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Thinking Development

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By Christopher Guta, PhD:

In competitive business environments, firms strive to attain the accolade of being ‘learning company’. At national economy level, it is important to strive towards becoming a ‘learning economy’. Indeed, the importance of national learning was identified way back in 1998 when the national Vision 2020 was crafted. In today’s entry, I am focusing on the propositions in the DPP manifesto that could progress Malawi towards becoming a ‘learning economy’.

There is so much knowledge in the world today compared to the past – wherever, in time – your past is positioned. Evolutionists ascribe this to the increasing size of the human brain that makes us understand better the universe. As the global community is about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the famous ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ statement made by Louis Armstrong on July 20 1969, the first man to walk on the moon, I am astounded at what humans have achieved before and after the moon landing. For example, Malawians today can take photographs at weddings using drones. What? Drones – unmanned aerial vehicles!

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Indeed, the search for understandings of the universe has created a blazing trail of knowledge that is fundamentally changing how individuals, firms and nations are competing in the global marketplace. Competition, in itself, forces nation states that are conscious of the importance of learning and innovation to establish systems that foster purposeful acquisition, diffusion and utilisation of knowledge for commercial purposes.

Let me stand on the shoulders of John A. Mathews, professor of competitive dynamics and global strategy who published an article in 2001 describing how the countries of East Asia became important players in the global economy. He observed that it was firms and agencies in the respective countries which instigated the process of ‘collective competence acquisition, through technology diffusion management’. Firms in East Asia neither ‘built their competences on conventional foundations through R&D’ important as it is nor were they ‘recipients of technologies transferred by advanced firms’ from western countries who do so in search of lower cost of production advantages. Rather, they were motivated by the need for purposeful action.

The question that arises then is: What evidence would we seek if Malawi’s economy were to be described as a ‘learning economy’? Bengt Ake Lundvall, a guru on the subject, defined two generic pieces of evidence to this end. First is visibility of actions to explain and understand the process of change in technology, skills, preferences and institutions. In other words, are there attempts to understand the changes that are taking place at national and global levels regarding technology, skills, preferences and institutions? I have cited one technology-related change above: Malawians using drones to take pictures at weddings. On a serious note: drones have also been used to support delivery of health services and provision of post-disaster humanitarian assistance. The Ministry of Health and the Department of Civil Aviation are collaborating with development partners, including Unicef, in these learning and innovation endeavours. These developments notwithstanding, to what extent is drone technology being diffused in Malawi and what is the private sector involvement?

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Regarding skills: Is Malawi aware of what is now identified as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ where, for example, robots are able to conduct operations in hospital theatres or direct passengers at airports?

The second piece of evidence that could be used to determine whether Malawi is a learning economy is action, by public agents in particular, to make ‘knowledge and learning increasingly important at all levels of the economy’. While as the importance of national learning was identified in 1998 by the architects of the about-to-expire Malawi Vision 2020, has the nation drawn lessons from the implementation of the last two national development strategies (MGDS I and II) – the declared vehicles for realising Vision 2020 – that have informed the current one (MGDS III)?

A reading of MGDS III shows that lessons were drawn from MGDS I and II that informed MGDS III. From a science, technology and innovation perspective, however, I note that unlike development strategies of other countries, MGDS III has not focused on science, technology and innovation as a thematic area in its own right. Such a focus would, like what the Asian countries did, identify areas of science, technology and innovation in which Malawi could instigate a process of collective competence acquisition and outline the manner in which the private and public sectors could collaborate regarding technology diffusion management. Drone technology isolated above is one such area. The DPP manifesto also does not have propositions that focus purposefully on science, technology and innovation in terms of their management. To that extent, there is thinking to be undertaken for Malawi to attain the ‘learning economy’ accolade

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