Embrace the fourth industrial revolution to reap economic benefits

Last week, I wrote about the global tensions surrounding the 5G technology between China and the United States of America (US) and how the technology will likely impact the social, political and economic systems worldwide. I also highlighted why the US government was not impressed that a Chinese company, Huawei, seems to be ahead of their companies and South Korea’s on 5Gs.

In that discussion, I pointed out that the 5G technology is going to alter the global political power dynamics and unleash new global super powers. I provided a brief overview of the likely political scenario arising from the benefits and power of the 5G technology.
Last week demonstrated that Huawei means business as they signed major deals with Russia and the Africa Union (AU). This technically means that, in addition to capturing the Asian markets, China, through Huawei, has Africa and Russia in their pockets, leaving only Europe for competition with US telecommunication companies.
Last week, I had a chance to chat with one South African university professor on the same subject, but mainly focusing on the field of development studies. The discussion was mainly centred on how I think the 5G technology will impact the field of development studies, mainly what Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

In this instalment, I will provide a quick update on what I have always believed needed to be done to get Africa up to speed with the rest of the world. But before I get into that, let me start by what I think we should not have wasted our time on — development theories.

Most students of development studies and some in media studies are forced to learn, comprehend and apply the modernisation, structuralism, dependency, alternative, neoclassical and the post-development theories as a basis for formulating what should work for Africa. These have become cornerstones since development and poverty reduction have become a field of study.

What has been missing in their academic usage is that these theories, if they qualify to be described as such, simply defined the political and economic relationship between the west and the rest of the world at a given time.

In doing so, they mask the perpetuation of the pre-existing colonial and political power imbalances between the West and rest and should, therefore, never have been applied as theories or models in the field of development studies to address the poverty problems of the historically disadvantaged societies.

The reasons I am saying this is very simple. Africa, as a continent, received trillions of dollars in aid money in the last seven decades to support poverty reduction initiatives drawn on the theories mentioned above. None of that investment has made significant transformation to the lives of the people. This has prompted academics such as Wolfgang Sachs to conclude that the idea of poverty reduction in its current state stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape because delusion, disappointment, failures and crimes have been its steady companions and they tell one common story — that it has never worked. He urged for tackling of this towering conceit.

Perhaps what Sachs sought to highlight is that societies are poor or developed because of their level of industrialisation and not any of those development models or theories. This world is categorised as developed, developing and under-developed because of the level of industrialisation or lack thereof. Industrialisation organises and defines the social, economic and political status of various societies in the world. Africa is poor because it lacks industrialisation and developed countries are what they are today because they have industrialised.

The various historical stages of human economic development this world has encountered have been due to various levels of industrialisation.

The first industrial revolution applied the use of water and steam power to mechanise production, while the second invented electric power to increase mass production. The third, which is the current phase, applies the use of electronics and information technology to automate production.

In all these three phases of industrialisation, African societies’ academics have tended to be lured by the theories or models of development instead of investing resources and intellectual capacity to understand the requirements of the various levels of industrialisation.

Countries that have achieved economic development in recent decades such as China and other Asian countries, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries and in Africa, Mauritius, Rwanda and Ethiopia have done so by simply investing in industrialisation.

The fourth industrial revolution offers a new opportunity for struggling societies to catch up with the developed societies only if they quickly embrace its benefits and identify niche opportunities as it unfolds.

According to Schwab, the fourth industrial revolution is simply building on the third phase, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century for which most developing countries are part of.

The fourth industrial revolution is a fusion of new technologies that are blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres leaving the world, mainly developing societies at crossroads. If developing societies miss this window of opportunity to embrace this new technology in ways that will promote economic growth and the common good, enhance human dignity and protect the environment, there is a good chance that poverty and inequality will widen and compromise the aspirations of millions of people.

 Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa

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