The Debate: education vs infrastructure

Are developments in education or infrastructure more important for Africa’s growth? Indeed, is education possible without infrastructure, or does one lead to the other? 

Patrick Awuah left Ghana as a teenager to attend university in the United States, then had a career at Microsoft. On his return to his home country he founded Ashesi University  in 2002 to educate young people in critical thinking and ethical leadership, which he believes are crucial to nation building. He argues that educating Africa's people is vital to achieving future growth

What is the most important factor in determining if a nation will develop or stagnate? Is it the presence – or absence – of infrastructure, or is it the “human factor”, with the presence of a stable, safe society, an educated, economically empowered populace and functioning civil institutions?

I would argue that the human factor is more important. If civil society, good governance and an educated population are in place, infrastructure development will follow. The populace will create a system to plan, fund and maintain the infrastructure they need. In the absence of educated civilians and stable government, even the best infrastructure funded by outside organisations is doomed to be under-used and will ultimately fall into disrepair.

A key caveat: for education to be trans-formative, it needs to be effective. Sadly, a recent national study documented that after six years in public schools, two-thirds of Ghanaian children are still functionally illiterate, and 86 per cent are innumerate.

An effective education creates a population with both the skills and the mindset needed to create economic progress. We need to fund and implement education that imparts core skills in reading, maths and technology, and which also goes beyond memorising set information. Effective education empowers people to seek out new information and new solutions. 

Infrastructure can be enormously useful. Roads, seaports, electricity and hospitals can open up markets, power factories and save lives. However, as president of an African university, I’ve watched my students perform community service that is really rescuing infrastructure projects that failed because of a lack of local education.

In one case, a solar-powered clean-water system had fallen into disrepair, and no one in the village had the knowledge or resources to fix it. Villagers had returned to drinking water infested with e.coli from a stream. In another case, a donor-built library was permanently locked because local teachers had not been empowered to create systems to bring students to the books, or to track them. The university students did some-thing the funders of the infrastructure had neglected to do: they empowered villagers with the skills and mindset to take responsibility for their clean water and library.

Ideally, African nations will develop infrastructure and education in tandem. Done together, each adds value to the other. However, if you had to choose only one, imagine two communities: one has infrastructure built by external actors and citizens with no education; the other has education only. In the long term, the educated community will create the infrastructure it needs and a diverse economy from the materials it has. The stable civil society will attract foreign investment. On the other hand, the foreign-built infrastructure of the other uneducated society is likely to experience a slow collapse, with communities of people doing things much as they did in the past.

HE Hamad Buamim is Director General of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. His organisation is hosting the Africa Global Business Forum, an event examining infrastructure investment opportunities across Africa, in Dubai on 1 and 2 May. He believes that infrastructure needs to be put in place before education will work effectively

Africa is home to a significant number of the fastest-growing economies in the world and offers the highest risk-adjusted returns on foreign direct investment (FDI)  among emerging economies. While mining and oil continue to be big business, the infrastructure industry offers major commercial opportunities and brings with it additional benefits for the continent and its people.

Given Africa’s vast and diverse structure, it is difficult, if not naive, to treat doing business there in one uniform way. The continent is home to 54 sovereign states, each with uneven development, numerous small markets and varied practices and regulations. However, it is generally accepted that across Africa more infra-structure investment is necessary and vital for the continent’s future growth and development.

Roads, bridges, sewers, electricity and  water supplies, and telecommunication networks are everyday things required for any society to operate properly. Infrastructure is what Africa needs now and this is where new investment should be directed. Its development must take precedence over education reform at present because this is where the greatest needs of African people lie. If a child cannot physically get to school because there is no road, or their classroom is not structurally safe or doesn’t have an electricity supply, then surely it makes more sense to concentrate investment on providing these basic necessities first.

Education is vitally important and will ultimately be the key to raising living standards across Africa and allowing the continent to compete on the inter-national stage. However, what Africa needs now is to put in place the building blocks for a functioning and smooth-running society.

Dubai, which has invested in developing some of the world’s finest infrastructure, continues to plan more capital investment over the next decade along-side the development of a sophisticated education system, as well as providing funding for quality education providers to teach and guide the next generation.

In May, Dubai Chamber will host the Africa Global Business Forum in Dubai to highlight some of the opportunities for investment between the Emirates and the continent. The potential for developing infrastructure in Africa will form a major part of this as it has positive knock-on effects for other industries. For example, good quality transport systems lead to enhanced trade, logistics, agriculture and tourism opportunities by allowing for freer movement of goods and visitors.

A number of UAE-based infrastructure operators have had an established presence in Africa for some time, particularly in the shipping and telecommunications industries. These companies are not only generating income but also helping to provide services and facilities that improve people’s everyday lives.

Infrastructure is something we often take for granted, but without it our lives would be very difficult.