ICT Policy in critical need of attention in Africa
ICT’s potential for political, social and economic transformation of society is not contested and Africa is exploding with a desire to be connected to the rest of the world more than ever. There is evidence that many countries on the continent are investing in ICT in order to reap the benefits. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, the continent must claim and capture its space necessitating more investments in the sector. Technological advancements like the internet have digitally broken the geographical, physical, political and even sociological divide, transforming the world into a ‘Global Village’. Cyber crime is progressively increasing, calling for regulated and guided interventions to address ICT related issues. The utilization of hardware, software and e-applications is on the rise in both the public and private sector; again calling for proper laws and guidelines for utilization that over and above do not infringe on the basic human rights including right to communicate or privacy.
The region presents a mixed fact sheet in progress in embracing and investing in ICT with some countries having a long way to go while significant progress has been made in in others including implementation of ICT policies and plans. However what is clear is that ICT policy is more urgent than ever before on the continent and all African countries must ensure that this remains priority given its potential for accelerated transformation of society. It is also critical to protect people’s right to access to information and their information by those already in the system in terms of what information can be transferred.
It must be noted however that African governments need to appreciate and ensure that the basic rights within the ICT policy agenda are respected. ICT policy is indeed about access and fundamental rights and civil liberties. Every citizen on the continent should have access and use the internet and other media. The continent has seen increased investments in the telecommunication and the number of people with and using mobile phones has grown tremendously. Beyond reaching out to family and friends, citizens and the wider civil society must understand and engage on ICT policy issues in their own country and must be empowered to use ICT as a vehicle to hold leaders accountable and promote democratic governance including fighting corruption and other leakages in governments and demanding for better service delivery. Of course in many countries in Africa, when one challenges the status quo, this is most times met by strong resistance from governments including unfavorable legislation to curtail any citizen action and mechanisms through which this can be achieved including ICT. There have been cases of governments shutting down internet, face book, telecommunications, radio and TV stations particularly in instances of citizen demonstrations over different concerns. Mobile phone sms is for instance being increasingly used by civil society to mobilise citizens for action and more importantly provide needed information to those that can not access the information easily and in real time. However, in some countries, there is emerging restriction on the content of messages to be sent. Unfortunately, and perhaps out of fear of their own governments and of blacklisting them, some media firms , sms technology platforms refuse to accept messages through their channels calling for social justice, accountability and p[participation. Civil society and media should resist through dialogue, advocacy and lobbying any effort to frustrate utilization of ICT. More civil society organizations must engage in matters to do with ICT policy with the intent to advocate for an information society that fosters social justice and human rights in Africa. ICT policy is such an important aspect of development to be left to politicians, decision makers and governments. It is critical that the ordinary citizens access ICT and are empowered to use it in a manner that meets their needs. Of course it is important to note the fact that people also need to be sensitized and awareness created on the dangers of using and submitting information via the many channels. For instance as internet banking grows in the region, safety is of critical concern to curtail fraud. In the African context, the need for awareness is very real as the expansion of IT continues. Governments on the other hand must recognize that ICT is about basic human rights and any attempt to infringe on these rights for governments’ own interests such as regime consolidation and frustration of citizen demand for accountability; cannot be accepted.
The largest percentage of the population in Africa is youth; who are unemployed – creating a time bomb in many countries. Yet it is well known that it is the youth that have embraces ICT more. ICT in Africa must address and target this young population, providing information and tools that can be used by them to build careers, create and explore opportunities and their own innovations.
Critical Areas of Intervention
Several countries do not yet have ICT policies in place and those that have them are not implementing them for instance to the extent of mainstreaming them in other existing policies and development frameworks at the national level. Indeed it is critical to also dig deeper in developing specific policies to govern specific areas of the sector. There must be a legal framework that enhances ICT access and utilization as regulation is not a deterrent. Governments must also address issues to do with IT infrastructure, human resource development, security and data integrity at all levels.
Fostering citizen participation in the formulation, development, implementation, monitoring and review of ICT policy is central to the success of the sector. People play a strong role in the development of any country and have the right and duty to participate. It is therefore important that mechanisms for this to happen are in place and remain open. However effective participation and engagement will be achieved through first raising awareness on the importance of ICT among citizens and civil society
Campaigns against emerging unfavorable restrictions and regulation in ICT should be undertaken in the spirit of demanding for basic human rights including freedom of expression, right to privacy, right to communicate etc. Countries and governments that have a wrong perception on ICT and its utility by citizens should be engaged to respect these rights. Identification of good practices from other regions and contextualizing them to the Africa environment is critical.
Human Rights and the Internet
The internet has provided a platform for citizens to actualize their right to access to information and freedom of expression. This has resulted into a civic conscious citizenry demanding for openness and accountability from their governments. The internet has also provided space for masses in many countries to stand up for their rights and be heard. It has been has been very instrumental in exposing horrific experiences of human rights violation often in real time. The UN recently declared access to the internet as a right and as it is the case with right to water, right food etc; it is critical that governments ensure that their citizens enjoy this right.