Africa slouches into the information age

Southern African nations are entering the modern information age by hammering out policies to coordinate the growth of information and communications technologies (ICT) in their countries.

”It is our mandate and responsibility to ensure that people in Africa do not remain consumers of the products of technology, but also are effective players and partners in the global economy,” said Elizabeth Lwanga, a Resident Representative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Swaziland.

”Technology is a wonderful tool that can be valuable for development and for education. However, for decades, this resource has been enjoyed only by those who are able to afford it, and in Africa usually by those who are in urban centres,” Lwanga said.

The goal of Africa’s developing nations is to create an ICT infrastructure — computers in schools and community centres, a stable and cheap means of internet communication — to benefit all.

More than 350-million people, over 50% of Africa’s population, live below the poverty line of one US dollar a day, according to the World Bank.

The Economic Commission of Africa, a UN body based in Ethiopia, is monitoring national ICT policies, and will have a year-end review in Geneva.

Countries like Swaziland are scrambling to put in place a policy that will be consistent with other nations for presentation at the meeting.

”No nation wishes to be left out, because even in Africa, services reliant on computers are of growing importance to national economies. Tourism, for instance, is a golden sustainable industry, and depends on such things as e-mail bookings and internet advertising,” says Zola Mthetwa, an information consultant from Nelspruit.

Uganda has one of the broadest and most detailed ICT policies, covering e-business (commerce conducted over the internet), software development (computer programming tailored to local needs) and manufacturing. The latter is a skill and capital-intensive industry, but again national policymakers wish to emphasise the value of promoting such a business.

Developing its ICT policy, Uganda assembled information from development sectors like health, education, agriculture, energy, environment and science, and created a national profile of how each would benefit from ICT.

Because capital and investment is needed to create information industries, government looked at privatisation and lowering trade barriers.

The Ugandan phone system was privatised in 1996 to make the country’s ICT more attractive to investors. Following this model, Swaziland decided to privatise its government-owned phone system. The process is currently underway.

Uganda now has an ICT agency that coordinates ”infrastructure rollout,” as new technology is introduced to all parts of the country. Government and development-oriented non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also coordinating their information technologies.

”It is so easy to create a tower of Babel, where different groups are unable to communicate because of incompatible equipment. This is where a national ICT policy, regulation and dialogue are important. We can’t afford to waste money on faulty technology,” says Bruce Netter, an ICT consultant for African governments and private sector companies.

Swaziland’s new media policy is development oriented, seeing ICT as a means to raise standards of living.

”That seems like a tall order for information technology to fill. Such development in the past has come from traditional industries like mining and agriculture. But the media, increasingly the internet, is opening new opportunities,” says Netter.

Nothing can be accomplished without good communications. This basic reality is at the heart of African countries’ move toward ICT policies, from larger nations like South Africa that have these in place already, to less affluent countries like Mozambique where they are under consideration.

Policymakers feel that the link between the media and poverty alleviation is clear — news stories and internet communication publicise crises as well as opportunities, and draw assistance or business investment accordingly.

The Economic Commission of Africa feels that within a year, nearly all nations will have ICT policies in place to coordinate development of communications technologies as key tools to use for development.

South Africa, which has 150 internet servers and about 3,1-million users, is the most advanced ICT nation in Africa. This contrasts sharply with Lesotho, which has one internet server and 5 000 users; and Uganda, which has two internet servers and 60 000 users; as well as Swaziland which has three internet servers and

about 3 000 people connected to the web. – Sapa-IPS

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James Hall
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