It wasn’t so long ago that the World Wide Web was an interesting and fun procrastination station for the masses. We could watch dancing hamsters and ask Jeeves anything. Then it blew up. This week, Australians awoke to the news that the federal government wants free access to individual’s web browser data. A court in Pakistan ordered a ban on Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia over blasphemous content. Barack Obama tweets about how he plans to fight in the Gulf. Influential individuals take this web thing seriously.
In a 2009 press release, the White House noted that telecommunications and information technology should be regarded as strategic national infrastructure. Word choice is not taken lightly in such a release, and describing information technology as a ‘backbone that underpins a prosperous economy and a strong military’ speaks volumes. If the great world power of our time can put such an emphasis on information technology, surely it must be time for the lesser developed countries to follow suit.
Africa is still way behind the ‘digital divide’. Less than 5% of the internet users in the world are from Africa and less than 10% of Africans use the internet. These figures are comparable to Latin American figures in recent years, and it is Latin America growth that is expected to gain momentum this year. Cellular phones in Africa are often cited as a blueprint for technology diffusion to the continent. While the innovators and early adopters in North America, Asia and Europe develop, test and subsequently roll out successful technology developments to market, the African population are spared the testing phase. Cell phones in the continent vastly outnumber landlines. Similarly, mobile broadband users vastly outnumber fixed broadband users.
How does this relate to development? We can look at two components of development: education and commerce.
Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia and Senegal participated in a survey during the mid 1990s that considered the impact of electronic communications technology in their tertiary education system. Results showed that “academic and research institutions have been able to conduct joint projects effectively, improve resource mobilisation, and carry out research between distant sites inexpensively” (NRC, 1996). Today, innovative technology use in the education sector continues.
One interesting organisation, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), has set a goal of one connected laptop for every child in the world. It is the foundation of a global network for the younger members of our communities. The laptops should be a purpose-built educational tool that is rugged, low-cost, low-power and connected. The connected principle is vital because, in their words, “there’s neat stuff to learn on the internet”. OLPC is threatening to change our vision of a school; an “expanded school” grows well beyond the walls of the classroom, encompassing varying generations, languages and cultures. It is hoped that a sustained investment in such technical and human resources in developing countries would lessen ties of dependency so that developing countries would not be kept economically subservient by the need for western equipment and expertise.
Looking past education, the importance of being commercially connected to customers, suppliers and employees is almost taken for granted in organisations today. Virtually every company uses a website as a low-cost marketing tool. Many increase their customer base by selling goods and services online. The cost of doing so has slashed dramatically and will continue to do so. The first undersea fibre-optic cable reached East Africa in a $700m project that was largely funded by African investors and is expected to ‘reduce business costs, create an e-commerce sector and open up the region to foreign direct investment’. Even the material costs are crashing, with standard fibre-optic cable prices falling by 90% from a decade ago. Is this the sort of tipping-point that will see foreign investment flourish on the African continent?
Madon (2000) considers such technological transfer as a vital contribution to development, so long as the technology result is appropriate for the local context. Information technology, in this sense, is malleable. In mid-May, Facebook launched a zero cost mobile platform (appropriately named 0.facebook.com; it is limited – you can’t play Farmville) in partnership with a whole host of mobile operators around the world.
MTN is one of these operators, boasting a significant market share across the African continent. With this partnership, web users from Sudan, Swaziland or Benin with access to a MTN mobile phone can access Facebook for free. Madon isn’t suggesting that a Facebook poke or status update is going to solve poverty issues. He is suggesting, though, that a new stage of development ‘centred on the production, diffusion, acquisition and usage of information and communication technologies throughout society’ could be of assistance. Certainly, the positive correlation between the number of Internet hosts in a country and the UNDP Human Development Index is more than just a coincidence.
NRC (1996) Bridge builders: African experience with information and communication technology, National Research Council, National Academy Press
Madon, S (2000) The Internet and Socio-economic development: Exploring the interaction, Information Technology and People, 13(2): 85-101