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The Foresight and Economy Feature Article

Economic Growth and Human Development Challenges for Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa



In virtually all economic development programmes across the globe, the primary objective is to improve the quality of life of the general population. Economic growth is generally assumed to fulfil that objective. In Africa, however, there is the increasingly widespread phenomenon of ‘jobless growth’ where economic growth rates have risen in recent years, unaccompanied by any significant improvement in most of the indicators of human development. In many cases, this phenomenon is associated with the natural resource trap that most of the countries on the continent seem to be locked in. The implications of increasing unemployment on human development, measured by the behaviour of human development indices across the continent, are obvious. The growing gap between Africa, and especially sub-Saharan Africa, and most of the rest of the world, not in growth rates but rather in the evolution of economic systems and the ensuing trading and investment patterns, is entrenching this decoupling of economic growth and human development within the structure of most African economies. The implications for development policy are still unclear. This chapter examines the relationship between growth and development from the perspective of systems of innovation and draws conclusions about the role of human development in economic development.

One of the possible reasons for the enduring low correlation between economic growth and human development is the divide between the goals and the instruments of the growth and development process. Most of the accepted measures of human development are usually couched solely as the objective of economic growth and development policy. Their attainment is seen as contingent on the successful deployment of conventional macroeconomic policy tools, along with industrial and trade policies. Where these objectives remain unattained for sustained periods of time, especially in developing contexts, remedial action is often designed outside the sphere of economic planning in order to alleviate extreme cases of human deprivation through social policy strategies.

It is generally acknowledged that economic policies across Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, have on the whole failed to address the human development challenge adequately. To a certain extent, the cause of this enduring failure can be traced to the lack of clarity about the underlying, contesting ideological bases of the various policy formulations. Given the deep divides in contending ideologies and the paradigmatic underpinnings of policies, it is quite important to be explicit about what we may term the various ‘languages’ of alternative sets of growth and development strategies. Failure to do so would result in a confusing Babel of paradigms within the same policy formulation, based on ad hoc and mostly unstated assumptions. When this happens, policy becomes fragmentary and ineffective in attaining its objectives.

In this chapter, a systems of innovation approach to development is used in an attempt to address these conceptual divides and propose a framework for the design of a new development path more conducive to human development in Africa. Most of the literature on innovation systems focuses on national systems of innovation, but we are acutely aware of the colonial definition of African nations that determined the post-colonial map of states across the continent. We are aware of the implications of this ersatz creation of political entities on the viability of national systems of innovation in Africa and hence of the need to transcend this construct and move to a continental system of innovation in the interests of creating a regional economy that is more feasibly conducive to people-oriented growth and development (Muchie, 2003; Scerri, 2003; Maharajh, 2008). The concept of systems of innovation is subject to a range of definitions and interpretations. In the past, R&D surveys and, to a lesser extent, innovation surveys, restricted their analysis to formal institutional frameworks directly relevant to the production, diffusion and absorption of technological innovations. A more recent and broader approach has extended the definition of innovation to include organisational and institutional change (OECD/Eurostat, 2005) within an organic or evolutionary context of search under conditions of less than full and imperfect information. This broader approach brings to the analytical foreground the role of history in the particular systems that have evolved, and consequently highlights the specificity of individual systems (Lundvall, 1992; Cassiolato, Lastres & Maciel, 2003). The approach is broadened further according to the type of institutions that are considered to be relevant, which depends partly on the particular definition of innovation that is adopted. The narrower the definition, the more restricted the focus becomes to institutions that are directly relevant to technological innovation. The broader the definition of innovation, and hence of the system of innovation, the wider the range of institutions becomes that are considered as pertinent to the analysis of systems. There is also a wide range of informal institutions, in the form of established routines, practices and social formations, which are brought into consideration when a broader definition of the system of innovation is adopted, especially in developing countries. In this context, history becomes strongly relevant to the analysis of systems of innovation. Informal institutions are defined in various ways, and it is certainly difficult to identify a particular practice or social formation as a valid object of analysis within an evolutionary analytical framework. The analysis of the effects of informal institutions on the evolution of national systems of innovation is also complex. Consequently, it is often difficult to formulate and deploy strategy to align informal institutions with national development objectives. It is within the web of these informal and formal institutions that tacit knowledge is formed. In a world economy in which the effective cost of the mobility of resources is approaching zero and most codified knowledge is free and transferred virtually instantly and freely, it is ultimately tacit knowledge that defines the competitive advantage of nations and the specificity of their systems of innovation. We also need to keep in mind that the absorption and use of the freely available codified knowledge presumes human capital development, which is strongly influenced by context-specific pools of tacit knowledge.

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“Economic Growth and Human Development Challenges for Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa,” Chapter 2 in African Union [editor] AFRICAN INNOVATION OUTLOOK 2010, African Union, Addis Ababa, pp. 13-34. ISBN: 978-1-920550-45-5 by Rasigan Maharajh and Mario Scerri.


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