ICT policy in Africa: a lot still to be done

ICT policy in Africa: a lot still to be done

In this blog I argue that there is a critical need for ICT policy in Africa because ICT policy in Africa is in many respects closely linked with overcoming the digital divide. Both private investors and increasingly, public donors are not yet ready to invest in countries without a proper institutional and legal environment for internet development. ICT policy in Africa should facilitate the establishment of efficient telecommunication market with more competition, lower costs, and a wider range of services provided.

Before I elaborate on why I have come to this conclusion, for the purposes of this blog I understand policy as a set of principles, guidelines or rules that guide decisions. Policy can be in written format or can be discerned from the actions or inactions of, in this case, governments. Further, I also identify with Souter’s assertion that ICT policy covers three broad ranges of components information and communication technologies, networks, services, markets and the relationships between the different actors involved in these.

ICT policy is in critical need of attention in Africa

I believe ICT policy needs critical attention in Africa. However, this assertion needs to be put in context. The first issue is that ICTs have been utilized in Africa for a long time and African governments have, one way or the other been grappling with this matter through policies whether formalized or informal. Before one can adequately deal with this issue, it must be stated that most African countries do have ICT policies. The question is whether they are being implemented adequately or not. Other questions relate to how progressive or retrogressive these policies are and whether they are in keeping with the fast developing pace of the global ICT sector.

It is a well established fact that telecommunications infrastructure and services, in the age of information and transnational communication, are linchpins of a healthy, growing economy. ICT is the backbone of business activity, productivity, trade and social development. For developing countries in Africa, effective implementation of ICT policies is a precondition to the emergence of a strong market economy. The growth of industries and enhancement of social activities is dependent not only on adequate skilled labour but also effective implementation of ICT policies.

To take these issues further let’s look at existing ICT policies. While African countries have adequate policies with respect to telecommunication technologies, they are found wanting when it comes to implementation. This is largely due to the context in Africa which is driven political imperatives and generally poor infrastructure, literacy, poverty and unequal gender relations.

In South Africa, for example, where you have the first world and the third coexisting, the gap between the rich and the poor is huge. This scenario is also mirrored in terms of access to ICTs. The poor are marginalized in terms of access to wealth and access to information via ICTs. In that sense, there is a huge chasm between the lofty ideals articulated in the very progressive South African constitution and its supporting legislation and the current situation obtaining in the country. This resonates well to what is happening to other African countries.

A similar but slightly different context obtains in Zimbabwe. Apart from the gap between the rich and the poor as well as poor infrastructure, the political situation and imperatives for those who have control of power is to ensure that the general populace has no access to information. For example, several people have been arrested for badmouthing the president of the country on their social networking pages. Such actions are a hindrance of free speech and the right to access accurate information in order to make informed decisions. In general limited financial resources, poor institutional capability, inadequate access to human resources and technological know –how plague Africa’s attempts to harness ICTs.

In terms of growth the Bretton Woods institutions have predicted that Africa is the future. Most countries in Southern Africa have seen unprecedented economic growth rates in the last decades. With growth rates between 5 and 10%, and Angola being the world’s fastest growing economy at an average 11.1% between 2001 – 2010, Africa has been one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. The distribution of wealth within the population however is unequal, with Income Gini-Coefficients of Angola and South Africa being amongst the highest worldwide. But the reality on the ground is that the wealth had not filtered to the people on the ground. The vast majority of African nations mainly participate in the ICT industry as consumers of equipment and services as opposed to Western countries. Because of these environmental factors and the macroeconomic and social variations between Africa and other regions, ICT policy is in critical need of attention in Africa to promote social justice.

We should also pay critical attention to ICT policy in Africa because national ICT policies influence global debates on international cooperation. ICT policies encourage the active participation of the individual nations on global processes where issues that affect the implementation strategies and national development are discussed. However for Africans to participate effectively there is a need to raise awareness on ICT policy issues so that Africa-specific issues and challenges are raised and catered for in the global forum.

Future ICT policy interventions

For most Africans internet access is a little more than a pipe dream. The majority lack computers, training and the economics essential to affording new technology. Frequent referral to universal access in the preambles of national declarations without the necessary political and financial support renders it a vague principle of little practical relevance. Tied to access are infrastructure issues. The existence of a telecommunication infrastructure facilitates access, the first pre-condition for overcoming the digital divide. Due to limited infrastructure and bandwidth, regulators of African countries need to put more focus on fair usage policy – affordable prices and fair access for all.

We need to focus not only on human rights but also on the protection of human rights advocates who use the internet that highlight violations against fundamental freedoms. We have witnessed the arbitrary arrest, harassment and torture of human rights defenders particularly in countries in conflict and or transition.

The dual character of ICTs — their ability to simultaneously produce economic benefits and social dislocation — forces us to take a critical look at ICT policy in Africa – because without a gender perspective the potential benefits of ICTs may bypass girls and women. The economic benefits for girls and women in terms of enhanced income-generation opportunities, employment, and improved quality of life are tremendous, but because technologies are not gender neutral, Africa needs to be concerned with advocating ICT strategies to reduce and manage the potential for ICTs to create economic and social exclusion and reinforce existing social disparities.

Moreover, it is critical to acknowledge that all these issues can only be accomplished when there is sufficient capacity on the African continent to understand broader ICT policy issues and their implications for economic growth and the creation of more equitable societies.

Human rights and the internet

A basic set of internet related human rights includes privacy, freedom of expression, the right to receive information, various rights protecting cultural, linguistic, and minority diversity, and the right to education. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in the Internet Rights Charter argues that the internet related human rights are strongly embodied in the UN human rights system based on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and other related instruments. The internet is a medium of expression hence the applicability of these other rights. The internet provides the gateway to other freedoms, notably freedom of expression and therefore access to internet can be, practically, inseparable from the rights themselves. Internet access is inseparable from freedom of expression and its lesser spotted cousin, freedom of access to information. Our rights need to protected offline and online. Elevating the internet to the status of an inalienable right may result in increased opportunity for all Africans, and the end of hostilities based upon ignorance. We also need to make practical point of defining internet access as a human right otherwise governments will it easier to place restrictions on access or even shut it down entirely. This is particularly relevant given the widely cited role of the internet and specifically social media in recent political revolutions like the Arab Spring.

In conclusion, there is every reason to focus on policy and ensuring that exiting policies are reviewed and implemented vigorously. This will ensure that the fruits of socio economic growth, if any, are equitably distributed.