We’ve heard the clichés: we live in an interconnected global village in which is it just as easy to interact with a stranger on the other side of the planet as it is to talk to your next-door-neighbour. In fact, in some instances it may even be easier to reach that stranger living thousands of miles away; for the ever-optimistic borderless outlook of our hyper-networked planet does not tell the whole story.
By Alicia Mitchell
Africa is experiencing a disconnect between the trend towards global, instant communication and collaboration, facilitated by ICTs, and the restrictions placed upon movement of people, goods and knowledge maintained by strictly controlled national borders. This disparity is further problematised by the unequal pattern that restrictions follow, often holding back intra-continental cooperation whilst opening the door to those from further afield. One symptom of this is the fact, revealed by the annual Economic Development in Africa (EDA) report, that just 11% of all African trade occurs between African nations (in Asia, 50% of total trade is intra-regional).
Whilst business, learning and socialising are increasingly taking place online, there are still occasions when personal contact can’t be beaten. Pan-African conferences such as eLearning Africa enable people from across the region to gather together and provide a platform for the exchange of knowledge and experience, as well as serving as a meeting place for investors and African businesses. However, such potential will remain underexploited unless all stakeholders are able to participate without hindrance.
Anecdotal accounts, revealing that calls between African nations cost many times more than calls from Africa to Europe, point to a culture of bureaucratic protectionism that is hindering cooperation on the Continent. Uncompetitive markets and irregular regulations result in incredibly confusing and expensive pricing plans for everything from phone calls to air travel.
Talking to the International Business Times earlier this year, Ghanaian businessman and owner of SOFTtribe Herman Chinery-Hessey stated that the diverse problems afflicting air travel on the Continent hurt business in Africa: “You can miss out on making international deals because flights are so unaffordable, delays are typical and customer service can be very unreasonable.”
International travel in Africa is infamously difficult. Alongside ineffectual national carriers with alarmingly poor safety records, the IBT reported that movement is further inhibited by the lack of direct routes between large cities, making it necessary to take lengthy and expensive detours. Add to this the long application processes for visas and expensive fees and you hardly have a recipe for open, cross-border cooperation. However, some have it substantially easier than others.
Talking of the inequality embedded in the bureaucratic travel restrictions placed upon African nationals, Dr Said Adejumobi, the Chief of the Public Administration Section and Coordinator of the African Governance Report (AGR) at UNECA described the situation as “sad”: “the reality is that it is easier for nationals of Western countries, who enjoy visa waivers, to enter African countries than fellow Africans,” he said, “Regrettably, it is often a nightmare for most Africans to get visas to enter another African country”.
One country is bravely bucking the trend: at the beginning of this year, Rwanda began issuing visas upon arrival to all African citizens in a move that generated widespread debate.
Felix Mutati, leader of the parliamentary opposition and former Zambian Commerce Minister, believes that there is no demand for lifting restrictions. Citing the low intra-African trade statistics, he asks “we are not trading with each other. So … what are we going to be moving for?” However, despite reporting the 11% figure, the EDA report itself warns that “substantial and thriving informal trade … is an indication that intra-African trade is not as low as official statistics suggest”.
Conversely, Kofi Asamoah-Siaw, the National secretary of the Progressive People’s Party, Ghana, predicts that allowing the free movement of people would “unleash a certain kind of energy that will propel us to get the economic independence that we want”. Unlike Mutati, Asamoah-Siaw would not hesitate: “It can be done in less than a decade and should be done as soon as possible.”
His sentiments echo the call of the Open Borders movement, emerging out of America. Speaking to The Atlantic, economist, professor of Economics at George Mason University and proponent Open Borders Bryan Caplan agreed that, if given the chance, he would “pull the trigger immediately on open borders” across the world: “my conscience wouldn’t allow anything else.”
Open Borders activists claim that unrestricted movement of people could eliminate world poverty. Development economist Michael Clemens has carried out extensive research into international labour mobility. His findings suggest that the gains from reducing restrictions on movement “are likely to be enormous, measured in tens of trillions of dollars”.
There are plenty of people (economists, development experts and politicians included) with plenty to say against the Open Borders activists. Such a sensitive subject is inevitably bound up with political agendas. However, Dr Said Adejumobi is very clear on his stance against international borders: “our leaders keep the people apart and reify the artificial borders created for us by others. Through these artificial borders, we dehumanise and criminalise ourselves, negating the whole essence of Pan-Africanism.”
With the 2013 African Union Summit dedicated to the theme of Pan-Africanism and the current state of regional movement so confined, these debates will hopefully lead to at least some reform of the African situation.
In 2014, eLearning Africa will be asking how an environment can be created that rewards entrepreneurship and encourages African-born innovation. Surely, at least part of the answer can be found in efforts to open up Africa to Africans.