Back in 2016, in his traditional Youth Day message to Cameroon and within the framework of his Special Youth Plan, President Paul Biya announced the four key components of his futuristic initiative to boost the digital economy.
Among the four components of this plan, was the presidential gift of 500,000 laptops to university students of both public and private universities.
While this is a commendable move to boost the digital economy and increase its marginal contribution to the national output, there are many issues involved with the plan, making it a fundamental failure right from the point of conception. At the core of this is the debate on the central role of government.
Bad Loan, Worse Debt Burden
The government is borrowing money from China (FCFA 75 Billion) to obtain these laptops from a Chinese company. This project is not a gift as claimed by the government. A loan was obtained and it is binding on the country to repay. However, the burden of repayment will fall upon the taxpayer, not the President.
From an economic standpoint, investing this money in Cameroon for the establishment of a computer assembling or manufacturing plant would contribute many times over to the country’s economy.
It would employ Cameroonians and lead to immense technological transfer and human capital development in subsequent years. The multiplier effect would be greater than that of merely purchasing and distributing laptops to university students.
Investing the money this way would increase, greatly, the export portfolio of Cameroon. In essence, borrowing to purchase and to distribute a finished product is a bad investment.
An Inward look to improved Education in Cameroon?
Additionally, questions relating to prioritization are gaining traction. Should investments to boost broadband and expand internet access (software) be a priority over the purchase of laptops (hardware)?
Going by a 2014 study by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, Cameroon is one of the least connected countries in the world; with only 6 percent of Cameroonians using the internet. Some reasons for this include limited international bandwidth, severely limited competition in the mobile sector, a regulator struggling to come to grips with consumer protection demand and a weak civil society.
To address these factors, Biya can encourage proper investments to promote e-learning, boost the digital economy bandwidth expansion and promote competition. These definitely will expand access and increase choice options for consumers. Such objectives and investments can be accurately carried out only by the private sector.
Secondly, the objective of this gesture is unclear. There is mention of promoting e-national learning. The president or his advisers failed to mention what aspect of e-national learning they intend to boost, and if all the 500,000 students targeted are directly involved.
Even if that were the case, would all of them need laptops? Some may already have laptops and using scarce financial resources to get another is blatantly wasteful. This is to say that a study to establish the number of students who have laptops, compared to those who do not have but need one, was necessary to ensure cost minimization and prevent resource misallocation.
Even if all of the above had effectively been completed, it is wasteful to distribute all the laptops at once or in the same period. To measure the impact of this distribution of laptops on e-national learning, the laptops should be distributed in batches with a time lag of at least 6 months.
This will enable evaluators to actually measure the effectiveness of the program against a baseline study. This essentially would be looking at the outcome, estimated by specific variables of interest and establishing what the situation would have been had the program not taken place.
Such a study would ascertain the project’s impact. By so doing, necessary changes in strategy or project execution could be made to ensure maximum impact as the program unfolds.
A Policy Destined to Fail
With the above approach, backed by evidence and intensive data collection and analysis, this project will yield better outcomes at lower rates with minimal wastage.
The current strategy has wasted resources enough; the laptops are only 32 gigabits, and the price reported for such low-quality devices is exorbitant and incomprehensible. In addition, not all those receiving the hardware really need them.
There are equally reports of some students selling theirs at giveaway prices. Absolutely no one, in numerical terms, will be able to state the impact of such a project either positive or negative.
Nonetheless, evidence-based approach to policymaking is necessary to make use of scarce resources. It will help in ensuring accountability and maximization of the impact of various interventions.