes have been well managed. By managing well these commodity booms, countries more and more want to increase the value addition in their own countries. They realize it’s not enough to manage a commodity boom well. So at this time, STEM is even more important than ever for Africa to turn to the next level of development and be able to sustain the growth at a higher level. We are talking about STEM at a different level, from vocational training, which allows investors – both local and foreign – to have a labor force that is well trained in the basic processes of manufacturing to really more sophisticated activities, such as the use of new varieties in agriculture or being able to have more sophisticated processes in transforming oil and gas, which are some of the commodities that have been discovered in large quantities. So it is the time now to really invest because this investment takes time to bear fruit. When you invest in science and technology, before you have the first graduates, it will take a little bit of time. So if you don’t turn the corner right now, you will miss the next generation, the new phase of growth in Africa.

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