Africa must not be industrialized like the Asian dragons. Instead, the continent must invest in a high-quality educational system to adapt to a new global labor market.
PARIS — African governments and development agencies want nothing more than to see the continent industrialize. In the search for ideas about how to make that happen, Asia is an obvious place to look, as Adesina Akinwumi, president of the multilateral African Development Bank (AfDB), pointed out at a conference this summer called "Accelerate Africa's industrialization" hosted in Busan, South Korea.
Akinwumi's is a seductive idea. The development of the dragons of the Far East has indeed been spectacular. The host nation of the latest AfDB gathering is a prime example. In 1962, less than a decade after the devastating war, South Korea had a per capita GNP of roughly $120 (compared to $160 in Liberia), according to the World Bank. By 2016, per capita GDP had risen to $27,690, extreme poverty was completely eradicated, and the unemployment rate stood at just 4.5%.
This economic miracle was made possible partially due to a robust industrial policy. Between 1962 and 1994, the country's exports grew approximately 20% per year, while the volume of savings and investments exceeded 30% of GDP.
View overlooking Busan, South Korea — Photo: Gregory Foster
Nevertheless, there is little possibility that African countries can follow the South Korean example. The industrialization of the latter rested on the mobilization of labor force that was abundant and cheap. But the world that is coming must shake up this paradigm. In the recent report devoted to the transformation of work caused by artificial intelligence and automation progress, the consulting firm McKinsey analyzed more than 2,000 functions covering some 800 professions. Unsurprisingly, the activities most susceptible to automation are those classified as "physical" in nature. In this new world, physical and manual competences depreciate in value, according to McKinsey, while social, emotional and cognitive capacities will continue to rise in value.
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Clearly, if the predictions of McKinsey are verified, the strategy of Africa's industrialization by means of the exploitation of its young and abundant labor force will fail. Henceforward, machines make clothes and shoes, robots plant, water and gather agricultural products. In the future, what will be left for manual African workers to do?
Therefore, in this era of constant shocks, Africa should invest massively in education. The objective must be to create a high-quality educational system that is accessible to a larger number of people; to provide education that gives high-level fundamental knowledge, but that is also capable of responding to the needs of a labor market that is experiencing constant change. For example, how many Africans who were educated locally will be hired by Google's Artificial Intelligence research center slated to open in Ghana?
In this and other respects, the challenges are considerable: a recent UNESCO report says that in Sub-Saharan Africa, each fifth child aged 6-11 did not go to school in 2017, against a third of children aged 12-14, and 60% of young people aged 15-17. The World Bank meanwhile reports that in Sub-Saharan Africa fewer than 7% of pupils in primary school read fluently (the level of mathematics knowledge is hardly better).
The African partisans of the Asian model should embrace this strategy. A quick look at the ratings PISA that evaluates the level of pupils aged 15 in the OECD countries, reveals that the development strategy by education is in no respect original and is not incompatible with the industrialization strategy. In 2016 Singapore was rated first in the field of science, in front of Japan (second), Taiwan (fourth), China (tenth), and South Korea (eleventh). Even if they are not followed, all economic models offer useful lessons.