Corruption talks take centre stage at the Engineering Symposium for Africa

Education and corruption emerged as the top two problems for development at the first Engineering Symposium for Africa in Marrakech last week.

The participants heard how Africa has bucked the stagnant global economy over the last ten years, with annual growth averaging 5 per cent. Senegal politician Djibril N’Gom said that steady growth could be stepped up further through engineering, creativity and R&D.

Andrew Kremer, executive vice president of US-based Jacobs Group, quoted UNESCO figures saying that less developed countries have only five engineers per thousand of the population, compared to the developed countries’ 20-50 per thousand, while some African countries had fewer than one per thousand. Some African countries don't even offer university engineering courses.

An engineering industry panel agreed that Africa needs more engineers who are trained in soft skills like project management as well as educated in specialist technical engineering knowledge. Kremer added that Jacobs is investing in new recruits who may take 15 years or more to mature into more senior roles like project managers.

Bill Birkhofer, Jacobs Group senior vice president, said his company is providing a lot of training that goes beyond the traditional engineering curriculum through initiatives like its new Jesa Academy, part of the new Jacobs Engineering SA (Jesa) joint venture between Jacobs and Moroccan-based phosphates specialist OCP. Jesa started in 2009 with 23 expatriates and now employs 1100 staff, 85 per cent of them Moroccan.

Birkhofer said he thought corruption is not an African problem but a global one.

“I could make a case to you that in many places in the US there’s room for improvement as well.”

However, corruption was the other problem most cited by those talking at the symposium, with one question in particular receiving applause. N’Gom said corruption often arose outside set procedures and policies in ‘spontaneous’ offers that arise during the course of projects. Yet Marc Teyssier D’Orfeuil, CEO of public-private partnership interest group Club PPP Medafrique, cautioned that spontaneous ideas are one of the advantages of public-private partnerships.

Kremer said corruption is most effectively dealt with through determined “collective action” with written agreements between everyone involved in a project.

“We sign a deal with each other that we are just not going to allow it to occur,” he said.

Hicham Kabbaj, deputy general manager for business development at Jesa, explained: “Let’s have the roles clear from the start,” so all parties are at least “aware of the consequences” if they break those agreements. “We are zero tolerant to this and we step back from anything that sounds fishy to us.”

Suspicions surrounding corruption also make it more difficult to access finance. Investment funds are looking for projects to invest in but projects can’t get funding because the trust isn’t always there, says Kabbaj, and one of the hopes for the symposium is that it will re-establish the communications between finance and engineering.

The symposium in Marrakech, Morocco, last week was attended by around 700 delegates from 47 different countries.

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