The adoption and proliferation of the mobile phone in the continent is described as a “parallel ICT revolution because Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world” (Kleine and Unwin 2009:1047).
In tandem with the avid usage of the mobile phones, the number of print and news media reports focused on the so called ICT4D revolution in Africa has been growing steadily. Consider the following illustrative articles derived from the UK edition of The Guardian. It is an article on Africa’s mobile economic revolution:
Mobile phones carry huge economic potential in undeveloped parts of Africa. A 2005 London Business School study found that for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a developing country, GDP rises by 0.5%. As well as enabling communication and the movement of money, mobile networks can also be used to spread vital information about farming and healthcare to isolated rural areas vulnerable to the effects of drought and disease (Fox, 2011).
The next one is derived from The Economist:
Once the toys of rich yuppies, mobile phones have evolved in a few short years to become tools of economic empowerment for the world’s poorest people. These phones compensate for inadequate infrastructure, such as bad roads and slow postal services, allowing information to move more freely, making markets more efficient and unleashing entrepreneurship. All this has a direct impact on economic growth: an extra ten phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts GDP growth by 0.8 percentage points (The Economist, 2009).
The articles convey great optimism about the usage of the mobile phone. The first article actually proposes that the economic potential of the mobile phone can remedy the undeveloped parts of the continent. It is not clear from the article what exactly ‘undeveloped parts’ means but it certainly implies that the mobile phone has great potential in areas that have limited infrastructure. Africa’s largest “infrastructure deficit is in the power sector because it only delivers a fraction of the service found elsewhere in the developing world. The 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa generate roughly the same amount of power as Spain” (World Bank, 2013:1). It is tenuous to imply that a mobile phone can compensate or substitute for the lack of critical power infrastructure. The second Economist article also implies that a saviour in the form of a mobile phone will compensate for inadequate infrastructure. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one critical need is road infrastructure because “only one-third of Africans living in rural areas are within two kilometers of an all-season road, compared with two-thirds of the population in other developing regions” (World Bank, 2013:1). Therefore, let us critically ask ourselves again, can the mobile phone possibly be suited to substitute the lack of road and power infrastructure in Africa?
The articles clearly stipulate that the use of the mobile phone can lead to growth of economic development in the form of a rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, economists have argued for years that the GDP is a good measure to gauge a country’s progress, but it is not an indicator of the personal human flourishing or well-being of every individual in that society (Alkire and Deneulin, 2010:25). The optimism and enthusiasm about the use of ICTs as a solution to the numerous development challenges in the Global South has been critiqued extensively by Pieterse (2005a, 2005b, 2010:166). He argues that there is an intentional “boosterism of the use of ICTs in the Global South and that it is a cycle that has been witnessed before with the invention and introduction of railroads, electricity, chemical industries, automobiles and telecommunications. The articles reflect the long-standing agenda that ICTs can be utilised as instruments for enormous economic and social gain in the Global South. This is an agenda that has been promoted since the mid-1990s by major international development agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (Heeks, 2014:7).
The ICT4D agenda is clearly represented in the millennium goals for development (UN, 2015). The eighth millennium development goal, to establish a global partnership for development, highlights the same promotion of new media technologies as instruments of economic and social gains. Target 8F reads, “in co-operation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications” (UN, 2015):
- Two-thirds of the world’s Internet users are in developing regions, where the number of Internet users doubled between 2009 and 2014.
- In 2014, Internet use penetration in developing countries grew by 8.7 per cent, twice as fast as in the developed world where its usage rose by 3.3 per cent.
- In Africa, almost 20 per cent of the population is online, up from 10 per cent in 2010. Thirty per cent of the world’s youth are digital natives, active online for at least five years.
- More than four billion people do not use the Internet, and 90 per cent of them are from the developing world.
As indicated, the United Nations explicitly focuses on the promotion of new technologies and ICTs within Africa. Heeks attributes this to the fact that the goals were drafted in the latter half of the 1990s when there was a “wave of hope around the new technologies after the first mass diffusion of the Internet into Western organisations and society” (Heeks, 2014:17). The international development agencies were also concerned about the digital divide or the “gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access ICTs and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities” (OECD, 2001:5). In 1999, the United Nations Human Development Report laid emphasis on the need to connect everyone to the Internet and ensure that all people had access to new communication technologies. It highlighted the potential of global communications but warned against greater marginalisation of those left out of the communications loop (HDR, 1999:63). There was a particular urgency to connect Africa because it was the continent considered to be the most marginalised and excluded region in the world (Fuchs and Horak, 2008:100).
Consequently the rhetoric around the digital divide shifted to focus on Africa. The past UN secretary General Kofi Annan encapsulates the thinking around the digital divide in a speech he made at the opening of an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) opening ceremony in 1999:
“Three days from now, the world’s population will pass the six billion mark. Five out of those six billion live in developing countries. For many of them, the great scientific and technical achievements of our era might as well be taking place on another planet… The capacity to receive, download and share information through electronic networks, the freedom to communicate freely across national boundaries – these must become realities for all people… These people lack many things: Jobs, shelter, food, healthcare and drinkable water. Today, being cut off from basic telecommunications services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations, and may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them” (Annan, 1999).
Annan expresses concern about people who have a myriad of challenges like limited job opportunities, poor shelter and healthcare. He perceives the access to telecommunication services, of which new media and ICTs are a part of, to be as important as drinkable water and food. In the last line of the speech he implies that the technologies are the solutions to some structural problems in Africa. His speech is another form of “ICT boosterism”, very similar to the rhetoric in the media articles I have reviewed. This is evidenced where he attempts to equate the lack of access to ICTs to the lack of a job, water and food. Since the delivery of his speech in 1999, the issue of the global divide is one that has elicited vast scholarly and media attention. It has become apparent that the digital divide is not a simplistic phenomenon and that it is not unique to the African context (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2003; Qureshi, 2014). Scholars like Van Dijk and Hacker (2003:316) have previously critiqued the assumption that the divide is easily bridged when everyone has access to a computer and a mobile phone. Van Dijk (1999) observes that the digital divide is about barriers to four successive kinds of access: Lack of elementary digital experience caused by lack of interest, computer anxiety, and unattractiveness of the new technology (mental access), no possession of computers and network connections (material access), lack of digital skills caused by insufficient user-friendliness and inadequate education or social support (skills access) and a lack of significant usage opportunities (usage access) (Van Dijk and Hacker, 2003:315).
In tandem with the above, Selwyn (2004) also argues it is important to distinguish between access to ICT and the use of ICT. He challenges the assumption that access to ICT inevitably leads to use and posits the goal to bridge the digital divide by providing access to ICTs is not sufficient “because use of ICT does not necessarily entail meaningful use of ICT or engagement which leads to a meaning, significance and utility for the individual concerned” (Selwyn, 2004:349). In the recent past, other scholars have critiqued the efforts of development agencies and donors to bridge the digital divide in the Global South (Wade, 2002; Luyt, 2004; Pieterse, 2010). For example, Wade critiques the campaign to bridge the digital divide in developing countries because of the proposal that “ICT has some inherent quality to leapfrog institutional obstacles such as skill and resource deficiencies on the ground” (Wade, 2002:445). He expresses concern that the developing countries of the Global South are at a disadvantage in the processes setting of international technology standards which could affect the costs of access and power dynamics. Additionally, he laments that the donor communities emphasis on ICT use overshadows other important investments and priorities such as improving crop varieties in Africa yet there is no evidence “of the benefits of investment in ICT infrastructure compared to education, health, roads, dams and industrial parks” (Wade, 2002:450).
In tandem with Wade, Luyt (2004) relays concern about the benefits of ICT use for the supposed beneficiaries of the Global South. He argues that that there are four groups that have an interest in the promotion of the digital divide issue in the Global South. They are “information capitalists who want new markets for their products, an educated workforce capable of producing the products, the state in the south benefits through the legitimation conferred through programs designed to combat the divide and the development industry also benefits as another gap has been opened up that requires their expertise”. Luyt’s (2004) assertions about the development industry are resonant with those of Pieterse (2005a, 2005b). He is critical of the development agencies such as the World Bank, G8 and the UNDP who have invested heavily in bridging the digital divide. Like Wade (2002) he argues that the means of bridging the digital divide may have the effect of locking developing countries into a new form of dependency on the Western world (Pieterse, 2005a: 14).
The above are excerpts from the Ph.D analysis of Dr. Faith N. Kibere (pictured left), who analyzed the application of ICTs and new media in the Kibera slum. She is the author of urbancritique – http://www.urbancritique.com/ (An exploration of diverse subjects related to the socio-cultural aspects of urban life).
Her very incisive Ph.D analysis, woke me from my techno-optimist slumber and framed a lot of the ICT4D rhetoric that is prevalent in Kenya and many Sub-Saharan countries currently. Our investment in ICT needs to be well informed and wise, the opportunity cost of improper investment is too costly to our nations. To realize maximum economic returns from ICT we need to concurrently develop its supporting ecosystem. We need focus on developing the sector and the industry. This will ensure our participation in the Technology and Digital Revolution and this will only occur by strengthening our pillars of the ICT ecosystem. This ecosystem approach to Development and ICT is what ICTbyDEV promotes.
Strengthening the ICT Ecosystem: Press the RESET button
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