Digital inclusion for Africa

Aida Opoku-Mensah

Established in 1958, ECA is one of five regional commissions under the administrative direction of United Nations (UN) headquarters. As the regional arm of the UN in Africa, it is mandated to support the economic and social development of its 53 member States. Aida Opoku-Mensah is Officer-in-Charge of the Development Information Services Division at the UNECA. Her ICT Team is primarily responsible for implementing the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) and develops practical strategies and programmes that will help lead Africa towards the realisation of digital inclusion.

eLA: How does the UNECA support African governments in attaining their development objectives through the development, deployment, and effective use of ICTs?

Aida Opoku-Mensah: The ECA is implementing the Africa Information Society Initiative (AISI), which is driven by critical development imperatives, focusing on priority strategies, programmes and projects that can assist in building African information societies. A key component of the AISI is the development of national e-strategies or the National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plans. National e-strategies are useful for facilitating national development, depending on the kind of environment that exists. This includes the need for sound and operative legal and regulatory frameworks and the provision of the necessary resources, financial and otherwise. Security procedures and supporting legislation to facilitate the utilisation of data should also be in place. Market liberalisation and – in some instances – deregulation are necessary and useful to attract investment and encourage entrepreneurship and ICT innovation.

AISI also represents a mechanism for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Africa. Seven of the eight MDGs were addressed by the AISI document, such as poverty eradication, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, as well as universal primary education.

eLA: Are there any outstanding initiatives?

Aida Opoku-Mensah: There are some outstanding initiatives that Africa can be proud of. Take, for instance, Rwanda. After enduring genocide, the country reconstructed using ICTs. With support of the ECA and through the AISI, the country formulated and developed a comprehensive ICT-led Integrated Socio-Economic Development Framework for Rwanda, followed by the development of an ICT-led Integrated Socio-economic Policy (2001-2005), which began in November 1998. The policy, commonly known as the Rwandan National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plan, was adopted by the Cabinet in early 2000.

The 2001-2005 NICI Plan laid the foundation for the development of Rwanda’s Information Society and Economy. It focused on the development of human resource capacity, infrastructure, and the use of ICTs to support key sectors of the economy. Over the past few years, telephone density in Rwanda has been increasing at a rapid rate. Telecommunications infrastructure is modern, consisting of a fully digital backbone with microwave links to major cities from the capital, Kigali. In addition, Rwandatel has introduced Wireless Local Loop (WLL) and has modernised its switching capability to provide a variety of services such as Voice over Internet (VOIP).

A communications fibre network is currently being built that is hailed as one of the largest and fastest in central Africa. There is also an ambitious rural connectivity programme that aims to provide telecommunication access to all major rural administrative and commercial centres. In 1997 a very common feature in Rwandan public institutions was the use of stand-alone computers. There was hardly any use of Local Area Networks (LAN), and only the Ministry of Defence (MINADEF) had a network extending connections beyond the headquarters’ main building.

The introduction of e-government in Rwanda was implemented as part of the overall NICI Plan. Between 2003 and 2004, the Rwanda e-government programme provided systems that enhanced internal capabilities and information dissemination. This included office automation, e-mail, web access, data communications and management support. Initial successes led to many other activities such as the adoption of online electronic transactions, which came sooner than originally planned. For example, the Rwanda Revenue Authority is implementing online tax filing, and the National Tender Board has developed an online e-procurement system.

eLA: Talking about development in Africa, it is important to consider what’s happening in each country. From your experience as Officer-in-Charge of the Development Information Services with ECA, can you say which countries are most likely to achieve the MDG on education and which role ICT, and especially ICT-supported educational infrastructure, play in this context?

Aida Opoku-Mensah: I personally think all countries with the right strategies and approaches stand a chance of achieving the MDGs, and not just on education alone. There are, however, some stark realities with respect to Africa meeting the MDGs. It is estimated that in order for sub-Saharan Africa to reach these goals, aid will have to increase in real terms from last year’s level of just under US$25 billion to US$37 billion this year, and then climb steadily to US$73 billion by 2015.

ICTs can help in the achievement of the second goal by increasing the supply of teachers through ICT-based distance education and enabling greater access to education for all, which will strengthen the knowledge equity on technology. ICTs have great potential for knowledge dissemination, effective learning, and the development of more efficient education services. However this potential will not be realised unless they serve rather than drive the implementation of education strategies.

As the Information Society evolves in Africa, education needs to take centre stage because it is required to address new challenges in preparing young learners to participate in local and global knowledge and information societies and economies. Therefore, failure to change our education system with respect to the Information Society will have dire consequences for Africa.

eLA: Could you explain this further?

Aida Opoku-Mensah: There will be no future generation of leadership to guide African institutions in the global Information Society. African intellectuals will be active mainly in the universities and corporations of the North and other developing regions that have adjusted to the Information Society. That is, the Continent will have a massive brain drain beyond the proportions we have seen in recent times; and African children, male and female, will have little or no access to global knowledge and no capacity to exploit that knowledge or generate and defend their own livelihoods.

Therefore the need for an IT-supported educational infrastructure is not a matter of choice but of necessity. The ECA’s member States, as well as participants at the African Development Forum (ADF), convened in Addis Ababa in October 1999 and voiced the need for priority setting on the issue of education and ICTs. A strong youth presence at this Forum served to reinforce the desire to play a far more prominent role and to be given the opportunity to participate more fully in the Information Society. This led to the creation of an ECA-led African Learning Network, ALN.

eLA: What is ALN?

Aida Opoku-Mensah: It is a network based on three pillars. SchoolNet Africa, which is now functioning in 23 African countries, supports national and regional school networking activities. It was launched in October 2001 in Johannesburg. OOSYNet is a youth networking initiative that addresses the needs of Out-of-School Youth (OOSY) at both the national and regional level. VarsityNet establishes connectivity at universities and related institutions of higher learning and research. It is intended to stimulate the development of content production and information sharing within this environment.

The ALN aims at curriculum development and the provision of access to information for learning, whereby measures to enrich learning of cultural, scientific and social subjects can be strengthened to lay the foundations for self-guided learning and the adaptation of appropriate media for different learning environments. However this activity will only work well if education reforms succeed. Furthermore, the ALN seeks to develop new learning approaches and outcomes, where measures to promote peer education, community learning ventures, public debate and decision-making skills can be enhanced. Knowledge Sharing and Building Intellectual Capital as well as programme sustainability and ‘revenue’ creation can promote the production of knowledge for sale in the knowledge marketplace. This could help to protect African intellectual property and reinforce human capacity. This includes reinforcing and validating data on traditional and indigenous knowledge.

eLA: The UN report states that African countries can meet the MDG only through a massive scaling up of public investment, capacity building, domestic resource mobilisation and Official Development Assistance. Regarding the deployment of ICT, how would you scale the proportional distribution of the financial resources? Do governments invest enough in ICT infrastructures, or is external funding essential for the development? What about foreign investment?

Aida Opoku-Mensah: All forms of financing and investment are required, and you cannot rely on one source of funding alone. There should be a mix of public investment and domestic resource mobilisation and support through development cooperation and other forms of international financing, which can at best go into social sectors such as education and health. The real investments have to come from within countries in order to stimulate a clement business climate, which in turn would nurture local private sectors and generate real wealth for the benefit of Africa.

Up until now, the bilateral and multilateral financial agencies, as well as UN bodies, have played a leading role in advancing the diffusion of ICTs in Africa. However one cannot get away from the fact that this principal task rests primarily on African shoulders – whatever else the new financing mechanisms may be, nothing beats domestic finance. However the challenge is for governments to invest more in ICT infrastructure. This is happening to a large extent.

There are also efforts at the continental level to beef up Africa’s ICT infrastructure, which is one of the key areas identified by the NEPAD Short-term Action Plan. In March 2003, the NEPAD heads of state and government agreed that the ICT infrastructure programme should complete a fibre optic backbone right around Africa and establish connection between all African countries and the rest of the world through submarine cable systems.

eLA: African economies have the chance to gain competitiveness through technological leapfrogging. To what extend is the building of ICT infrastructures part of the national development frameworks? Can you give some figures on the national spending?

Aida Opoku-Mensah: Getting figures on national spending is not easy, but we are beginning to see that ICT expenditure is appearing in various sectors in African countries. According to a UNECA survey on ICT expenditure in national budgets undertaken in April 2005, Botswana, Lesotho, and South Africa have shown a consistently higher increment from 2003. The 2005 allocations represent 0.28 per cent of the total budget in South Africa, 1.27 per cent in Botswana, and 1.47 per cent in Lesotho.

Even though the UNECA survey reveals the stark reality that ICT expenditure stood at only 0.07 per cent of Ghana’s total budget, as opposed to 6.86 per cent for health and 12.02 per cent for education, this is a start in the right direction. The Ghanaian government has begun to address key areas of infrastructure and capacity building – the country’s budget specifically mentions plans to build “Community Information Centres in the ten regions to bring digital opportunities to under-served areas.”

The Mauritius budget revealed that in the survey period, the Government provided funds for the integration of ICTs into other development sectors. The Ministry of Training, Skills Development and Productivity, for instance, is implementing a Labour Market Information System that aims to provide online information to the public on education, training, and the world of work. Agriculture, employment, healthcare, and tax administration are also similarly targeted for integration.

According to UNCTAD’s 2004 E-Commerce Report, between 1997 and 2001 the Tunisian Government spent 1.4 billion Tunisian dinars (US$ 1 billion) on developing ICT infrastructure, including telephone networks and an Internet backbone. The government’s plans for 2002–2006 provide for an investment of 2.8 billion Tunisian dinars (US$ 2.1 billion).

eLA: Mrs Opoku-Mensah, thank you very much indeed for your time.

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