Over the past five years, the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the World Bank Group have coproduced 20 volumes on various dimensions of development in Africa. The Africa Development Forum (ADF) book series has addressed subjects including the agricultural, demographic, climatic, and environmental challenges facing African countries, as well as the various methods of financing infrastructure, cities, and social safety nets. In-depth research brings to light specific and diverse situations encountered around the continent. Moving beyond the results of such endeavors, the question remains of how to conduct research that can make a pertinent and meaningful contribution to public policy. Two fundamental tools are required: robust, and often times original, data and cutting-edge research. This research must not only be connected to international realities; it must be firmly anchored in African realities and geared toward public policy making.
Based on new data and research, there is reason for optimism about Africa’s demography and development. Population growth rates may continue to be high for some more time, but some underlying signals of approaching widespread fertility declines indicate change is in the offing. And, along with incipient changes in the economy, there is reason to expect Africa to be on an upswing. Growing up in Calcutta, we were brought up on Rabindranath Tagore’s magisterial Bengali poem, Africa, in which, referring to the forces of colonialism, the poet talked about how this continent full of potential is repressed by “civilization’s barbaric greed.” The time has now come for Africa to seize the moment.
“I am always hungry, as oftentimes my family and I skip meals. I want to go to school like my friends, but my parents always say it is too expensive. If I go to school, then I can’t work to help them buy food, and then I am hungry again. I am helpless when it comes to changing my situation, I have no voice and there are few people that see things the way I do.”
From my seat as an Education economist at the World Bank, I go through a number of strategies from countries and sectors in Africa outlining how best to achieve economic growth and development. I am repeatedly struck by a key question: Who will do it? Who will add value to African exports? Who will build? Who will invent? Who will cure? The answer is, of course, that graduates from African universities and training institutions should do it. But the problem is one of numbers and quality—there are simply not enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and programs are of uneven quality.