Is information food for society?

In Accra, Ghana, the Africa regional preparatory conference for the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) recently came to an end, and the mood seems positive. 

If you haven’t head about the WSIS, I wouldn’t be surprised, so here is a short rundown of what it’s all about.

In late 2001, the United Nations endorsed the holding of the summit in two phases. The first phase started in December 2003 in Geneva, and the second phase starts in Tunis at the end of this year.

The goal in Geneva was to gather political commitment to undertake the steps necessary to create a common “information society” across 175 countries.

The WSIS website talks about “bridging the digital divide” using information and communication technology (ICT) as a generally accepted objective of this process.

The site says “if universal access is the foundation of a true information society, capacity building is its motor. The declaration acknowledges that only by inspiring and educating populations unfamiliar with the internet and its powerful applications will the fruit of universal access ripen.”

That fruit had better be edible. Whenever someone talks about bringing better technology to Africa I can’t help thinking to myself that you can’t eat bandwidth, and that you can’t use the internet to filter water.

I am not suggesting communication infrastructure is unimportant for development, which would be foolish. My criticism of this process is the mood and style of it all.

Firstly, it costs lots of money to run a process like this, which could have been put to better use.

Secondly, it smacks of “First World, we rule, follow us because we got it right” evangelism. Are people in the United States really more educated or enlightened because they have access to information? Think about whom they voted for, or the frequent stories about the confusion between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in American households.

Thirdly, what use is the internet to people who earns less than $1 a day? Are they going to form online communities to discuss their impoverishment and work out a plan, or are they going to sell their PCs so their children can eat?

I could go on but I won’t. Just remember, there are people out there representing us who have modernisation on the brains and are dying to find a way to spend more money on the communications infrastructure supplied by those with whom we are trying to catch up.

For those of you who want to follow this process, visit the WSIS website and see what you can do to make a contribution. It affects all of us in Africa.