NAMIBIA: Free ICT courses for civil servants

The University of Namibia and Polytechnic of Namibia are partnering with the government to offer free computer literacy courses to civil servants, as the country gears up for greater participation in a knowledge-based global economy. With 75,000 people on its payroll the government, which is funding the initiative, is the biggest employer in this country of two million people.

Observers have welcomed the government decision to allocate some of its limited resources to the initiative despite heavy pressure exerted on the national budget by social sectors such as health and education, which were not given sufficient attention during the colonial era.

The decision to develop information and communication technology (ICT) skills in the public service was made at a cabinet retreat held in the west coast city of Swakopmund in late 2005.

To accomplish this task, and to tap maximum benefit from computers the government has invested in for the public service, the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) initiated a project called Build Skilled ICT Resources.

Through the Office, in collaboration with the University of Namibia and Polytechnic of Namibia, the government is offering different levels of computer training to 9,000 state employees over three years in the first phase of a programme aimed at ultimately making all civil servants computer literate.

Nangula Hamutenya, Under Secretary (Department of Public Service Information and Technology Management) in the OPM, said the project was open to all civil servants who require training and is being financed to the tune of N$11 million (US$1.5 million).

She said that before the project was introduced a needs assessment was conducted to establish what knowledge gaps existed in the civil service and the degree of the digital divide in and between offices, ministries and agencies.

"The findings varied from ministry to ministry but overall the need for basic and end-user computer usage skills stood out. Our survey shows that thousands of civil servants need this training," she explained. She encouraged civil servants to take advantage of the project.

The initiative is now underway, although progress has been slower than hoped owing to various factors, including slow uptake by civil servants.

Permanent Secretary in the OPM, Nangula Mbako, said the government was considering strategies to increase the uptake. She intimated that these might include making the courses mandatory for all civil servants or linking computer literacy to public service promotion.

University of Namibia Vice-chancellor, Professor Lazarus Hangula, described the project as an important national initiative. He enjoined a steering committee spearheading it to ensure that the objectives of the first phase are met on schedule - it is supposed to end in 2011.

Akiser Pomuti, coordinating director for the University Central Consultancy Bureau, said training under the first phase began in July. "We have already trained 80 people under the pilot phase of the project and hope that we will be able to train 100 people per week once people are aware and come for training," he said.

Pomuti said the university and the polytechnic would each train 4,500 people during the first phase. Introductory courses range from five to eight days, and advanced courses such as the International Computer Driving Licence are also offered.

He said there was sufficient human resources and equipment to train the required number of civil servants during the current phase of the project, and that the University of Namibia had invested in mobile computer laboratories which would be deployed to service small towns.

Productivity the world over depends significantly on the level of computer literacy of the labour force, and the ICT initiative could go a long way towards improving productivity in Namibia. Lack of skilled manpower has been cited as a factor inhibiting the inflow of foreign direct investment into the country.

While for now the initiative is confined to the public sector, some analysts have said that extending it in the medium to long term to the private sector could have a far greater impact on labour productivity in the country.

Economists have argued that Namibia needs urgently to embark on manufacturing as a way of diversifying the economy away from heavy dependence on the volatile incomes and jobs of primary activities like mining, agriculture and fishing, towards the more stable incomes and employment of secondary activities in the manufacturing and service industries.

The success of developing countries in a sink-or-swim global economy will also largely depend on their ability to establish knowledge-based economies which draw freely from the pool of technologies and development strategies that already exist in developed and emerging nations.

Computer literacy across the labour force would be an important first step towards attaining these objectives.