Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help to democratise Africa, says Mor Seck, who heads the Senegal Global Distance Learning centre of the World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network (GDLN). With more than twenty years of experience in the public sector and in higher education, Dr. Seck is an ardent supporter of ICT for education and training. He will be one of the leading figures behind the fourth eLearning Africa conference, to be held in Dakar next year. During the summer break, we spoke to him in Berlin about Senegal’s approach to ICT implementation.
eLA: Dr. Seck, Senegal is amongst the leading countries in Africa regarding the implementation of information and communication technologies. What is its recipe for success?
Mor Seck: First of all, the Governement has heavily invested in ICT using a top-down approach. The National Program for Good Governance (Programme National de Bonne Gouvernance) identified ICT as a valuable instrument for improving productivity in public service, enhancing performance and promoting modern communication.
To achieve this, ADIE (Agence de l’Informatique de l’Etat), the State Informatic Department Agency, was put into place. This agency is part of the Presidential Office, and it is in charge of enhancing the implementation and use of ICT within government organisations. ADIE set up a governmental intranet providing a one-Gbps network linking the different departments through optical fibres. Outside service is connected to this intranet through wireless connection. The telephone lines between departments are free.
The government is also working at the community level, with the support of partners, towards building community multimedia centres (CMCs) to provide radio broadcast and ICT services. The intranet can also be utilised to train civil servants. For example, they can follow training programmes in project management on the intranet.
Implementing the new technologies at the top level first enables the government to act as a role model for the whole country.
eLA: With which results?
Mor Seck: Policymakers in my country are now very much aware of the importance ICTs hold for the advancement of the whole nation. This is crucial because in developing countries, if the policymakers are not involved in promoting ICT, you will not be successful.
For instance if schools buy hardware, only the government can make sure that they get it at a reasonable price, for example by reducing taxes. Ensuring that there is a liberal telecommunication market offering connectivity at affordable prices could be another way to support the development. These are, however, tasks for political decision makers.
In Senegal, their efforts have started to bear fruits. Many private households are connected to the Internet: the number of Internet users is very high, a huge increase having occurred in the last two years. Universities are well connected, providing Internet connection and sufficient hardware for their students. Also, most of the organizations, public or private, are connected, giving at the same time the opportunity for staff to be involved in e-learning training activities, during breaks and after work.
eLA: What about the education and training sector?
Mor Seck: In Senegal we have agreed that the future of education and training will be different from the traditional ways that we’ve used to deliver it until now, for example having people attending an lecture in an amphitheatre at the university. The future has to involve digital technologies, as it is a way to democratise education in Africa as well as to provide means to manage mass education.
Distance education using ICT is the future, whatever approach we use: videoconferencing, web-based or a blended approach of learning.
What we need in the developing countries is not really money. Often help for developing countries is confused with giving money, which will then be used to set up programmes for children, programmes for women, programmes for everything. It is indeed important to have the means, but I think what is even more important is to have knowledge. If I give you money and you don’t know how to use it effectively, it is virtually useless.
So we need to make sure that people in the developing countries are knowledgeable, that they are really well trained. Therefore, they need access to quality education. We simply do not have the means to build huge universities that could provide this for the millions of individuals that are in need. At the moment it is really a privilege to go to a university, as the majority of people do not have this opportunity. But we must not exclude them. If you want to develop a country, you need them all! You have to make sure that the majority of people benefit from this development. The elite is a minority. If you have a country with about ten million inhabitants – and only 500 000 of them are educated, there is no way to develop this country properly. So information and education should not be restricted to those who are rich or well-off; you need to make sure you make it available and accessible for everyone.
eLA: How can ICTs help?
Mor Seck: With the Internet and other technologies, you have the means to communicate and share knowledge from everywhere at any time. ICT is a hope for the Continent. We have well-educated people, yes, but if you look at the scale of the Continent, it is like a drop in the ocean. ICT is therefore not only a tool; it is a hub for the whole Continent.
Deploying ICTs will bring equality, equal opportunities and it can also enhance democracy and good governance practices. In other words, it can contribute to fight poverty more effectively and more rapidly. When people are informed and educated, it is more difficult to do things in a wrong way, it is more difficult to manipulate them. When you are a leader of a country and you make sure that the people you are ruling don’t understand anything, you can have the tendency to do whatever you want without concertation or community participation. This is the quickest way to end up with dictatorship and to reinforce poverty.
Unfortunately, in some developing countries you find this type of leader. And sometimes, the people that they are ruling do not even know what is wrong; they do not know what they want. But once they have access to knowledge, they can face you, and interact with decision makers. They can provide input and express themselves. So participation is another important development factor, but only achievable with education. So on the whole, ICT can do much more that provide education and information. It is my hope that it will finally also change the whole Continent.
eLA: Can you show us where ICT really has made a change?
Mor Seck: Of course! The GDLN is such an example. With about 130 learning centres worldwide, twelve of which are operational in Africa, it focuses on the development of civil servants for the public sector, for the private sector, for academia, NGOs, civil societies, etc. We have had one of them in Senegal since 2000. Back then, senior management in public and private sector organisations was not really used to attend training programmes. As I said earlier, though, if you want to develop a country, you need to involve the decision makers, the top management of the country as a top- down process. It was simply great to see all those decision makers come into the GDLN centre to attend training. We realised that most of them did not even have an e-mail address. They were not connected. With this GDLN approach, they can handle work, family and social activities as well without any problems and stay up-to-date in their fields and connected with the rest of the world. Only ICT based training can enable a such mixture.
In our country, it is a matter of mentality that when people reach a certain level of professional responsibilities, let’s say as a director of an organisation, or a minister or an MP, they think they are not concerned with training anymore. It’s the rest of the people who need to be trained, not them which is a tremendous mistake.
But those who are taking the decisions for a whole population need the latest information; they should be informed. If they take the wrong decision, the rest of the people will have to pay the bill too.
So even if these managers and civil servants do not have time to attend courses at university, the global network of GDLN enables them to exchange experience with the rest of the world or even attend training courses online. The courses are well attended, and people are really benefitting from the learning and networking opportunities.
In this case, ICT has succeeded on both ends: it helped overcome and change mentalities and behaviours and it has led to a more efficient and informed administration.
eLA: eLearning Africa will be hosted in Senegal next year. What can participants expect from the event?
Mor Seck: We are clearly aiming at having not only the Ministers at the conference but also the Head of State to open the conference. We also would like to involve as many public, private and community based groupings as possible in the preparation and organsation of the event.
Senegal is amongst the most advanced countries regarding ICT in Africa. We have many public telecentres for Internet use that offer high-speed access. Within NEPAD, Senegal is heading the commission for ICT, chaired by the President Abdoulaye Wade. So for all these reasons, I would say that this is the right time for the eLearning Africa conference to take place in Senegal. We can show the emphasis that the Senegalese government places on ICT for development, training and education to the Continent and to the rest of the world.
eLA: Dr Seck, many thanks for your time.