Dear GKD Members, Pertinent to our current discussion is the following article, forwarded from the Togo-L list, which delineates the problems as seen from an African perspective.
Don Osborn ********************************** Africa Takes On the Digital Divide Africa Recovery (New York) ANALYSIS October 23, 2003 By Gumisai Mutume New York New information technologies change the lives of those in reach Across Africa, new information technologies are rapidly changing the lives of a small but growing number of people. In rural Togo a farmer gets real-time information on market prices in the capital, Lomé, through a cellular phone. In Accra, Ghana, entrepreneurs who in the past were not able to get a dial tone on their land-line telephones can now connect immediately using Internet telephony, technology that allows phone calls to be made through the Internet. And in Niger, the Bankilare Community Information Centre downloads audio programmes from the African Learning Channel and rebroadcasts them on local radio. So far, these are some of the few, fortunate Africans. For most people even making a telephone call is still a remote possibility in an era when most of the world is now communicating almost instantly across cities, regions and the globe using wireless and satellite technologies to send high-speed electronic messages. Africa has the fewest telephone lines, radios, television sets, computers and Internet users of any part of the world. These tools, used to package and transmit information and knowledge, are broadly referred to as information and communications technologies (ICTs). The gap between those with access to ICTs and those without is generally referred to as the "digital divide." It is most extreme in Africa, where in 2001, out of 800 million people, only 1 in 4 had a radio, 1 in 13 a television set, 1 in 40 a telephone and 1 out of 130 a computer. The divide widens in Africa's countryside, where a lack of roads, telephone lines and electricity separates the rural majority from their urban counterparts. Bridging the digital divide "The digital gap brings with it a danger of isolating certain peoples, those in Africa in particular," says Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. "It is paradoxical and ironic that the continent which invented writing . . [is] excluded from universal knowledge." In December, President Wade will be popularizing his "digital solidarity" programme at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to be held in Geneva, Switzerland. Under the programme, technologically advanced nations would commit to assisting poorer ones. A country can express solidarity, for example, by signing onto a digital charter committing itself to "a specified, quantified action for the benefit of countries where the rate [of Internet access] is lower than a given level," explains President Wade. A digital solidarity fund should be set up to pay for ICT projects in poor countries, he says, financed by "raising large amounts of money collected painlessly because the contributions are so small." Levies of one US cent could be charged on every international call or one dollar on the purchase of each personal computer or software package. African leaders looking for ways to bridge the digital divide between their region and the rest of the world see the WSIS as an opportunity to obtain international commitments to extend information and communications technologies to the majority of their people. The summit is expected to adopt a plan of action to close the gap between the "haves" and "have nots" of information technology. At its summit in July, the African Union passed a resolution stressing the "importance of the information society on economic, socio-political and cultural development and the strategic objectives of developing countries." The second part of WSIS will be held from 16-18 November 2005, in Tunisia, which first proposed holding the meeting to promote the use of ICTs to overcome poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by world leaders in 2000. Extending the arm of technology Low bandwidth (the amount of data transmitted through a communications line) and expensive call charges characterize most of Africa's telecommunications facilities. An analysis of Internet use can give a representative picture of the ICT situation in Africa, says Mr. Mike Jensen, an independent ICT consultant based in South Africa, since connecting to the Internet involves different individual ICT components such as computers, telephones and satellites. By mid 2002, 1.7 million Africans had dial-up Internet services, 1.2 million of them in South Africa and North Africa alone. Assuming that three-to-five people use each Internet-connected computer, notes Mr. Jensen, it is possible that 5-8 million Africans have access to the Internet. In sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), there are some 1.5-2.5 million users - one in every 250-400 people, compared to 1 in 15 people in the rest of the world. In North America and Europe, 1 in every 2 people has access to the Internet. Given that timely access to news and information can promote trade, education, employment, health and wealth, "too many of the world's people remain untouched by this revolution," says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "The stakes are high indeed." Africa has, however, made significant improvements in telecommunications over the past few years. The number of land telephone lines increased from 12.5 mn in 1995 to 21 mn in 2001, mostly, Mr. Jensen states, due to a regional push to deregulate the sector. There has been a rapid increase in the number of public phone booths and community telecommunications centres or tele-centres, he says. In Senegal, "there are over 10,000 commercially run public telephone bureaus, employing 15,000 people and generating over 30 per cent of the entire [telephone] network's revenue." Many African countries are increasingly leapfrogging old technologies and avoiding the expense of laying land lines. As a result wireless technologies and mobile phones are becoming the preferred means of communication. In 2001 there were an estimated 24 mn mobile phones in Africa compared to 21 mn fixed-line phones. With the number of users doubling every year, "Africa is now the fastest growing cellular market in the world," says Mr. Muriuki Mureithi, chief executive officer at Summit Strategies, a Kenya-based telecommunications consultancy. Information as a human right One of the major issues to be discussed at the WSIS in December is the right to communicate. Civil society groups in Africa say that as countries rush to privatize infrastructure, they are forgetting people's rights to communicate. While no universal definition of this right yet exists, civil society groups say it entails guaranteeing everyone access to affordable communications tools. To achieve this, governments need to strike a balance between strengthening public communications facilities, often the only means of communication for poor and rural dwellers, and commercialization, notes the African Civil Society Caucus, a group of African non-governmental organizations participating in the WSIS. "The right to communicate is a familiar one to African people and we assert that it is a fundamental human right that should be seen as the platform on which a global information society is built," notes the caucus. The group says that most of the technology being developed is very expensive, putting even basic communications beyond the reach of the poor. The caucus is also calling on African governments to support the creation of African-language computer programmes to enable the majority of Africans, who do not speak English or French, to be able to participate. To facilitate universal access, Africa needs to be innovative in its use of tele-centres, says Mr. Adama Samassekou, Mali's former education minister and now president of the Preparatory Committee of the WSIS. Tele-centres allow many people to share ICT resources. "There is no need for each to have his own computer," he says. The continent could also learn from other developing regions that are producing cheap, affordable computers to broaden access. "We have good initiatives taking place in the South, like in India, the 'simputer' - simple computer - and Brazil has its popular Computadora," Mr. Samassekou told Africa Recovery. The simputer is a low-cost, hand-held device developed by Indian engineers to take the Internet to the rural masses. And the Computadora is a bare-bones machine without "frills" such as floppy disks, costing about $300 and referred to by ICT experts as "a PC for the people, a Volkscomputer." ICT for development Much of the drive to expand ICT access stems from the belief that such technologies are tools for development. While there are divergent views over the nature and scope of the contribution they can make, there is widespread acknowledgement that ICTs can extend services such as health care to poor communities. In South Africa, a tele-medicine project at Tygerberg Children's Hospital in Cape Town, launched in 1996, links its medical experts to three hospitals in underprivileged districts. In 1994, the new government inherited a system which directed most public health funds to urban, often whites-only hospitals. District hospitals and clinics - responsible for primary care in towns and rural areas populated by black people - were under-resourced. Today, most specialists continue to work in urban areas. Patients requiring specialized treatment must either travel for hundreds of kilometres or be treated by practitioners with only general training and experience. Experts at Tygerberg shorten the distance between them and their rural patients by using a computer, printer, scanner and digital camera. Through a dial-up connection the district hospital's doctors scan x-rays and electro-cardiographs and e-mail them, together with blood test results and digital photographs, to Tygerberg where a diagnosis is made and relayed back to the district hospital. In Zimbabwe, the Kubatana project, a website linking 230 civil and community-based groups, provides information on new legislation, the electoral system and voter registration procedures, as well as major social issues confronting the country, such as HIV/AIDS. Owners of the website describe their work as "electronic activism." Users say the network is particularly useful given the current clampdown on the media in Zimbabwe. It reaches out to Zimbabweans who do not have computers at home or at work through the growing number of public Internet facilities emerging across the country. During major rights campaigns, members of the network have asked those with computers to print campaign material and hand it out or post it to those without access. A "friendship tree" - a contact list of about 100 Zimbabweans - is activated by owners of the site every time an activist is arrested to ensure that witnesses are available to monitor the court proceedings. "One of the most powerful things we can do in situations of chaos is to become a witness," Ms. Bev Clark, one of the founders of Kubatana, notes in a series of case studies on ICTs conducted by the International Institute for Communication and Development, a non-profit foundation based in the Netherlands. Perhaps the most popular development use of ICTs in Africa is in education. "Virtual" universities and other institutions are springing up to meet the challenge of providing education to a growing number of students with limited resources. Less well known are attempts to use ICTs to rehabilitate child ex-combatants. Among its education promotion activities in 30 African countries, SchoolNet Africa, an independent organization based in South Africa, trains former child soldiers in Angola, Liberia and Rwanda. By next year the programme will have reached more than 100 children in the three countries, equipping them with computer skills and providing psychological counselling. In Sierra Leone, more than 200 young people affected by war have participated in a project run by the non-governmental International Education and Research Network. Their multi-media showcase on the Internet includes essays, images and music "that tells of the human toll of our civil war," says Mr. Andrew Greene, a volunteer trainer at the project. He says the inaccessibility of the Internet in his country has been the biggest challenge facing the project. "This exercise is painstaking as we must hire a bus to get access to the Internet" in urban areas. When they cannot hire a bus, the students walk and then often have to queue up for hours waiting for computers at Internet cafes. The project has touched the hearts of many people around the world, says Mr. Greene. He adds, "the UN office of displaced persons is considering it as a potential model for use in four additional parts of the world that have been affected by war," Cambodia, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Uganda. Seeking political mileage In South Africa a group of academics recently launched an online Northern Sotho-English dictionary - the first of its kind - to help develop a language, one of South Africa's 11 official ones, that has historically been neglected. In Uganda, an online counselling service was launched in May to train teachers and students to counsel young people in HIV prevention and care. But many local ICT initiatives such as these are hindered by the lack of broader national strategies. Over the last decade, African leaders have adopted declarations and resolutions to speed the development of information technology on the continent. In 1996, the Organization of African Unity adopted the Africa Information Society Initiative as the guiding framework for ICT efforts in Africa. Under the initiative, heads of state agreed that their countries would develop national ICT policies and strategies. Many have yet to do so. Last year, at a regional African conference in Bamako, Mali, to prepare for the WSIS, a declaration urged African countries to remove duties levied on ICT hardware and software until the second phase of WSIS in Tunis in 2005. Many countries are yet to comply. Governments blame the lack of action on a shortage of resources, especially financial. African leaders continue to seek ways around this. The continent's new development framework, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) places ICTs among eight priority sectors. Under NEPAD, African governments pledge to double the number of telephone lines in Africa by 2005, lower costs and improve reliability of communications services. To implement the ICT goals of NEPAD, an e-Africa Commission has been set up by continental leaders, chaired by Mr. Alpha Oumar Konaré, former Malian president and current chairman of the Commission of the African Union. He is proposing a "debt for connectivity" programme whereby rich countries agree to write-off at least 1 per cent of the total debt of every African country each year and place it into a common ICT fund. Last year, sub-Saharan Africa's total debt was $204 bn. "The burden that Africa drags upon its feet, and that prevents it from taking off, is debt, always debt," says Mr. Konaré. Sometimes the problem is simply poor government planning, notes Mr. Fred Kofi de Heer-Mensah of the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration. He says that the continent's Internet development is often hindered by measures taken by governments. A few years ago, the previous Ghanaian government jailed the heads of a number of leading Internet service providers. Although they were later exonerated, they had been accused of breaking telephone regulations by allowing subscribers to make phone calls over the Internet. Internet service providers, often using high-speed satellite links, were able to provide their clients with extremely cheap telephone call rates, even on international calls, competing for revenue with regular phone companies. "Internet telephony is changing the whole power structure," says Mr. Francis Quartey, chief technology officer of Intercom Data Network and one of those jailed. "The dangerous thing is that the power elite are responding out of fear and ignorance." It is also poor government strategy that results in expensive charges for communication, says Mr. de Heer-Mensah. In many countries, computers and cellular phones are defined as luxury items and are taxed heavily. Many poorer African countries charge steep levies for Internet access, while the relatively well-off ones, such as South Africa, provide cheap, even free Internet access for academic institutions, he says. Cheap access can stimulate the development of local content for the Internet and in turn generate a local audience. In South Africa, dial-up rates can be as low as $5 a month, affordable for most urban dwellers. In other countries, the monthly rates can exceed $30. Surprisingly, he says, "these are the countries with all sorts of control mechanisms." To deal with its daunting challenges, Africa will need more candid and vigorous dialogue between ordinary citizens and their leaders. According to Mr. Joseph Okpaku, president of Telecom Africa Corporation, a US company, Africa faces two choices: "We go on engaging in pat conversations which, while preserving our image, allow our problems to fester. Or we find the courage to address our critical problems." ------------ This DOT-COM Discussion is funded by the dot-ORG USAID Cooperative Agreement, and hosted by GKD. http://www.dot-com-alliance.org provides more information. 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