Yaounde, 15 October 2020 (ECA) – The UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has scheduled the 36th Session of the Intergovernmental Committee of Senior Officials and Experts (ICE) for Central Africa from 11 to 12 November 2020, virtually.
It will seek practical routes towards enhancing the development of adequate skills and competences needed for the sub-region’s economic diversification.
The session comes against the backdrop of the sub-region’s continuous painful exposure to external shocks due to its overdependence on the export of commodities. This, ECA has argued, is a model which must be changed in favor of economic diversification through resource-based and trade-induced industrialization.
The nose-dive in oil prices which followed the drop in demand by the world’s productive centers and sectors due to the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), hit the sub-region particularly hard compounding its macroeconomic instability as revenue streams shrunk making it abundantly clear that rapid horizontal and vertical economic diversification is the only choice for member States in the sub-region to broaden their income streams and strengthen economic resilience.
The theme: “Building skills for economic diversification in Central Africa” will provide the basis for government officials, representatives of key regional intergovernmental bodies (the AU Commission, CEMAC, ECCAS); the private sector; bilateral and multilateral development agencies (AfDB, World Bank, etc.); entities of the United Nations system; civil society leaders; as well as academics and researchers, to conduct an inventory of skills and other knowledge sets that can support the rapid economic diversification in Central Africa.
They will identify the challenges and opportunities relating thereto in order to propose recommendations on the strategy for garnering the skills necessary for the horizontal and vertical diversification of economies of the sub-region.
This 36th ICE session will be held in two main segments. The first will be an opening session which will include the presentation of a background study on skills and competences for economic diversification in Central Africa. It will be followed by a two-hour debate on the theme “a skills revolution for economic diversification in Central Africa in the advent of COVID-19 and a call for building back better.”
The second will constitute reviews of statutory issues pertaining to the work of ECA’s Subregional Office for Central Africa. These include a report on the annual delivery of the Office, progress on regional development agendas, a special report on Central Africa’s newly created free mobile telephony roaming zone (for which the Office played a leading advocacy role) and the Integrated Planning an Reporting Tool (IPRT) on Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063 developed by ECA.
Addressing Central Africa’s low involvement in Global Value Chains
While Africa gradually diversifies its sources of growth, the Central African subregion continues to heavily depend on the production and export of raw materials, particularly oil, whose pricing took a nose-dive from 2014 and has recently sunk to some of the lowest levels ever recorded in decades due to a steep fall in demand by traditional buyers as they concentrate on tackling COVID-19.
The sub-region contributes little to global value chains (GVCs) given the low technological intensity of its manufacturing which is linked either to natural resources or to traditional “low-tech” activities, characterized by limited levels of productivity.
The virtual event will therefore avail experts the opportunity to emphasize the need for Central African countries to capitalize on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to immediately change their productive system from rents-collection through the exploitation and sale of raw materials, to considerable value addition through tech-based and digitally enhanced manufacturing, knowledge production and high-end services.
Such a shift would offshoot a vibrant regional value chain based on each country’s comparative advantage in natural and human resources. It should be made possible not only by the acquisition and use of innovative technology but by massive development and use of skills in these areas.
To this end, participants at the session will develop concrete proposals and recommendations to immediately help States in the subregion reinforce their technological, innovative and professional skills-building mechanisms necessary to propel them to levels of industrialization and economic diversification that will power inclusive growth and sustainable development.
The expected result will be a halt in the cycles of booms and bursts in growth patterns that are conditioned by the fluctuating demand and pricing of commodities determined externally.
Fixing the mismatch between training and industrial needs
“We have stressed the need for structural and industrial transformation as a primary strategy if Central Africa is to move away from volatile, unsustainable growth with minimal impact on job creation and poverty alleviation,” says Antonio Pedro, Director of the Sub-regional Office for Central Africa of ECA, as he looks forward to the Yaounde meeting.
“The sub-region’s pedagogic focus on the arts, humanities and non-applied sciences from mid secondary to tertiary levels of education must shift.
“Central African countries need to swiftly reform their current educational systems by emphasizing on and upgrading training in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Innovation (STEMi) with greater investments in research, development and innovation (RDI), in order to improve the quality of their workforce to deliver the goods for economic diversification on the marketplace,” he argues.
Training curricula, he maintains, should also take into consideration the place of critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence (which lead to leadership) and digital literacy for a seamless progression into the fourth industrial revolution.
The central thrust of innovation
One way of gauging the extent to which the subregion possesses the human capital mandatory for any substantial development in economic diversification is by looking at its scale of intellectual patenting for industrial and innovative products. According to the ‘World Intellectual Property Indicators 2019’ report by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Africa recorded the lowest number of patents for inventions/discoveries; that is, just 0.5% of the 3.3 million files registered worldwide in 2018.
Though country data for total filings for that year were largely unavailable for African States, a look at WIPO’s classification of Equivalent Applications by [National] Origin shows a dismal performance for the whole continent in general and for Central Africa in particular.
Nationals of 10 of the 11 ECCAS member States for which data for that category is available (only Equatorial Guinea’s data is lacking) filed a total of just 998 patents in 2018. Comparatively, nationals of South Korea alone were responsible for 232,020 submissions for patents while those of Malaysia recorded 2,060 filings.
“The fact, therefore, that nationals across the ECCAS subregion recorded so few patents for invented products across intellectual property organizations in the world in 2018, is an indicator that innovation, which is one crucial factor for economic diversification in the developing world, is weak in the sub-region. Our member States must, therefore, urgently invest in, and promote skills for innovation. This is critical for industrialization and economic diversification,” Pedro concludes.
Toward a learning society
The 2020 ICE session will also examine ways to transform Central African countries into learning societies where training institutions are linked with industrial outfits to bring learners up-to-speed with the actual productivity needs of the real-world and to continuously retool the skills of workers in the productive sectors. This will respond to the ever-changing demands of productive techniques in a world driven by big data, connectivity and artificial intelligence.
The 36th session of the Intergovernmental Committee of Senior officials and Experts for Central Africa has been designed to build on the last series of ICE meetings aimed at deepening the region’s structural transformation processes through economic diversification underpinned by resource-based and trade-induced industrialization.
This series started with the 33rd session of the ICE (held in Douala, Cameroon) in September 2017. It culminated in the adoption of the Douala Consensus on economic diversification in the subregion. The 34th session which was held in N’Djamena, Chad, in September 2018, identified innovative mechanisms for financing industrialization in the subregion. Finally, the 35th session, which was held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in September 2019, harped on pathways for developing Central Africa’s Digital Economy.
Building momentum for a high-powered policy event
In prelude to this year’s ICE session, two preparatory webinars were held in May and July 2020 to lay the groundwork for a well-informed conversation on the 3rd and 4th of November in order to clearly elaborate recommendations for policy makers and other stakeholders involved with imparting crucial skills in the mindsets of member countries’ existing and would-be labor forces. During the first webinar held on 29 May 2020, participants called for Central African countries to upgrade their skills base and competencies, while putting innovation at the center of their development drive if they want to remain competitive, break the vicious cycle of overdependence on the export of commodities and harness the opportunities offered by COVID-19 in the pharmaceuticals and food sectors (details here: https://www.uneca.org/webinar-1-36-ice).
In the second webinar held on 30 July, participants concluded that, if Central African States draw inspiration from the experiences of Ethiopia, Japan and South Africa, among others, to pave their pathways to economic diversification, they can retool their human resources to become more developed, prosperous and resilient to external shocks(details here: https://www.uneca.org/webinar-2-36-ice).
Recommendations from the said webinars will therefore serve as practical anchorage for a fine tooth-comb review of the gaps in available skills for economic diversification in Central Africa in order to propose turnkey solutions for policy uptake and implementation in the quickest time possible.
Abel Akara Ticha - Communication Officer
United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
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