Inside the Information Society: Exploring Africa’s research priorities

Last week I participated in / facilitated a workshop on Africa’s research priorities for the Information Society. What follows are some thoughts arising.

The workshop was organised by Research ICT Africa, which has published some of the most interesting and in-depth analyses of Africa’s communications sector in the last decade. The findings from one strand of its work, its latest sets of household surveys, are now being published. Illuminating, not least because of what is unexpected in them.

This workshop ranged more widely.  It looked at four main themes – governance, rights, innovation and cybersecurity – but others constantly cut across these – access and infrastructure, inclusion and (in)equality, the digital economy. All of these issues are layered by differences between countries – far greater than’s assumed in much literature on ICT4D – and structural inequalities between men and women, urban and rural areas, etcetera.

Three points of background, then three looking forward.

The evidence base

The evidence base is weak and needs more interlinkage.  

The After Access household surveys, now complete, provide rich data on many issues from the seven countries so far covered in Africa, but they can't cover everything and everywhere. Their shelflife’s also limited. They need to be analysed in depth and soon, not just by RIA but by other users, if they’re to have maximum impact on understanding and on policy.

Data on access and usage, also, aren’t enough. We need data on impact. The impact that new media are having on economic and social behaviour. The impact of new forms of production, distribution and consumption – the digital economy – on economic prospects and economic welfare in different countries. The impact on equality and inclusion and the impact of inequality and non-inclusion – not just the gender digital divide, but the impact of the gender digital divide.

More research has actually been done around these areas in Africa than sometimes appears. It’s uncohesive, though, and poorly interlinked. Much could be gained by systematic assessment of literature of different types from different sources: scoping issues, mapping impacts. (See later.)

Challenging assumptions

Second, what evidence we have has challenged many assumptions that were once widely held – with important policy implications.

ICTs, we know now clearly, don’t necessarily lead to better or more equitable outcomes. The rich who left school later are better placed to take advantage than the poor who left school early. If we want to narrow digital divides, we need policy interventions that address structural as well as digital inequalities.

Communications access increases information access, sure, but not all content has developmental value (most does not) and some's plain wrong. (Encouraging online searching for health information’s fine if information’s accurate; not if it’s selling snakeoil or religious fundamentalism).

Digitalisation’s not enabled “leapfrogging”, as hoped by early advocates of ICT4D. Some countries (such as Kenya) have gained more from ICT investment than have others (and the reasons why need study), but twenty years of ICT investment and ICT4D have not enabled any to achieve the kind of surge in developmental status made by Asian “tigers” thirty years ago.

It’s hard for Africa to get involved in making international policy

Twenty years ago, DFID published a report I wrote with colleagues on the limited participation of developing countries (including Africa) in international standards and policy development. We called in that report for Louder Voices – I regretted, later, that we didn’t prefer Stronger – in the ITU, ICANN, WTO and elsewhere. We made proposals, some of which were implemented, some of which had impact.

But the situation overall’s not changed very much. Yes, African voices are now louder in some intergovernmental fora (ICANN GAC, WSIS and its reviews), but the number of multilateral and multistakeholder bodies discussing ICTs increases by the week. No stakeholder community in a small country can keep up; and there’s little involvement from non-commercial stakeholders in the important decisions that now happen within boardrooms. The risk, as I said last week, is that Africans will continue to be rule-takers, not rule-makers.

This challenge is exacerbated by another point familiar to readers of this blog: that ICTs are changing faster than our understanding of them or our capabilities of shaping them.  African voices are little heard in fora that establish standards, rules and norms for artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and other technological advances. Africa will, though, be affected by them. How can African countries – and organisations like the African Union Commission – inject their priorities, concerns and risks into the development of new technologies before they’re fixed in ways that don’t meet Africa’s priorities, concerns and risks?

An African research agenda

There was a lot of talk within the workshop about Africa’s research agenda. I don’t want to pre-empt what RIA itself will have to say, so will make just three points that struck me most.


We need to map more carefully and more coherently the research that's been done across the board. There’s a lot of research being published that’s not made full use of at present. More needs to be made of that; less of some widely-published research with poor methodologies. Mapping what’s there and what’s effective should also help improve coherence and methodological integrity in future.

I’d add that more research is needed into challenging environments – small countries, LDCs, countries in conflict – alongside that in those where research is relatively easy.  Findings from the latter aren’t necessarily translatable. Context matters; and contexts differ. Effective programmes build on this; poor ones ignore it.

Some issues need more focus now

Some issues were thoroughly discussed within the workshop.  I’ll point to three.

First, cybersecurity (see also recent posts). African economies are vulnerable if cybersecurity is weak, while African vulnerabilities can be exploited to weaken global cybersecurity. Fixes made in rich industrial countries won’t work effectively unless they’re also well-deployed in poor developing ones. Capacity-building’s only part of this. Those who’re developing “solutions” (how I hate that word!) need to listen to and engage with African voices, African requirements and African risks if they’re to understand them. More research, then, into cybersecurity challenges in Africa.

Second, the digital economy. Long vaunted, increasingly apparent. It’s clear it doesn’t offer magic fixes for Africa’s economies, especially those with poor capital markets, underskilled labour markets and high levels of dependence on commodities. Facilitating the digital economy may not achieve great gains in trade, but not facilitating it’s likely to prove negative. We need much more research on what digital economic developments are actually doing to Africa's (differing) economies, and how these are changing year-on-year. Including global platforms like Uber and Mechanical Turk. Including issues of taxation and economic power.  

Third, regulation (including regulation of communications markets). One of RIA’s strengths throughout the time that I’ve worked with it has been its understanding and analysis of regulation. More research is needed into what impacts different regulatory strategies may have – on communications investment and infrastructure deployment, but also on wider social and economic outcomes. (What impact, for example do different broadband pricing levels have on adoption, on behaviour, on commercial use?) With the aim of improving the quality of regulatory interventions in what the World Bank calls ‘analogue complements’ to ICT4D.

Some in the Internet world see any regulation as interference in the Internet’s agility. National governments, commercial and individual users, however, have an interest in regulation to curtail market dominance and abuse of data; perhaps also to foster innovations with developmental value. Maybe it’s time to look again at multistakeholder approaches to regulation (about which I wrote some twenty years ago).

Research to policy – and policy to research

Last, I’d want to reinforce RIA’s approach – undertaking rigorous research; analysing findings in their different contexts; developing policy recommendations that have wide validity and are adaptable to different contexts and to changing times. Such policy recommendations need to address ICTs within diverse social and economic ecosystems and within broader policies for sustainable, inclusive development. Poverty reduction’s still a bigger goal than smartphone distribution.

And the relationship between research and policy should not be one-directional. Impacts of policies need to be researched. Policy design should facilitate evaluation. Without that, lessons won’t be learnt and poor policy design will be perpetuated.

In conclusion

We need more data, more understanding and more evidence-based policymaking for ICTs and ICT4D in Africa. Research and policy need to rely less on old assumptions and put more emphasis on different contexts. Future work on Africa's digital policies should address these shortfalls in a spirit of enquiry, free of vested interest. RIA's new Africa Digital Policy Project, funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), will play an important part in this.

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David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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