ICT Policy for Development: Is there an elephant in the room?

Far too many developing countries, especially those located in sub-Sahara Africa, have failed to leverage ICTs for effective national development. Numerous national ICT policies have been developed, often with the help of very costly international consultants, and yet the results remain disappointing. Could this be due to a failure in ICT policy focus? Could the failure be attributed to poor policy implementation, or the failure of regulatory enforcement? Could it be the failure by governments to build trust and a shared vision with the national ICT industry? This blog briefly examines some of the key factors that may have led to ICT policy failures.

A very recent Google search for “ICT policies in Africa” returned 41,800,000 results, and another for “ICT policies in South Africa”, the continental economic leader, returned 25,000,000 results. And yet these millions of high quality knowledge articles, created by intelligent and competent Africans and their international development partners, have had little impact on the growth of humanity’s most powerful development tool. Vital ICT documents occupy valuable real estate in many African university libraries, and even in the offices of African ICT policy-makers, but they are seldom used to develop practical, implementable ICT policies.

There are of course a few exceptions, and a welcome change taking place in a few African countries, but on the whole, the record of ICT utilization, the end result of ICT policies, is dismal. There must be an elephant in the many conference rooms and offices in which Africa’s ICT policies are formulated. The beast remains invisible to most ICT policy architects in the continent, and yet its presence is known and felt by all. It feeds voraciously on the hard work of academics, bureaucrats, politicians, and all who participate in ICT policy formulation and ICT development. It’s massive yet invisible size obscures the capacities of whole governments to implement successfully the policies they formulate. The cost of this failure to their economies and societies is immeasurable.

How big is this elephant in developing nation’s ICT policy formulation rooms? The first step in answering this question is to first recognise that there is indeed an elephant in the room, and then to measure all its dimensions and attributes. There are enough locally generated and internationally published ICT performance indicators to obtain an excellent working approximation of the size of this elephant. Tables 1 and 2 suggest a useful starting point: regional growth comparisons between Africa, Asia (excluding Australia, Japan and New Zealand), Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), with the OECD countries included as a useful benchmark.

Table 1: Telephone Penetration

  1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Africa 0.41% 0.54% 0.88% 1.34% 2.42% 3.06%
Asia 0.05% 0.15% 0.48% 1.27% 7.26% 12.29%
LAC 1.27% 1.88% 3.93% 6.26% 14.67% 18.16%
OECD 12.1% 18.8% 31.2% 44.1% 57.0% 44.5%

Table 2: Internet user penetration (% population)

  1990 1995 2000 2005 2010
Africa 0.0% 0.0% 0.6% 3.7% 13.4%
Asia 0.0% 0.0% 2.0% 6.9% 20.3%
LAC 0.0% 0.2% 5.6% 20.9% 38.4%
OECD 0.4% 4.8% 35.2% 66.4% 81.2%

Table 1 reviews the 50-year growth history of main line telephones, an important indicator that demonstrates clearly the long-term failure of African ICT policies, but which also highlights an important impediment to development: main line telephone density is much more than just a measure of the quantity of Plain Old Telephones (POTS) – the low tech copper wires that enable POTS have been the principal launch pad for today’s broadband internet – the 21st century’s dial tone. The ADSL networks, which grew to provide nearly 80% of the world’s broadband access, represent an opportunity lost for many emerging economies. ADSL and its many new wired and wireless replacements can in our industry’s romance with acronyms and jargon be labelled PANS: Progressively Advancing Networks. The PANS have modernised their POTS ancestors; ICT policy-makers often forget that the VoIP services that are virtually free in PANS are nothing more than modern POTS in disguise. A single 1 Mbps ADSL service can provide 50+ VoIP POTS, but only if the elephant in the policy planning room allows it to do so.

Tables 1 and 2 examine the POTS and PANS that are used to feed whole nations and societies with the vital fruits of knowledge, which can determine the destinies of whole nations in this challenging modern global village. Their measure should be the starting points for national ICT policy formulation. But, of even greater importance than the measure of access to any and all the components of modern ICTs, is the elephant’s appetite to obfuscate the most critical feature of POTS and PANS in today’s knowledge society – their affordability. Too many developing nation ICT policies ignore the fact that if the modern book of knowledge, the internet and its user terminals, is beyond the affordability of most citizens, then those citizens will remain marginalized in the evolving global knowledge society. Africa for example, which has been the victim of extreme racial prejudice until recent years, strives for economic and social equality with its peers in developed nations, but that aspiration will remain an unachievable dream if the information and knowledge divide is not narrowed, by Africans themselves. All emerging nation policy-makers must recognise, and deal with the fact that the modern book of knowledge costs, in many cases, hundreds or thousand times the monthly incomes of the majority of their citizens. Affordability of the means of access to information and knowledge must become the foundation of all developmental ICT policies. Failure to ensure that access to information and knowledge is affordable by the majority of a nation’s citizens will increase internal and external socioeconomic inequalities, a sure and well-known recipe for disaster. As Plato observed some 2,500 years ago:

“We maintain that if a state is to avoid the greatest plague of all — I mean civil war, though civil disintegration would be a better term—extreme poverty and wealth must not be allowed to arise in any section of the citizen-body, because both lead to both these disasters”

If affordability became the only focus of ICT policy for development (ICTP4D as our incessant search for new acronyms demands), then marginalised developing nations that aspire to global equality will have gone a long way to realising that dream.

There is yet another level of obfuscation that the elephant in the ICT policy formulation room is very good at: the technological dimension. Far too many developing nation decision-makers and their international partners ignore the fundamental and historical nature of the interrelationships between all information delivery technologies. The academic discourse on ICT4D is awash with recipes like M4D (MOBS 4D?), mobiles for development, which furiously develop new software, and today, “APPS”, around a 40+ year-old technology, often ignoring the fact that airtime to use these “APPS” is so costly that dependence on them often drives already poor people deeper into abject poverty. The spread of mobile telephony in developing countries is of course most welcome, but ICT policy-makers must ensure that mobile telephony does not become a pyrrhic victory in the fight against information and knowledge exclusion.

There is much more obfuscation than even the critical affordability issue discussed above: the notion that wireless technologies, the whole range of 1.5G to 4G and beyond, are the only saving grace for developing nation’s seemingly intractable exclusion from the global information society. This is extremely dangerous thinking. At no time in the history of ICTs has there been an “either/or” choice between wired and wireless communication technologies. They have always been complimentary – today an entry point in greenfield territories via less costly wireless networks, but which depend on wired local and international backhaul networks; tomorrow fibre optic networks of unimaginable capacities and qualities, and which enable even newer, better, cheaper wireless services. The EU’s FUTON research project provides an excellent example of how this wired/wireless interrelationship is evolving (http://www.ict-futon.eu/). ICT policy-makers should endeavour to think themselves out of and beyond the vertical silos that define the ICT ecosystem of today, and embrace the converging technologies that will merge the existing broadcast, fixed telecoms, mobile telecoms, and internet silos, with immense economic, social, and human development benefits.

A last word on ICT convergence that must be understood, and built into emerging nation’s ICT policy formulation, exposing and destroying the elephant in the room. The internet, or more accurately the packet-switched network technologies, will be the sole information delivery platform of tomorrow. Today’s internet is itself evolving very rapidly – intense global debates about whether or not it should be re-designed from scratch in a “clean slate” approach to overcome its many known deficiencies, or re-designed in incremental “patches” to preserve its current value chains. The debates are further complicated by issues such as net neutrality, intellectual property issues, freedom of expression and choice, and much more. A growing number of nations, including the United Nations family, have classified the internet as a basic human right – a notion challenged by Vinton Cerf, an internet founding father, who suggests that it is the sharing of information and knowledge via the internet that is the human right, not the technology (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/opinion/internet-access-is-not-a-human...). These are vital global debates that must shape developing nation’s ICT policies, but first, national ICT policies must render use of the internet accessible and affordable, otherwise, these high level global debates will have little relevance to developing nations in their information isolation.