For a Knowledge Economy

Atta-ur-rehman-1.jpg

Atta-ur-Rahman
FRS, N.I., H.I., S.I., T.I.

On 27th December 2018, the Federal Cabinet approved a powerful Task Force Chaired by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, with me as its Vice Chairman. Named the “Technology Driven Knowledge Economy Task Force” it has several key Federal Ministers and Secretaries as well as subject experts as its members. Pakistan thus hopes to make a new beginning, changing its future directions from the production and export of natural resources or low value added manufactured goods to the manufacture and export of high tech products.
Our country is facedwith massive problems of increasing population, poverty, and illiteracy. The past 3 decades have seen the erosion of national wealth as crooks were elected to rule the country who piled billions of dollars in foreign assets, gleefully supported by foreign aid agencies who contributed to the drowning ship so that a nuclear Islamic state could be subjugated. The courts were compromised and cronies appointed to head NAB, FIA and other institutions so that the corrupt in power would have nothing to fear. Poor governance has resulted in closure of large industrial sectors because of regular power break-downs, rising costs of electricity leading to lack of competiveness and rampant corruption. Fortunately, PTI was voted into power just before the situation became irreversible, and we now have a long hard journey ahead to rectify the damage done, and re-embark on the road to progress.
In today’s world, nations are not built just by investing in brick and mortar, in roads and bridges, in dams and power houses but by their ability to unleash the creative potential of their youth and use their talents for socio-economic development.In order to develop a knowledge economy, a clear road map has to be followed through what is now a well understood and documented procedure — a Delphi type “foresight exercise”. This involves a thorough and careful analysis of each sector to identify the key programs for future development. These include an assessment of the natural resources of the country, the niche opportunities after considering the current and future growth areas with emphasis on new and emerging technologies, the export opportunities and import substitution potential in different sectors, and the investments needed to prepare the required skilled human resources. In 2004, the Pakistan Cabinet decided that such a Technology based Industrial Vision and Strategy for Pakistan’s Socio-economic Development should be carried out under my leadership. This would set a clear national path to determine how the country could transition to a knowledge economy and rid itself of hunger and poverty that engulf large sectors of our urban and rural population. Over the subsequent two years an intensive exercise was carried out to determine the road map within the 13 different key sectors (agriculture, engineering, information technology, telecommunications, electronics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, textiles, etc). This involved detailed consultations within each sector among subject experts, industrialists, specialists among our diaspora abroad and officials of the relevant Ministries of the Provincial and Federal governments. The specific projects to be launched within each sector were thoroughly debated and then identified along with their costs, technical and human resource requirements and the benefits.
As scientists usually have their heads high up in the skies but the feet are often not firmly planted on the ground, I sought assistance of 12 PhDs in development economics to help establish the priorities. I was ably supported in this effort by late Dr. A.R. Kamal, the head of Pakistan Institute of Development (PIDE) in Islamabad and my colleague Dr. Mrs. S.T.K. Naim an expert at COMSTECH. As a result of this effort, a 330 page document was prepared which clearly sets out what Pakistan must do in each sector over the next 15 years broken into three 5 year periods, the cost of each project, the institutions to undertake the work and the impact on the national economy and on the process of social development.
This 15 year industrial vision, strategy and action plan was approved by the Cabinet in August 2007 and an inter-Ministerial Committee was constituted for its implementation. Unfortunately nothing was done later as a new government was soon formed that had other priorities and this important document now lies gathering dust in the Cabinet Division and in the Prime Minister’s office. I handed over the document personally to the present Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has circulated it to all relevant government Ministries for feed-back and updating. Finally some action is under way.
In order to transition from a low value added agriculture economy to a knowledge economy, the three major players that need to come together are universities, industry and government. The universities need to adequately prepare the human talents needed in each sector as well as to set up technology parks and business incubators to provide opportunities to young entrepreneurs to establish new start-up companies. The facilities that should be freely available within such technology parks include legal and financial services as well as professional management advisors. The government can make the needed investments to improve university standards of teaching and research. We need to set up Centres of Excellence in selected fields, provide financial assistance for the establishment of Technology Parks, provide Venture Capital towards new high technology industries, offer tax incentives to new high technology based industries and make national self-reliance as the corner stone of national policies and development plans.
The private industrial sector has a critical role to play in this effort to set up a knowledge economy. Indeed the single most striking difference between R & D expenditure in developing countries versus the technologically advanced countries is that in the advanced world most of the R & D expenditure comes from the private sector whereas in the developing world the investment made by the private sector is miniscule, the government being the main provider of research funding.
To transition from the trap of a low value agricultural economy to a knowledge economy, we need to realise that the real wealth of Pakistan lies in its youth.
About 100 million of our population (56%) is below the age of 19. This is a unique advantage as it offers of a window of opportunity for progress. If we can re-prioritise our national development vision and programs, we can unleash the huge creative potential that exists among us and march forward to building a strong “knowledge economy”. We need to train manpower and establish high value added industries ranging from electronics to engineering goods, from pharmaceuticals to automobiles, and from ship building to new and intelligent materials.
For this to happen we need to invest in our schools, colleges and universities so that we can adequately prepare our young for the world of today and tomorrow — a world where the 4th industrial revolution is upon us and truth has become stranger than fiction. It is only through reprioritization of our national development strategies, with emphasis on education, science & technology and innovation / entrepreneurship that we can emerge emerge from the present dire economic difficulties and migrate to a strong knowledge economy.
—The writer is the former Federal Minister of Science & Technology & Information Technology, and former Chairman of Higher Education Commission. Currently he is President of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC) and Co-Chairman of UN Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation for UNESCAP.

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