KIT-Logo Christopher Coenen, Ulrich Riehm

Development Through Electronic Networks
Information and Communication Technologies in Africa

Berlin: Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB), 2009
Series: Technology Assessment Studies Series, No 1, 272 pages

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From time to time, one still encounters dismissive reactions when Africa is mentioned in the same breath as modern information and communication technologies. Perceptions of the »black continent« have been profoundly marked by standard clichés: to the traditional racist images of primitive, instinct-driven and technologically backward natives and a population apathetically enduring the worst famines have been added new images of horror that draw their persuasive power from phenomena such as the mass murders in the Sudan and the continuing massive spread of Aids, as well as from worrying developments like the unchecked growth of the continentís major cities. To counter an image of Africa constructed from such elements, current political arguments seek to emphasise above all the manifold processes of democratisation and modernisation that are at work. In addition, a more nuanced view of African cultures has brought globally relevant aspects of sub-Saharan traditions into the publicís field of vision.

Focusing on Africa south of the Sahara, this report, entitled »Development Through Electronic Networks«, discusses ways in which modern information and communication technologies and, above all, the Internet can contribute to social development. Rather than expressing unfounded optimism, the report explains how difficult the current overall situation is in this region of the world and how great the obstacles still are to sensible utilisation of modern information and communication technology. At the same time, however, to counter the pessimistic cliché of perpetual African backwardness and passivity, the report highlights the diverse use of information and communication technologies in this region and discusses the extent to which these may be able to help improve the lives of the African populations and reform their societies and political systems.

A considerable dynamism has long since been apparent, and not only in those fields of application of information and communication technologies which have formed the particular focus of the study (democratisation, the economy, education and research); such a dynamism might enable sub-Saharan Africa to secure an appropriate position in the evolving global information society. One may cite many examples of this, from the active role played by African states and nongovernmental organisations in international political activities and discussions around this theme, via the variety of ways in which African businesses and civil society actors are adopting modern information and communication technologies, to the efforts being made through development co-operation. The opportunities and challenges that co-operation with sub-Saharan Africa presents in this context are also a central theme of this report. The numerous possible courses of action that are presented and discussed in the study, however, are proposed against the backdrop of a detailed and wide-ranging analysis of current use of the Internet and of other information and communication technologies.

Just how inaccurate the defeatist images are that portray Africa as a lost and technophobic continent wallowing in its own misery is shown, among other things, by the developments of recent months, during which a variety of efforts to improve broadband cable links have been gathering momentum. For example, following long and complicated negotiations, the »Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System« (EASSy) project, targeting Eastern Africa (including some inland areas), has overcome some important hurdles. Not least thanks to German support, all the necessary promises of finance have now been given, small African providers have been engaged and production of the cable has begun. As far as the much-discussed »100 dollar laptop« is concerned, which its proponents expect will constitute nothing short of a revolution, in Africa as elsewhere, in the use of information and communication technologies for education, a promising start has been made, although, as the study predicted, a certain ambivalence towards the project and a lack of clarity as to which players will be involved have become manifest. Set against the growing interest shown by some global information technology companies is the disillusionment of idealistic supporters and a growing political scepticism in Africa. While large-scale projects of this type often run the risk of forcing the populations of developing countries into mere spectator roles, the sub-Saharan Internet public sphere that was thoroughly analysed in the study has continued to grow. This Internet public sphere not only provides a commentary on advances and setbacks in the area of information and communication technologies, but has once again, during recent political events in the region, shown itself to be an important factor in the debate within Africa and in informing the global public.

Overall, the study shows that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the areas in which development through electronic networks is both possible and ripe for implementation. If the complex reality of this region of the world is not ignored in a wave of excessive optimism and if dubious panaceas are avoided, modern information and communication technologies, and particularly the Internet, can make important contributions to social development.

Berlin, July 2008


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